Observations: USC hire could set off chain reaction
Where will USC turn in its head coach hiring process? The answer to that question could provoke several additional questions from around the world of college hoops.
The USC head coaching job is open. If you're not familiar with Southern California hoops, that fact may do nothing for you. With so many eyes focused on UCLA, the Bruins' longtime rival is often overlooked, and based upon history, rightfully so. But look closer and you'll discover that USC is one of the last sleeping giants in college hoops.
For 40 years the Trojans needed an on-campus facility, now they have one in the fantastic Galen Center. That can only help in recruiting for a school that is smack-dab in the middle of SoCal, close to the freeway, and right down the street from powerhouse schools like Price High School, which produced current Cal starters Allen Crabbe and Richard Solomon III. USC is a bus ride from other local hoops talent hotbeds like Westchester, Inglewood, Fairfax, Crenshaw and Compton.
Even before it got the new arena, USC always seemed to be a program on the brink of greatness. The Trojans have had their share of talent over the years. Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and Tom Lewis were part of a celebrated freshman class at USC in 1985-86. But when coach Stan Morrison was dismissed, Gathers and Kimble ransferred to Loyola Marymount and Lewis went to Pepperdine. Later came guys like Harold Miner, Robert Pack, Nick Young, DeMar DeRozan and O.J. Mayo.
They've also had a taste of team glory, most recently when Jeff Trepagnier and Brian Scalabrine led the Trojans to the Elite Eight in 2001.
But the Trojans could never sustain success, and could never really own LA thanks to the lack of an arena and the right coach. The Trojans never could really build the necessary momentum in a market owned by UCLA.
The arena is now in place. And UCLA has faltered to the extent that has allowed San Diego State, with its LA-bred assistants and players, to become the hot school in SoCal.
USC has a chance to change the local dynamic with the right coaching hire. Athletic director Pat Haden has to make a great hire. The current disappointing state of the football program only increases the pressure on him. Haden didn't hire Lane Kiffin, but he needs to get this first high-profile decision right.
Which brings us to the name being most discussed in relation to the USC job, SoCal native and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.
Is USC a better job than Pitt, you ask? The Panthers are going into the ACC, which should be the premier league in the country in two years, while the Pac-12 has been mired in a weak stretch in its history. But my view is that Pitt will never be able to overtake North Carolina or Duke as a consistent top dog in that league. The Panthers have been a consummate Big East school and there is so much unknown as to how the conference will look, feel and be played.
Their status in the ACC might do little to change the standing of a top 50 program that has been no better than a school like Gonzaga in its ability to take the next step and reach a Final Four.
Then the falling dominoes could really get fun.
Let's say Dixon takes the USC job. Does Sean Miller, a Pittsburgh alum and native, go back home to take what will become an ACC job? Miller wanted to take the Maryland job a couple of years ago, but was spooked by their AD and stayed at Arizona. Miller has the Wildcats rolling in recruiting, and Arizona can continue to own a still-down Pac-12, but home is home.
If Miller stays under that scenario, Pitt would have other intriguing possibilities, one of whom is none other than Ben Howland. Strange as it might seem to have close friends Howland and Dixon switching locales, the fact is, Howland has lost a good amount of UCLA fans -- Bill Walton's anti-Howland rants from the booth are just the tip of the iceberg -- and is more likely to find another job than keep his own. What if Howland went back to Pitt, where he took the program off life support following the departure of Ralph Willard?
If not Miller or Howland, what about Herb Sendek? Sendek is a Pittsburgh native and Carnegie Mellon alum who could be intrigued by a return home. Sendek has turned Arizona State (20-8) around this year 180 degrees in terms of style of play. He also hired two NBA assistant coaches, and many believe his stay in Tempe is not long term. Sendek (348-245 career record) has been a consistent winner and though he is perceived as boring as a personality, keep in mind he would be following Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon, who though they are more engaging to some than Sendek, aren't exactly carnival barkers.
Pitt seems to thrive on smart, hardworking coaches who though they may play at a pace in the high 50s to low 70s, consistently win.
If Miller leaves, Arizona would have to consider hiring Josh Pastner. Pastner, a walk-on member of Arizona's 1996-97 championship team, has won at least 24 games in all four of his years at Memphis. Pastner's teams might have lacked refinement, but a lot of that has as much to do with the talent pool Pastner is drawing from as his style. Arizona has always been a juggernaut in recruiting, and though Pastner isn't yet the coach Miller is, the players would keep coming and he would likely have an outstanding staff to help him.
If Sendek leaves, or if USC is still searching for a head coach, Pastner would be in play at ASU or USC as well. Either job would be better than Memphis, which is in no man's land with their next conference. ASU may not have the cachet of Arizona, and like USC doesn't draw flies at the gate, but the Sun Devils have a great practice facility, there are always tremendous players in the Valley, and Pastner could still get players from Houston, LA and Seattle.
Randy Bennett, in his 11th year at Saint Mary's probably would be another top candidate. Bennett is being investigated by the NCAA, but is not expected to face major sanctions after effectively turning water into wine in Moraga. Though he's not a fast talking car salesman, his teams win and he has a reputation as an outstanding West Coast recruiter, going back to when Pepperdine was getting talent in the late 90s.
As the coaching carousel spins, you can't rule out Mike Hopkins either.
Hopkins is slated to become the next head coach at Syracuse, but isn't getting that job tomorrow and maybe not for several years. Additionally, do you want to follow a 900-game winner? Hopkins' and Syracuse's style would be a hit in SoCal. Hopkins is a SoCal native who went to Mater Dei -- home of highly-touted prep forward Stanley Johnson. Hopkins at USC could put Johnson at USC. If there is assistant out there who would make sense at USC, it would be Hopkins. Arizona State would be another solid destination for Hopkins and his potential staff, but it is not as big of a slam dunk as USC.
The Trojans may not hoist any banners this year, but the decision USC makes on the coaching front could have a ripple effect that permeates all of college basketball. Stay tuned.
11 things you should know in college hoops:
1. Georgia star guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope does not seem destined to leave for the NBA Draft. The second-leading scorer in the SEC has told the Georgia staff that he wants to have an NBA career, not just be in the NBA, and another year in college could do him good in that regard. KCP is a very good scoring wing, but needs to develop his body and playmaking skills away from the ball. As of now it is too easy to deny KCP the ball, and he allows it to happen.
2. Arizona has gone small of late. Solomon Hill is starting at the power forward while 6-foot-6 Kevin Parrom -- a year-and-a-half removed from being shot -- has energized the Cats' smaller lineup. Arizona has a chance to win the Pac-12 on their SoCal trip this weekend, and Hill matching up with another undersized 4-man in UCLA's Shabazz Muhammed will favor the older, experienced Hill.
3. UCLA forward Travis Wear sprained his foot at practice last week, causing him to miss the USC game, striking a blow against the Bruins' NCAA chances. While Wear doesn't rebound well enough nor does he score garbage points, he is an exceptional 17-foot jumper shooter, and his presence opens the lane for UCLA. At a minimum, the Bruins need his scoring to get beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament.
4. New Mexico's Kendall Williams dropped 46 on Colorado State Sunday, and the New Mexico shooter's hot start came from CSU's desire to bump and go under every ball screen. Colorado State is known for its pack style defense that goes under ball screens, so most teams in the Mountain West are either re-screening or rejecting the ball screens and getting good looks against the Rams.
5. "Creighton guards no one," was what one Missouri Valley coach told me in the wake of the Bluejays' 74-66 loss to Saint Mary's. "They have no point guard and are way too offensive minded. Creighton could win a game or two in the NCAAs because so many teams cannot score. But in our league we can grind them and Saint Mary's did the same."
6. Florida is likely to get forward Will Yeguete (knee) back soon. Yeguete is the best interior defender on Florida team that is already outstanding defensively. "They just take you out of everything you want to do," Georgia coach Mark Fox said of the Gators.
7. The most dangerous team in the Big East that no one is talking about? Providence. Providence (15-12, 7-8 Big East) has wins over Cincinnati, Notre Dame and a sweep of Villanova. The Friars have an outstanding backcourt with Kadeem Batts and Vincent Council. While Syracuse has swept the Friars, Providence might be able to avoid the Orange and still make a run in the Big East tourney.
8. After Sunday's dismantling of Cincinnati, Notre Dame has now won 10 Big East games for four years in a row. Remember a half-decade ago, when Mike Brey was on the hot seat? You won't hear that talk anymore. Forward Tom Knight has given ND another face-up big man who can rebound and defend on the defensive end. Knight can also make a mid-range jumper to keep the lane open. Notre Dame still isn't comfortable playing fast, and is the same team that was taken to overtime by DePaul twice, but the consistency of their motion offense, and pack line defense has secured Brey in South Bend for years to come.
9. Missouri and Michigan State have the same problem. They each have one ball handler who has to make plays for others. While Mizzou's Phil Pressey is a far better pure point guard than MSU's Keith Appling, the problems are similar in that there really isn't another player on either team who can create or make plays for anyone else. That's a problem.
10. Why is Saint Louis so good? Well first, they are old. Yes, OLD. Cody Ellis and Rob Loe are 22, Kwamain Mitchell and Jake Barnett are 23, Jordair Jett, Cory Remekun, Dwayne Evans and Mike McCall Jr. are all at least 21. St. Louis is tough, well coached and can score, and the Billikens play like the grown men that they are.
11. Why is San Diego State forward and reigning Mountain West player of the year Jamaal Franklin struggling a bit this year? Last year, Franklin was a power forward and he abused other bigger defenders. Now Franklin is playing more 3, with JJ O'Brien playing more power forward, and the Aztecs starting the game with one of their two centers. He doesn't look as comfortable there. Additionally, opponents know Franklin almost always goes right, and sit on his strong right hand. That and his jump shot are items he'll have to remedy in order to make the NBA.
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