If you were an Auburn fan still on the fence as to the wisdom of dismissing Jeff Lebo, I think the opening weekend of NCAA Tournament action–unequivocally the best one since 2006 and quite possibly my favorite one of all time–should tell you why this was the right move. This thing is just too much fun, too big a deal, too good to not have Auburn involved. Auburn’s men’s basketball program should be able to regularly compete for NCAA Tournament berths* and if it’s not, it’s time to look elsewhere.
Like, say, the frozen North …
Tubby Smith: we say hello, you say goodbye. It’s a shame the entire Tubby Smith news cycle–from “they’re looking at Tubby Smith” to “hey Dennis Dodd says this could happen” to “Everyone take this thing seriously NOW” to “oops, guess he’s not coming after all“–took place before I could get back to my keyboard. Seeing outlandish candidates’ names get tossed into the air and spending a few precious hours (or days) fantasizing about them saying Yes is the best, most fun part of a coaching search. At least I missed it for a good reason.
As for my reaction, it was always going to be a huge pain to extract Smith from a fairly cushy situation at Minnesota; unless Jay Jacobs recently found a bag of gold under his front step, coming to Auburn would have meant both 1. abandoning a program he’d already built from near-scratch into a Tournament team for a program he’d have to build from near-scratch again, at the age of 58 2. doing so for less or similar money. Maybe Smith’s bothered by the raise freeze and lack of a practice facility, but man, he’d have to be way past bothered and to the point of “secretly foaming at the mouth” to take on the Auburn job. Smith-to-Auburn wasn’t totally crazy–like, say, Billy Donovan leaving the SEC’s richest contract behind to go to St. John’s is–but it was mostly crazy.
Still, it was good news for Auburn; if Jacobs was willing to chase Smith, it makes it a little more likely that he’s secretly chasing after other high-profile names. Like, you know, that guy whose season just wrapped up at Missouri. Of course, according to Jay G. Tate the first two names on Jacobs’ list weren’t Smith and Anderson but Smith and …
Chuck Person. The Rifleman got some pretty rousing endorsements from his NBA contemporaries via a Kevin Scarbinsky story from yesterday’s B’ham News. Current Mavs coach Rick Carlisle:
“He would get the job done. I don’t have any question. There’s no one out there that would outwork him. There’s no one out there that has his ties to the university and his career credentials that would even compare.”
Now, Carlisle is obligated to say nice things about his former teammate, just as the other NBA execs with ties to Person are never going to tell Scarbinsky Person’s not ready for the job. But I’ll admit that their endorsements are more enthusiastic than I would have expected, and I didn’t know Person had made the finalist stage for that Bulls job. (Then again, he lost that job to the ever-unreliable Vinny Del Negro, so I’m not certain that’s a plus on his resume.)
As I’ve said before: I don’t think Auburn ought to hire a coach with no head coaching experience at any level and no coaching experience, period, in college basketball. But if Person really is on the cusp of earning an NBA head coaching position, it won’t be the worst thing in the world for Auburn to roll the dice with him.
One thing that does cause me pause: Charles Barkley is also familiar with Person from their shared days at Auburn and in the NBA, and with an opportunity this week to throw his support behind Person’s candidacy he passed. Maybe he’s just trying to stay out of Jacobs’ way, but I also have to think that if Barkley really thought highly of Person, he would have taken the chance to say so.
Brownell? Jay Coulter tossed out the name of Wright St. coach Brad Brownell as one to watch, with the predictable “Who? Where?” reaction. Brownell’s done a solid job at his two stops, first maintaining the UNC-Wilmington program Jerry Wainright built (including winning an automatic bid out of a loaded Colonial in 2006) before making the surprising lateral move to Dayton. The Raiders have improved dramatically under Brownell’s watch and are consistently one of the best defensive teams in the Horizon.
But even speaking as the guy driving the “hire a proven mid-major coach” bus, I can’t get too excited about Brownell. He’d be solid–Auburn would get better, I have zero doubt about that–but as someone who fervently believes you need some postseason success to mark yourself as an elite coaching prospect, I’d also worry we’d be getting a second “OK, not great” Lebo-type. Brownell upset Butler to take the Horizon tourney on his first attempt, but hasn’t been able to replicate the feat since; most recently, Wright advanced to the Horizon finals only to get annihilated by the top-seeded Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse, 70-45. Brownell won the Colonial twice, but he got a big head start thanks to Wainright’s work and went 0-2 in the NCAAs. (I should note that that first loss came on Drew Nicholas’s miracle shot; UNCW actually played a great game that night.)
Overall, it’s a nice resume, made all the moreso by the fact that Brownell has been a head coach for this long ans is still just 42. But do I think it’s as impressive a resume as Gregg Marshall’s or Billy Kennedy’s or another half-dozen coaches who’d probably take the job? No, I don’t. I’d be pleased with the hire of Brownell, but excited? Eh, not really.
(One note before we move on from Brownell: can Auburn fans please dispense with the painful “never heard of ’em” condescension that inevitably greets mention of a team like Wright State or a coach like Brownell? First of all, it’s a joke that beyond tired; second, it strikes me as unbelievably smug to talk smack about teams with far, far better basketball programs than ours has been; and third, if you haven’t heard of Team X or Coach Y, it’s not because they’re not important [or good], it’s because you don’t know enough about college basketball. I bet if you’d asked Kansas fans ahead of the tourney about Northern Iowa and Ben Jacobson, they’d have said “Where? Who?” too. Knock it off.)
Elsewhere … checking in on how various potential Auburn candidates fared this first week of the NCAA postseason:
Mike Anderson: I know, I know, he’s probably not coming. But for the record, Anderson once again proved himself one of the best NCAA Tournament coaches in the country by engineering a first-round win over Clemson. Anderson has taken five teams to the NCAAs and has now 1. won five games as the lower-seeded team, including 9-over-1, 11-over-6, and 3-over-2 upsets 2. has never lost as the higher-seeded team.
Tony Barbee: Not a great outing for Barbee as his UTEP team was unable to put their massive athletic advantage over Butler to use in the second half of their Thursday NCAA game, losing 77-59 after holding a six-point halftime lead. It wasn’t much of a postseason overall for Barbee, truth be told. After dominating the C-USA regular season they nearly missed the NCAAs entirely after losing to a lesser Houston team in the tourney finals, then followed that up with the collapse against a Butler team a ton of people (myself included) expected them to shove around.
Gregg Marshall: I was hoping for a big NIT run to give the candidacy of my second-favorite candidate a boost, but Marshall’s Wichita St. Shockers lost at home to Nevada, 74-70. Oh well; they’ll still enter 2010-2011 as the Valley favorites.
Billy Kennedy: I swear it feels like I’m the only person who seems to have even considered Kennedy for the Auburn job, despite the fact he’s now put together dominant teams in two conferences, taken two teams to the Dance, and that the most recent one provided us with the single most awesome moment of the Tournament so far. His team did a hell of a lot more against Butler than Barbee’s did, too. (Or Brownell’s, while we’re at it.)
Mike Davis: Because it has to be noted, UAB blew N.C. State out of the gym this weekend in the NIT. Don’t think it’ll help Davis all that much, but there you go.
And lastly … you’ve no doubt heard that Lebo has done one hell of a backflip, landing East Carolina’s perpetual dead-end job. I wish him the best luck, because at ECU? He’ll need it.
*Especially if they expand to 96 teams for no reason.