If Mississippi State reaches the NIT Final Four, or maybe just wins a couple of games, perhaps Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen should consider keeping coach Ben Howland for another year.
Suddenly, there are five men’s basketball head coaching openings in the SEC. Since just last Thursday, there are vacancies at Missouri, LSU, Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina. And Mississippi State may be the fourth best job on that list. It would be fifth, but with LSU apparently headed for an Armageddon of NCAA sanctions within a year, that will likely be the least favored job of the quintet.
The odds of Cohen finding the right guy would likely be much better when there are not so many buyers grabbing. Shopping for a new SEC basketball coach lately has been akin to the lines on Black Friday.
Howland is actually still coaching and will guide the Bulldogs (18-15) at Virginia (19-13) on Wednesday in the National Invitation Tournament (7 p.m. eastern, ESPN2). As long as he keeps winning, he keeps coaching. But Mississippi State’s plan has been to announce that Howland, who will be 65 in May, is stepping down or retiring as soon as the season is over.
Some members of the always-sniffing coaching fraternity heard about this plan a week ago and have already been gauging interest in them by Mississippi State.
But what if Howland gets hot and wins it all in Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 31? He’s a solid coach who went to three straight Final Fours at UCLA. Auburn coach Sonny Smith announced he would step down following the 1984-85 season after a disappointing 8-10 finish in the SEC. Then he won four games in four days at the SEC Tournament in Birmingham, reached the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 and stayed another four seasons.
Here are possible candidates for each of the five SEC openings:
Alabama-Birmingham coach Andy Kennedy wants badly to return to the SEC, and the odds are he will very soon. Kennedy, 54, is a native of Louisville, Mississippi, which is 35 miles south of Mississippi State. He was Ole Miss’ head coach from 2006-18, but went to only two NCAA Tournaments.
He is hot now though, as he has UAB at 27-7 and in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed. The Blazers play No. 5 seed Houston (29-5) on Friday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (9:20 p.m., TNT).
North Texas coach Grant McCasland, 45, was one of the stories of the 2021 NCAA Tourament as his No. 13 seeded Mean Green upset No. 4 seed Purdue, 78-69, in overtime in Indianapolis, Indiana, before finishing 18-10 on the season. North Texas is 24-6 this season, 16-2 in Conference USA and will host Texas State (21-7) in the NIT Tuesday night. McCasland was 20-12 at Arkansas State in the 2016-17 season before becoming North Texas’ coach.
Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, athletic director Scott Woodward can’t go more than a few months without having to hire a new coach. Over the last 11 months, Woodward has hired women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey in April, baseball coach Jay Johnson in June, football coach Brian Kelly in December and will likely have a new men’s basketball coach some time this April.
This time, though, Woodward will likely not be able to do what he likes best – hire an experienced, established big name winner. That kind of coach will avoid LSU, considering the sanctions likely headed to Baton Rouge. A younger, rising coach or an older one who has had his ups and downs may be the best it can do in the short term.
Hot names are Baylor coach Scott Drew, who won the national championship last year, and Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who won it all in 2019. Drew’s dad is Homer Drew, who was on LSU coach Dale Brown’s original staff from 1972-76. Bennett’s wife, the former Laurel Purcell, is from Baton Rouge and graduated from LSU.
So those are neat connections to Baton Rouge, but neither Drew nor Bennett are coming. Drew will either stay at Baylor for many more years or take a better job than LSU. It would be a reach for him to come to LSU, even if there was zero probation on the horizon.
The Drew who LSU could get is Scott’s younger brother – Grand Canyon coach Bryce Drew, who was born in Baton Rouge in 1974 when his dad was an LSU assistant. Drew, 47, has that Richie Cunningham look and could be the cleaner image LSU needs to project. He took Grand Canyon to the NCAA Tournament last season and is 23-8 this season. Drew would like to return to the SEC, but he fell apart as Vanderbilt’s head coach from 2016-19, going from 19-16 and 10-8 to 12-20 and 6-12 and then to 9-23 and 0-18.
Bennett’s name has surfaced the last three times LSU had head coach openings in 2008, 2012 and now by wishful dreamers. If he wasn’t interested then, he will definitely not be interested now.
When LSU replaced retiring coach Dale Brown after the 1996-97 season, it was in the same situation it is in now – probation was coming. But that was NCAA Light compared to now, and LSU had to settle on John Brady, who had taken tiny Samford in Birmingham, Alabama to moderate success in four of his six years there with no NCAA Tournaments. But despite significant probation, Brady ended up being an excellent, overachieving hire with an NCAA Sweet 16 in 2000, a Final Four in 2006 and SEC titles in 2000 and ’06. The team he left also won the 2009 SEC title under new coach Trent Johnson.
Therefore, a coach like Murray State coach Matt McMahon may even be too big a name for LSU at this point. But he is worth a shot. McMahon, 43, has the Racers of Murray, Kentucky in their third NCAA Tournament since 2018. Murray State was a No. 12 seed in 2019 when it upset No. 5 seed Marquette, 83-64, in Hartford, Connecticut, and finished 28-5.
McMahon’s team, which is a No. 7 seed in this NCAA Tournament at 30-2, plays No. 10 seed San Francisco (24-9) in Indianapolis (9:40 p.m., CBS). Murray State was 18-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference and won its fourth straight title.
If UAB coach Andy Kennedy (see above) doesn’t get the Mississippi State job, he would be interested in LSU, or vice versa. He was interested in LSU openings while he was Ole Miss’ coach in 2008 and 2012. Kennedy could be a short term answer who could stay longer if he succeeds.
The Gators could be the best job of the bunch. Billy Donovan did create a dynasty with 14 NCAA Tournaments from 1999-2014, national titles in 2006 and ’07, four Final Fours in all and two Elite Eights. The coach before him, Lon Kruger, also took the Gators to the Final Four in 1994. Donvan’s replacement, Mike White, did reach four NCAA Tournaments, but was not cutting it before he just booked for Georgia.
Now, Florida is a job Baylor’s Scott Drew or Virginia’s Tony Bennett might consider should either get wanderlust.
Dayton coach Anthony Grant, 55, was a top Donovan assistant before coaching Virginia Commonwealth from 2006-09. After the Gators’ second national title in 2007, Grant was set to become Florida’s coach when Donovan accepted the head coaching job for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Donovan changed his mind and returned to the Gators. After taking VCU to two NCAA Tournaments, Grant became Alabama’s coach, but reached just one NCAA Tournament from 2009-15.
Another candidate could be Marquette coach Shaka Smart, who has the Golden Eagles (19-12) in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 9 seed and set to play No. 8 North Carolina (24-9) on Thursday (4:30 p.m., TBS) in Fort Worth, Texas. Smart, 44, took took No. 11 VCU to the Final Four in 2011 and reached the NCAA Tournament four more times before becoming Texas’ coach. He reached three NCAA Tournaments there, but lost three first round games.
Murray State’s Matt McMahon, Virginia Tech’s Mike Young and Providence’s Ed Cooley are other candidates.
George Mason coach Kim English, just 33, is a possible candidate, as are Missouri State coach Dana Ford, 37, Baylor associate head coach Jerome Tang, 55, and Saint Louis coach Travis Ford, 52 and a former Missouri and Kentucky guard.
Possible candidates include one of the hottest mid-major coaches, Cleveland State’s Dennis Gates, 42. Others are Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton, 40, Chattanooga coach Lamont Paris, 45, and Wake Forest assistant BJ. McKie, a former Gamecock player who is 44.
Could there be more openings in the SEC? And are there enough coaches out there?