For the sixth time in the past seven seasons, we have a high-major coaching change before the end of January. On Monday, DePaul sacked Tony Stubblefield, who was 28-54 less than three years into that experiment. Stubblefield was a surprise hire when he got the job, but the fact that it didn’t work out is no stunner. We’re talking about a program that’s a member of a high-major conference but hasn’t acted like it for decades.
There are 80 schools in the Big Six leagues, yet in KenPom.com’s database of all programs since 1996-97, DePaul ranks 99th over the past 25 years. It’s probably not a top-100 job in a sport with 362 teams, which is a damning indictment for a school with a Big East affiliation. (To think: DePaul passed on hiring Jon Scheyer in 2021.)
Barring an unfathomable eruption to a Big East Tournament championship, DePaul’s Big Dance drought will hit 20 years in March. When that happens, the Blue Demons will join this club of high-major programs to go 20-plus years between NCAA Tournament appearances.
Longest high-major NCAAT droughts
(Key context: ‘Drought’ implies a prior appearance, so Northwestern’s 78-year tournament no-show from 1939-2017 doesn’t qualify, nor do the other two dozen power-conference schools that didn’t break into the NCAAs for the first time until the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s.)
x – Miami didn’t sponsor basketball from 1972-1984
In firing Stubblefield, DePaul gets an official head start on the carousel. But with Oregon State and Washington State reclassifying to the WCC later this year, DePaul slots as the worst power-conference gig. So, what are its selling points? A great recruiting zone, a shiny arena that’s only seven years old, Big East membership, some proud history … that nobody under 40 was alive to witness. DePaul’s administration is also purportedly moving toward being more competitive both with a new basketball practice facility and increased infrastructure around NIL initiatives.
But, it’s a bad job. A lot of candidates will say no.
If I’m athletic director DeWayne Peevy, I’m hiring someone who has experience running a program and flipping a program. No first-time head coaches, no retreads, someone on the younger side. Here are five realistic names of sitting head coaches DePaul should reach out to gauge potential interest:
Amir Abdur-Rahim (South Florida). If he’s willing to coach at three schools in three years, this would be a great fit. Young, enthusiastic, proven program-flipper. Went from 1-28 his first season at Kennesaw State to getting the school its first NCAA tourney bid in Year 4 (2023) with a team-record 26 wins. Now at USF, Abdur-Rahim’s team is 11-5 and has one loss since Dec. 2.
Darian DeVries (Drake). He’s been involved with jobs bigger/better than DePaul, but maybe he’d take a chance? DeVries has taken Drake to two of the past four NCAA Tournaments and his career record is outstanding (137-51) at a place with little historical hoops success.
Bryce Drew (Grand Canyon). He was cut off a year too early at Vanderbilt. It wouldn’t stun me if he made this jump — though he can be patient because other opportunities may well surface in March. Drew’s 81-29 at Grand Canyon and is pacing toward his third NCAA Tournament in four seasons.
Josh Schertz (Indiana State). A very hot mid-major name already within comfortable driving distance of Chicago. Indiana State is 16-3 in Schertz’s third season on the job and fighting with DeVries to be Missouri Valley’s top dog. He has quite the reputation as a basketball tactician, too.
Takayo Siddle (UNCW). He lacks Midwestern ties like the others, but Siddle is a terrific young coach who will get his shot at a bigger school in the next two-to-three years. DePaul would be wise to look into him. He’s 71-34 midway through his fourth season at Wilmington. His team won at Kentucky this season.
Two names that have been tossed around who I didn’t include: Bobby Hurley and Will Wade. With Hurley, two things. No. 1: Look at what Arizona State has been historically and compare that to what he’s achieved there. Next guy gonna be better coaching ASU in the Big 12? Doubt it. No. 2: I don’t think the Hurley brothers have any desire to coach in the same league. Could be a non-starter. As for Wade, I’m not seeing the fit at all and just because McNeese State hired him doesn’t mean a Big East program would be willing so soon after his NCAA issues.
Dayton‘s 2020 redemption tour ramping up
Dayton is like the anti-DePaul. Midwest school in a lower-level league than it probably deserves to be in. Instead of going decades at a time without making the NCAA Tournament, UD is among the most reliable non-power-conference outfits in the sport to reach the Big Dance and/or win 20-plus games with regularity. Counting the 2019-20 group that finished 29-2, Dayton has produced an NCAA Tournament-level team 1 out of every 3.74 seasons since 1952. That’s an outstanding ratio for a mid-major.
Consider: Every Dayton coach since the early 1950s has taken the program to the NCAA Tournament. Every coach except? Anthony Grant. Yes, it’s true.
This is Grant’s seventh season at his alma mater and he is yet to coach it in an NCAA Tournament game. (Thanks, COVID.) The spell should break in less than two months. Grant has his Flyers on a fast track to March Madness. It’s been more than two months since Dayton experienced a loss. It’s 15-2, ranked 16th in the AP Top 25 and will play at La Salle Tuesday night. Back in October, I had UD has a top-25 team. That is bearing out thanks to the All-American-level play of DaRon Holmes II (19.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.6 apg), who averaged 25.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks last week.
Holmes is an All-American and has done what few Dayton fans thought possible: entered the Obi Toppin Realm. According to UD, Holmes is the only A-10 player in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and blocked shots.
My point is: Don’t view Dayton as some surprising mid-major story line. UD was due for a big year, and that’s exactly what we’re getting. This team isn’t as good as the what-could-have-been ’19-20 group, but it’s on the short list of best mid-majors this season. Nobody in the A-10 rates close to these Flyers in advanced metrics; expect them to win the conference by multiple games. So long as they don’t take a bad loss, they’ll be wearing home whites for their first NCAA Tournament game.
It’s a credible Sweet 16 team — and maybe more. Dayton never drifts off the radar for too long, and you better believe Grant is motivated to make up for what was ripped from his program and fan base almost four years ago.
BuckyBall™ has Samford riding nation’s longest winning streak
Let’s touch on another mid-major doing damage. Something special is happening at Samford, a school with almost twice as many single-digit-win seasons (13) as 20-win seasons (7).
Yet it’s these Bulldogs who boast the longest winning streak in the country. Samford is 17-2 and will take its 17-game streak into Furman on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs have fielded a Division I program for 50 years, but only made two NCAA Tournaments; their best season was the 1998-99 campaign, a 24-6 endeavor that included a March Madness appearance.
Are the Bulldogs this year’s Florida Atlantic?
Similar to FAU a year ago, Samford is in the midst of its best campaign in program history. It almost certainly will set the school record for single-season victories.
Its story is unexpected because its coach’s road is something from another era. Bucky McMillan is in his fourth season at Samford — and in his fourth season coaching in college period. McMillan was hired in April 2020, a COVID-era hire over Zoom. The twist? He was pulled up from the high school ranks — and within county limits. McMillan, who played at Birmingham-Southern College, has lived in Birmingham, Alabama, his entire life. After college, he coached Mountain Brook High School (where he played as a teenager) for 12 seasons and won a state title five times (and won 333 games) at a school that was never elite at basketball before he began coaching there at 24.
“I grew up about four miles away from Samford,” McMillan told CBS Sports. “When I took the Samford job I was literally closer to work to go to Samford on the same damn road than my previous job at [Mountain Brook High School]. It’s pretty wild.”
In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, it wasn’t terribly uncommon to have someone make the leap from high school coach to Division I head coach. But in this century? You almost never see someone make that jump, even if it is a low-major. Dan Hurley and Nate Oats both spent years coaching high school programs, but they had adaptive years as D-I assistants before getting their shot to run a program.
Credit to Samford athletic director Martin Newton for taking a gamble on a young guy with zero college coaching experience. Few ADs would do such a thing. It’s paying off big-time.
McMillan, 40, is making it look way too easy. He’s taking mid-major hoops by storm thanks to BuckyBall, his one-of-a-kind system that has a few basic principles:
- Shoot more than 20 3-pointers per game
- Aim to get 100% of your points from 3-pointers, foul shots and layups
- Play as fast as you can on every possession; don’t let the shot clock hit single digits
- Full-court press after every possession — no matter if it’s a make or a miss
- Frequent mass substitutions to prevent spurts of fatigue
While there are coaches who use some of these concepts, there isn’t a D-I coach in the country implementing this wholesale hardwood ideology. The Bulldogs are a freak show in the best basketball sense. McMillan’s philosophy is unique — and it’s one he’s been preaching for 15-plus years. McMillan, who started coaching youth basketball even while he played high school basketball, has always considered himself a risk-taker.
“It was unique at the time because when I started coaching, people were saying that you know, you gotta walk it up,” McMillan said. “You can’t press the teams from the city. You need to play slow-down basketball, you need to run the flex offense. We were mass-subbing and we would swap situationally, almost like hockey in ways.”
The term BuckyBall was born and McMillan became an Alabama coaching celebutante. Now he’s got a fast-growing reputation in college hoops; 17 straight wins will do that for you. Samford has 11 players averaging 9.5 minutes or more, and because so many guys see the floor, the team leads the country in bench points. It’s fourth in adjusted tempo, third in 3-point accuracy (40.0%) and has become one of the best mid-majors despite ranking near the bottom in average height (350th, per KenPom).
“I just kind of have that rebel on me a little bit,” he said. “Just because we’re told you can’t do that — I really wanted to do it and it matched my personality.”
In McMillan’s first season, Samford was 6-12. Then it went 21-11 the past two seasons, including a 15-3 SoCon record and tying Furman for the league title last year. Now it’s one of the top mid-majors in the sport and is angling toward its first NCAA Tournament in 24 years. Find these Bulldogs, college hoops fans. There’s not another team out there who looks or plays like they do.
In terms of national championship likelihood? Moderately high. The Jayhawks managed another close win on Monday, beating Cincinnati 74-69, but Kansas falls short of top-10 status in every mainstream predictive metric despite a 16-3 record: 11th at EvanMiya.com, 14th in the NET, 17th in BPI, 18th at BartTorvik.com, 19th at KenPom. It’s clearly a tier or maybe two below the top shelf. What it does have that no one else can claim: The best coach in the sport. The emergence of new Aussie starter Johnny Furphy (23 points vs. Cincy) could change the calculus. I’m willing to hold and see how he alters matters.
Still, KU’s got two losses outside the norm for that program’s M.O: road defeats against UCF and West Virginia, a pair not headed to the NCAAs that are 18-17 combined. Kansas is likely to finish top-three in the best league in the country and have a top-three tournament seed, but it’s fair to forecast that the preseason No. 1 team will continue the 15-year trend of not winning the national championship.
>>📬 Sara via Bluesky asks: Is UNC’s defense as good as I want to believe, or have our opponents just been really unlucky from 3 and we should expect a regression to the mean at some point?
I’m all the way sold on Carolina’s defense. It’s legit. UNC is 8-0 in the ACC and riding a nine-game winning streak. In that stretch, Carolina is holding teams to 62.4 points. It’s played four road games (Pitt, Clemson, NC State, Boston College), four Quad 1 games (Oklahoma, plus the aforementioned three) and emerged as a top-five team. The Heels’ defensive efficiency is fourth at KenPom. A stunning stat: North Carolina hasn’t allowed a fast break point in three games. It’s held 13 out of 18 teams under 1.0 PPP. Teams are making just 28.8% from 3 — a number that has been DROPPING in recent weeks, which is abnormal. I do think that will regress to north of 30% by March, but I’m on board with this group’s defensive identity sticking for the next two months.
DePaul has three wins this season and one of those victories came against Louisville — and it’s already made a move on its coach. If Louisville can’t get off its 6-win total in the next couple of weeks, the calls for a change will probably get so loud they won’t be able to be ignored. But if Kenny Payne can scrape off even two more Ws, he’ll be there until mid-March.
Tanner’s talking about me ranking Arkansas 47th in the preseason, which was a forecast that caused seemingly half the fan base to drop the clown emoji in my mentions for about a week. Well, I was wrong. I had Arkansas ranked too high. The Hogs are 10-8 and sit at 101 in KenPom, a plot twist that was inconceivable to everyone. As for why I faded ’em, a major reason was the idea that Eric Musselman would be able to thrive at a high level after undergoing yet ANOTHER major roster reboot. I was skeptical, because at some point you’re going to miss on a guy or two and the competition around you is going to catch up. Plus, Arkansas was a bit bumpy last season until a fourth-stage rally — and it lost multiple NBA players but didn’t replace them with near-equal high-end talent.
Hey, I’m not thrilled about it. I went out to Fayetteville in November and have all this material for a feature on Arkansas and/or Muss that’s going to have get boxed up for a good while here.
Norlander’s news + nuggets
• Maybe something worth examining more come February, but Wake Forest not being able to keep up with Carolina on Monday only re-emphasized the dangerous possibility that the ACC could be a three-bid league this season. Last time that happened was 2000. The ACC had nine teams then, not 15.
• On that note, can Brad Brownell’s 13-5 Clemson Tigers avoid a signature second-half swoon? Get this: Every year in the past decade has seen Clemson’s win percentage in the second half of the season swan dive. The Tigers have never been better than two games above .500 down the stretch in any of those seasons. (H/T, The Heat Check)
• My favorite kind of NIL utilization: Blake Hinson‘s best moment as a Pitt Panther has been immortalized on a T-shirt.
• D.J. Wagner won his third SEC Freshman of the Week honor after UK’s past two wins, which included 18 points and personal-best 10 dimes (kind of quietly, because of Big Z’s debut) in Saturday’s victory over Georgia. What isn’t being discussed enough is how Wagner‘s slow-boil ascendence is a key factor in Kentucky’s case as a top 5-10 team in the past month-plus. With Wagner starting at point, UK has gone for 90 or more points in four straight SEC games for the first time in 30 years.
• News that turned heads of college athletics administrators on Monday night: Arizona announcing AD Dave Heeke is out. Arizona is in the midst of a financial catastrophe, and it doesn’t all fall on Heeke. Will U of A president Robert Robbins still be running this university when it moves to the Big 12? Palace intrigue in the desert.
• If you missed this piece from Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy on the 50-year anniversary of Notre Dame ending UCLA‘s 88-game winning streak, give it your time. One of the most significant shots in college hoops history came from that game. Norlander family fun fact: My father played high school ball in Chicago with a benchwarmer (Greg Schmelzer) who was on that Notre Dame team.
• If Nebraska wins at Ohio State tonight, it’ll be 15-5. That would mark the best record through 20 games for NU since it was 18-2 back in 1990-91.
• Shouts to UMass Lowell. Still undefeated the America East and its +84 point differential on the road is the best in the sport. Almost every year we get a team that makes the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Lowell’s a candidate.
• Defector’s Dan McQuade got an anonymous coach to playfully speak on the record about something the Court Report addressed earlier this month: coaches behaving badly outside the coaches box. The newest worst display of this haphazardness happened over the weekend with Rhode Island‘s Archie Miller NARROWLY missing bumping a player during a fast break.
• I think we can conjure a better phrase than “hitting for the cycle” to define a team that has wins and losses in all four quadrants AND wins and losses in home, road and neutral venues. But either way, I love this data set. It’s a good and bad thing to have on your résumé. I wonder how many of these teams wind up making their way into the field of 68. I’ll set the over/under at 1.5.