Chris Mullin isn’t the only college coach who needs a strong finish
This isn’t necessarily about coaches who could soon wind up on the unemployment line. It’s about a group that needs to finish strong to assure its members of not having to worry about job security in the near future, who need to punch tickets to the NCAA Tournament with inspiring play down the stretch to ease concerns about those coaches’ long-term futures at their respective schools.
Below are four coaches who would help themselves a lot by closing the season strong:
Chris Mullin, St. John’s
Let’s be clear: Mullin isn’t getting fired. Not with two years left on his contract and roughly $4 million still coming his way, and not when you consider his status as the greatest player in program history. The only way he’s not the St. John’s coach next year is if he decides to leave on his terms. But he also has a new athletic director, former Duke executive Mike Cragg, intent on returning St. John’s to prominence. And with this roster — some believe it is the most talented in the Big East — missing the NCAA Tournament would make his seat white-hot next season. This team, led by Preseason Big East Player of the Year Shamorie Ponds, has proven capable of being top-25 good, with a season sweep of No. 10 Marquette and a near road upset of No. 14 Villanova. It has also proven maddening, with ugly home losses to DePaul, Georgetown and Providence. It’s up to Mullin, who is looking for his first winning season in his fourth year at his alma mater, to avoid more losses like those.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
His last name has given him more rope than most would have been afforded. But one NCAA Tournament in six years — if Minnesota fails to go dancing — should at least give the Big Ten school’s higher-ups pause. While the Gophers are in position to be a part of March Madness if they don’t collapse, they have lost three straight, and the schedule is difficult the rest of the way. His 37-66 Big Ten record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Shaka Smart, Texas
Like Mullin, Smart isn’t going anywhere. Not with four more years and $16 million left on his contract. But he’s been far from impressive in four years at Texas, failing to win an NCAA Tournament game in two trips. Missing the Big Dance this year could create problems for him, and the on-the-bubble Longhorns (14-10) are no lock despite winning three of their last four games. Smart is 14-18 in games decided by three points or less and 28-36 in league play, numbers he has to improve upon.
Sean Miller, Arizona
An NCAA Tournament at-large bid is almost certainly out of range. The roster isn’t anywhere close to the loaded group Arizona is accustomed to watching. Still, it would be prudent for Miller to remind his bosses he’s more than a high-level recruiter and is capable of getting more out of less, especially with the FBI investigation into corruption into college basketball involving the school, and the guilty plea of former assistant Emmanuel “Book” Richardson hanging over the program. If this season really spirals out of control, and the Wildcats have already lost five straight and six of seven, it may make it easier for Arizona to move on from Miller despite the loaded recruiting class he has coming in. In the least, mixing in a few wins would alleviate some of the pressure Miller is obviously dealing with.
The NCAA Selection Committee revealed its top 16 seeds on Saturday based on the season through Friday’s games, and there were few surprises. Duke was the overall top seed, followed by Tennessee, Virginia and Gonzaga. There were, however, a few trends based on these ratings-driven selections that are worth noting.
- The importance of Quadrant 1 victories. Those are wins over teams end-of-season NET ratings, the NCAA’s new ratings tool, that are 1-30 at home, 1-50 at a neutral site and 1-75 on the road. Marquette, for instance, was a given a three-seed (12th overall). The Golden Eagles had six Quadrant 1 victories (now seven after defeating Villanova on Saturday), and were seeded higher than their 21 NET would have suggested.
- Conference records aren’t significant. Kansas State and Villanova both lead their leagues, but neither was included in the top 16. The entire résumé is what is being evaluated.
- The NET is important, unless something specific really stands out. Of the 16 teams, 12 were within two spots of their NET rating and three teams were in the exact same position. Virginia Tech, with a NET of 11, was left out, but that was likely mostly due to its 3-5 record in Quadrant 1 games.
Game of the Week
No. 1 Tennessee at No. 5 Kentucky, Saturday, 8 p.m.
Lexington will be on fire Saturday night as the nation’s top-ranked team comes to Rupp Arena. The two Final Four contenders enter this week having won a combined 28 consecutive games, 18 by Tennessee, which owns the country’s longest winning streak. All eyes should be in the paint, where Kentucky’s P.J. Washington and Reid Travis meet National Player of the Year candidate Grant Williams in a match-up of three of the SEC’s premier big men.
A prediction of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament (listed in order):
1. Duke, Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan
2. Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Gonzaga
3. Purdue, Marquette, Houston, Nevada
4. Kansas, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Villanova
Up: Cam Reddish
Duke’s forgotten stud freshman — behind Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett — is starting to remind everyone why he’s a projected top-five pick. He’s reached double figures in five of his last six games, averaging 15.2 points, and has hit at least three 3-pointers in five of those contests. It’s not a coincidence that in Duke’s two losses — to fourth-ranked Gonzaga and Syracuse — the skilled 6-foot-8 Reddish either struggled or didn’t play because of illness.
No team in the country has had a stranger season than Monmouth. It lost its first 12 games, nine by double figures, only to win 10 of the next 14. And now the Hawks sit all alone atop the MAAC riding a four-game winning streak. While the non-conference schedule was far from easy, highlighted by a trip to Kentucky, and the MAAC is a pedestrian low-major conference at best this season, it takes a lot of mental toughness for a team to stay together after losing so frequently so early. Coach King Rice and his players deserve a lot of credit for dealing with so much adversity. The reward just might be an NCAA Tournament bid.
Down: Tom Crean
For throwing his team under the bus after its fourth straight loss plunged Georgia within one game of last place Vanderbilt in the SEC. While Crean technically put the onus on himself, saying, “I’m the one who decided to keep these guys,” he was really ripping his players. Crean went on to say when there’s a coaching change, there is usually roster turnover, but that didn’t happen at Georgia. Basically, he made it sound as if that should’ve been the case. The response to this criticism from the Bulldogs will be interesting, especially with so little to play for other than pride.
Ranked 11th in the preseason and picked third in the SEC, Auburn has quietly been one of the country’s bigger disappointments. The roster, despite the loss of transfer Mustapha Heron to St. John’s, was supposed to be improved, with the return of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, though the latter missed the season’s first nine games due to a suspension stemming from his role in the FBI investigation into corruption into college basketball. Instead, the Tigers are as close to the bottom of the SEC as the top of it. They don’t have a single Quadrant 1 victory in six chances, and are trending toward landing on the bubble.
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