One of the most commonly overlooked elements of a successful college basketball program are the assistant coaches. Often tasked with long hours on the recruiting trail and in the film room, they put in important work without much fanfare or public recognition.
In college football, power conference offensive and defensive coordinators are well-known by their fan bases and commonly rake in salaries exceeding $1 million. By comparison, college basketball assistants can seem like relatively anonymous figures seated on the bench, and a $1 million salary is exceedingly rare. But in this era, their work is increasingly significant.
With the proliferation of the transfer portal, rosters are often overhauled each season. That requires more significantly more labor for a staff. Scouting and recruiting high school and transfer prospects has essentially become a 24/7/365 grind. While the NCAA approved the addition of two additional assistant basketball coaches in January, the new assistants are not permitted to engage in off-campus recruiting, meaning a program’s top three assistants remain their most important.
For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are weighing in on which program has the best assistant coaches with a heavy emphasis on the top three.
I’ll start the list with Kansas, in part because no staff has two assistants who have been as much a part of high-level winning over the past decade. Kurtis Townsend has been at Bill Self’s side since 2004. Norm Roberts has been on the Jayhawks’ bench since 2012. In the past 11 seasons the trio have secured nine Big 12 titles, made two Final Fours and won the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Townsend and Roberts are among the reasons why.
Beyond that, Self’s staff is filled with familiar faces. The third assistant is Jeremy Case, who was a member of KU’s 2008 national title team. He’s an alum who has been back in Lawrence since 2016. The director of basketball operations is Fred Quartlebaum, who has been with Self since 2013. The director of student-development is Joe Dooley, who worked for Self for 10 years before spending nine seasons as a head coach — first at Florida Gulf Coast, then at East Carolina. Former Jayhawk Brady Morningstar is the video coordinator. Former Nebraska coach Doc Sadler, who has been close to Self for years, is a senior advisor.
Bottom line, there’s an argument to be made that no staff in the country has a better combination of continuity and success. It’s among the reasons why the Jayhawks have been a No. 1 seed in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments and will enter this season as the favorite in the betting markets to win the 2024 national championship. — Gary Parrish
I’ll make the case that no head coach has a more valuable top assistant in the country than Juwan Howard’s right-hand man Phil Martelli. What other schools have an assistant with Martelli’s resume. His body of work includes 24 years of experience as a head coach, seven NCAA tourneys and a national coach of the year award. He’s also recruited/coached first-round NBA picks — and made it to the doorstep of the Final Four. In fact, Martelli is running Michigan’s program right now while Howard is out recovering from heart surgery. I spoke with him earlier this week, when he was on the road recruiting for Michigan before flying back to handle the day-to-day of the program. At 69, he’s still got the fuel to do the job. In terms of experience and acumen, I don’t think anyone has a better résumé than Martelli, who has also been a key figure on basketball committees over the years.
Beyond Martelli, there’s longtime Michigan assistant Saddi Washington has turned down multiple opportunities to coach at the mid-major level. He will eventually run a program for himself in the next few years. Washington is ingrained in Michigan’s culture, having coached there for eight seasons and serving as the key transition piece from the John Beilein era. Washington has also been the lead recruiter on a number of future first-round picks to come out of Michigan. In recent years several coaches have inquired about plucking Washington from Michigan, but he’s remained loyal.
The third assistant has a background playing and coaching in the NBA. How many staffs have a third assistant with two decades of that kind of experience? Not many, but Michigan does. Howard Eisley (12 years playing in the NBA, another nine coaching) is among the most respected men in college hoops and the NBA. He fortifies a staff that totals more than 50 years of coaching experience alone, not even factoring in playing days. From recruiting to development to X-and-O acumen, few staffs in the country have as much as U-M. — Matt Norlander
There is arguably no better coaching staff top to bottom — from head coach to final assistant — in college hoops than the one Kelvin Sampson has assembled. The Cougars consistently do more with less. Their operating expenses, for instance, are roughly $2.3 million, nearly one-third the amount of Duke and less than one-half the amount of Kansas, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Also, their resume in recent years speaks for itself. They have ranked top-four or better in each of the last four seasons in offensive rebounding rate, top-10 or better in each of the last three seasons in defensive efficiency and are the second-winningest program at the Division I level since 2017-18 behind only Gonzaga. Sampson’s son, Kellen, is head-coach-in-waiting and effectively a head coach in a lead assistant role. They also have a star in Quannas White, now Associate Head Coach, who once played under Sampson at OU. Fast-rising assistant in K.C. Beard has worked his way up from video coordinator to the bench. With two Elite Eight appearances in the last three seasons, and four Sweet 16s since 2019, the success both in the regular season and in the postseason for this Houston staff is as comparable — and in most cases, better — than any other in the sport. — Kyle Boone
When Jay Wright surprised the college basketball world by retiring two and a half weeks after his team’s 2022 Final Four run ended, the program transitioned quickly to successor Kyle Neptune. Neptune had just finished his first season at Fordham. The timing and magnitude of the change took its toll, but the Wildcats are poised for a significant bounce-back from last season’s 17-17 mark in 2023-24. That’s due in large part to the staff Neptune assembled and retained. It skews young, is heavy on Villanova experience and now features another member with recent head coaching experience. Neptune announced the hiring of Ashley Howard on May 10 after four seasons as the head coach at La Salle. He was on staff with Neptune under Wright during the program’s 2016 and 2018 national titles and gives Neptune another trusted aide who has been through fires as a head coach and with the Wildcats.
Fellow assistants Mike Nardi and Dwayne Anderson II are also Villanova veterans. Nardi was on staff for both of Wright’s national titles, and Anderson is a former Wildcats guard who has been on staff since 2018 after several seasons at Penn State. The continuity from Wright to Neptune speaks to their collective belief in Neptune and their buy-in to Wright’s succession plan. But this staff is also infusing a healthy dose of modernization into the program by landing one of the nation’s top transfer classes for the 2023-24 season. This staff boasts all the championship-caliber experience, continuity and cohesion to cement its place among the nation’s best over the next couple of seasons under Neptune’s direction. — David Cobb
It’s important to note the best (and sometimes most safe) transition a program can make when replacing a head coach is to hire from within. In this case, Duke tabbed former player and associate head coach Jon Scheyer to take over the program when Mike Krzyzewski retired. Replacing one of the most accomplished coaches in the history of the sport isn’t an easy task, but the transition has been seamless on the court and the recruiting trail. Duke finished the 2023 recruiting cycle with the No. 2 overall class and the Blue Devils won the ACC tournament in Scheyer’s first year at the helm.
Duke has two former players on its coaching staff in Chris Carrawell and Will Avery. Carrawell joined Krzyzewski’s staff in 2018 and was promoted to associate head coach in 2021. Avery was hired in July and this is his first full-time coaching position in the college ranks. Having three former players on the staff who know the culture of a blue blood like Duke is valuable. Scheyer hired former Kentucky recruiting coordinator Jai Lucas last summer and then promoted him to associate head coach this past June. Culture can be a very cliché term, but it’s clear the Duke program has a direction moving forward and has a staff that can recruit and develop the best talent in the country. — Cameron Salerno