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A Brief History of the Modern College Basketball Rebuild

Wojo mad

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

Here we sit in the fourth year of the Wojo era and we seem to be no closer to answering the question “Is Wojo the right man for the job?” In fact, all you can say about the state of the Marquette fanbase is that it is firmly split into two camps, one that is running out of patience and one that is holding out hope. As is becoming increasingly frequent in our country, the two parties are hopelessly split on one key question: “How long should a rebuild take?” As is also common nowadays, both sides cherry pick stats and examples to prove themselves right. Listening to this for the last few months I realized that I didn’t know much about how other programs had rebuilt with new coaches. I decided to find out.

I looked at coaches hired in the one and done era of college basketball. For those who might not know that is coaches hired after the 2004-2005 season. For the pool, I looked at every coach hired at a high major program or a mid-major program that earned at least two at large bids in the one and done era. Just to clarify, the AAC does not qualify as a high major conference.

Defining a rebuild is a tougher question. I decided to look at coaches who took over program who either went to the NIT/CBI/CIT or missed the postseason all together in the season before. This is not a perfect definition. A program that finished with a 1 seed in the NIT and returns its core players is in a much better position than a team that earned a 12 seed and graduated its five starters. But without going through every team with a fine tooth comb and making a subjective call of who needed a rebuild and who didn’t, this is the best cutoff I could come up with.

Finally, I had to define a successful rebuild. I settled on making two consecutive NCAA tournaments. While every program would define success differently, most would list making the tournament as the most basic measure of a successful season. Making it two consecutive is to avoid the possibility of a flash in the pan, the goal should always be sustained success. Of course, two consecutive appearances doesn’t guarantee long term success but it’s a starting point.

In the one and done era, there has been 162 coaches hired at high major or mid major programs with at least two at large appearances in the NCAA tournament. 43 of these coaches took over teams that went to the NCAA the year before. Unsurprisingly, these 43 coaches had a higher rate of success than those who didn’t…though there were exceptions. Johnny Dawkins took over a Stanford team that earned a 3 seed in the tournament (MU fans still have nightmares about the Lopez twins) and only managed one 10 seed in his 8 year stay with the Cardinal. That leaves 119 coaching hires that needed to rebuild their new teams. Of those 119, 42 are still employed and seeking their first tournament streak. Interestingly, only 6 of those 42 were hired before the 13-14 season. The longest employed is Georgia’s Mark Fox who is in his 9th season with only two non-consecutive 10 seeds to his name. Gotta think his rear must be a little toasty by now. So once you take those 42 out of the 119, there are 77 rebuilds that have concluded…either in success or failure.

If this project has done anything for me, it has humbled me and made me realize just how difficult a rebuild can be. Of these 77 completed rebuild attempts, 44 of them (57%) saw the coach fired or moved on before he was able to lead his program to back to back tournament appearances. 57%. More than half of all rebuild attempts end in failure to meet one of the most basic goals of a rebuild. Perhaps this is what those impatient with Wojo are thinking about. They might realize how hard it is to rebuild and may not be impressed with the signs of progress Wojo has turned in so far.

Seven coaches managed to turn their programs around instantly, starting a tournament streak in their first season at their new jobs. The most famous example is John Calipari who took a Kentucky team that stumbled into the NIT and turned them into a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament on the strength of a roster with seven future NBAers, including John Wall, Boogie Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. The other six may have been quick rebuilds but none of the coaches that orchestrated them are still at the school….Washington State’s Tony Bennett got hired away after three years and the Cougars never recovered. Travis Ford (Ok State) and Mark Gottfried (NC State) got off to quick starts but were ultimately fired. Mike Montgomery (Cal) only managed two 12 seeds after his initial two year tournament run before retiring. Bruce Pearl had great success at Tennessee but was ultimately fired after it came to light that his success may have come from significant recruiting violations. The school that came out the best of the group was Butler after Chris Holtmann. Holtmann led Butler to three seasons of high seeds before getting snatched up by Ohio State but left the program in good shape for LaVall Jordan to take over.

Seven coaches started their tournament streaks in year two of their rebuilds. Tubby Smith (Minnesota) never managed better than a 10 seed and was fired after year six. Tad Boyle (Colorado) has never managed higher than an 8 seed and is currently looking at a second straight year out of the tournament. Tim Floyd (USC) managed three good years before he was fired due to inappropriate benefits surrounding the recruitment of OJ Mayo. Greg McDermott took mid-major Creighton into the Big East though he owes a lot of his early success to his All-American son. Still, he led the Jays to a 6 seed last season and seems to be on path for another this season. Fred Hoiberg turned Iowa State into Transfer U and handed off a solid program to the next coach when he jumped to the NBA. Matt Painter (Purdue) and Lon Kreuger (Oklahoma) are both took over teams that missed the postseason but started 5+ year tournament streaks in year two. Both have had down years in the middle but are now competing for top seeds.

Only six coaches were able to start their tournament streaks in year three and there seems to be a higher success rate in this group. Dave Rose took over a BYU program that had finished with single digit wins the season before and turned them into a mid-major power for years…though they haven’t done better than a 10 seed in 6 years. Mike Anderson took a Mizzou program that had been rocked by scandal to three consecutive tournaments (MU fans might remember one of those teams) before being hired away. Frank Martin had Kansas State trending upward before conflicts with the administration led him to seek greener pastures. Oregon hired Dana Altman and safe to say that they have been happy with the 1 seed and final four that Altman has since brought them. Archie Miller was the hot coaching hire last season but before that he led Dayton to four straight at large bids though they haven’t looked good in their first season without him. The most recent to rebuild after three years is Andy Enfield at USC…but have only earned an 8 and 11 seed….and is a bubble team this season….and caught up in the FBI probe.

Only four names are on the list of coaches who started their first at large tournament streak in year four…but all four are well respected names in the coaching world. Fran Dunphy took over a Temple squad that had barely made the NIT and then got them their first at large in year four as a 5 seed. He also took Temple to March in years two and three as the AQer from the Atlantic 10. They would not have made the tournament in either year if they hadn’t won the conference tournament. Dunphy kept that streak alive…until Temple joined the wasteland that is the AAC. John Beilein took over a proud Michigan program that had been spinning its wheels. He had one off season in 14-15 but every other year he has led Michigan to an 8 seed or better. Ed Cooley, similar to Fran Dunphy, took a Providence team that had floundered for years and won the AQ from the Big East in year three. Again, the Friars would have been left out without running the table in the Garden. His tournament streak is still active and should be continued this season. Mark Turgeon needed four years to lead Maryland back to the promised land but they have enjoyed high seeds each of the last three seasons. The Terrapins do find themselves on the bubble this season as the entirety of the Big 10?11?14? has struggled.

The largest group of coaches to have successful rebuilds needed 5 years to start their tournament streaks and have some of the most recognizable names. The 2006 Bearcats earned a 1 seed in the NIT but it still took Mick Cronin 5 years to get Cincinnati back to the Big Dance. But once he got there, he stayed. Cronin has made the dance every year for the past 7 years and is on pace for a 2 seed this season. Greg Marshall took over a Wichita State team that was only two years removed from a Sweet 16 and built it over five seasons eventually making a Final Four in 2013 and having a perfect regular season the following season. Marquette legend Rick Majerus needed five seasons to turn the bumbling Bilikins into NCAA contenders. He built a team that would go on to earn a 4 seed in the NCAAs but would tragically pass away before the season’s end. Steve Alford never had the postseason success you would have expected, but he did lead mid-major New Mexico to two 3 seeds and a 5 seed before snagging the head job at UCLA. There is only one coach mentioned in this article twice, and that is Tony Bennett. After rebuilding Washington State in a single year, he needed a lot longer with the much more prestigious Cavaliers. Two years of no postseason, one 10 seed in year three, an NIT berth in in year four (sounding familiar?) and then finally a tournament streak in year five. And what a tournament streak it has been, one 5 seed, one 2 seed, two 1 seeds, and they are on pace for another 1 seed this season. Fran McCaffery (Iowa) and Larry Kryskowiak (Utah) both took over programs that had struggled for awhile and turned them into winners in year five but are both struggling this season. Finally, Jim Larranaga had one helluva flash in the pan season in year two, winning the ACC and earing a 2 seed in Madness (where they eventually fell to Marquette) but then immediately fell off the following year. The Canes first tournament streak began in year five and featured a 3 seed in the first year and an 8 seed the second year. They are on pace for another high seed this season.

Only one coach has managed to start a tournament streak in year six or later. It took Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard six seasons to lead the pirates to the Big Dance. The season before he started, the Pirates had made the NIT. He earned a 1 seed in the NIT in year two but followed that up with three years of no postseason. Eventually, his class of 2014 carried him to a 6 seed and then an 8 seed. This season they were ranked as high as #13 but have since fallen off a cliff and are now firmly on the bubble. With his class of 2014 set to graduate, Seton Hall fans may be looking at another rebuild.

So there you have it. A brief history of college basketball rebuilds in the modern era. They all did it differently but we now have 77 examples of rebuilds that we can compare Wojo to and hopefully make more accurate projections. A few basic overall conclusions:

First, rebuilds are hard. As previously mentioned, over half of coaches who have attempted a rebuild ended up failing to lead their teams to two consecutive tournament appearances. Even coaches who take over teams that made the NCAA often struggle. Sean Miller needed four seasons to start his current tournament streak despite taking over an Arizona program with unmatched resources and one of the longest tournament streaks in history.

Second, progress is almost never a straight line. There are only five coaches (out of 162) hired in the one and done era who doesn’t have any of his tournament appearances broken up by a trip to the NIT or missing the postseason: Mick Cronin, Greg Marshall, Dana Altman, Mark Turgeon, and Ed Cooley. All seven of Cronin’s appearances (and his imminent 8th appearance) have come as part of his current tournament streak. Same with Marshall though his streak sits a six. Altman has made the last five but has likely already been eliminated from the tournament this season. Cooley and Turgeon both have shorter streaks at three years each. Every other coach either has some years they missed the tournament or was fired or hired away in three years or less. This is true even of coaching legends like Sean Miller, Bob “Huggy Bear” Huggins, John Calipari, Matt Painter, John Beilein, and Jim Larranaga.

In general, it seems like the longer rebuilds seem to have more success than the quicker rebuilds. To date, no coach who started their first tournament streak in year 3, 4, 5, or 6 has been fired (yet) and only 4 of the 19 were hired away by other programs (and 3 of those 4 were 3 year rebuilds). On the other end, 5 of the 14 coaches who did 1 or 2 year rebuilds ended up getting fired and 3 of them got hired away by other programs. So while it is possible to rebuild quickly in this day and age, sustained success seems more likely when a team is rebuilt over a period of four or five years.

So which rebuilds does Marquette compare favorably to? The best comparison I found was Tony Bennett’s rebuild at Virginia. Bennett took over an arguably worse situation with Virginia only managing 10 wins the season before. He turned in a losing season in year one, a better season that still missed the NIT in year two, earned a 10 seed in year three, took a step back and was a top seed in the NIT in year 4 before starting a dominant tournament streak in year five that has continued to this day. Wojo has matched Bennett’s steps every year, even getting the exact same seed in year three and a top seed in the NIT seems likely at this point for year four. Now not even the most wide eyed optimist should peg Marquette for a 1 seed like Bennett earned in year 5 but they certainly seemed poised for a major leap.

To be fair, I looked at failed rebuilds to see if there were any that looked similar to Wojo’s. None matched as perfectly as Bennett’s does, but there were a few coaches that managed an NCAA appearance in year 3 but ultimately failed to deliver sustained success. Herb Sendek got a 6 seed for Arizona State in his third year after earning a 1 seed in the NIT the year before. He followed that up with another 1 seed in the NIT before falling out of the postseason for two seasons. He did earn one more 8 seed and two more NIT berths but that wasn’t enough to save his job. Similarly, Anthony Grant took Alabama to the tournament in year three as a 9 seed. He also earned a 1 seed in the NIT in both the year before and year after that NCAA berth.

So is Wojo the next Tony Bennett? Or just a Herb Sendek lookalike? The next few years will decide.

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Categories: Analysis, Home

Author:Ryan Jackson

Texas A&M Professional, Marquette Fantatic

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