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Dribble Handoff: Bruce Pearl, Mick Cronin among names Ohio State should target in coaching search

College basketball’s power conference coaching carousel began spinning before the season even started when West Virginia split with Bob Huggins and left the position in the care of interim leader Josh Eilert. Then came in-season decisions for DePaul and Ohio State to part with their coaches, which brought the March 1 tally of open power-conference jobs to three before a postseason game had even been played.

As Matt Norlander detailed in this week’s Court Report, a few more jobs are expected to open and several others could still go either way. Of the jobs presently available, Ohio State is the most high-profile, and there aren’t many expected to enter the fray that would knock the Buckeyes down a rung.

It wasn’t that long ago when Thad Matta led the program to a pair of No. 1 seeds in a five-year span. And it was only three years ago the Buckeyes landed a No. 2 seed under Chris Holtmann. It’s a job with abundant resources and a spot in the game’s wealthiest league. It also doesn’t come open often. Every Ohio State coach since Gary Williams left for Maryland in 1989 has stayed at least seven seasons. 

So who should the Buckeyes target? Our writers weighed in for this week’s Dribble Handoff with their answers to that question.

Dusty May, FAU

Ohio State is one of college basketball’s best jobs and a place where lots of people could win. So I’m not sure there’s one perfect candidate here because there are several interesting candidates, some of whom’s names are below. 

But put me down for FAU’s Dusty May.

I know this season hasn’t gone perfectly for the Owls, if only because they were ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP Top 25 and are unranked in this final week of the regular season. That’s not great. But it’s important to remember the big picture with May, and the big picture is that he took over a mid-major program that had never even won a game in the NCAA Tournament before he arrived, built it into a conference champion, made the 2023 NCAA Tournament, advanced all the way to the Final Four — and he now has FAU on track to make a second straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. That’s impressive even if this season has been filled with twists and turns. So if I’m Ohio State, that’s probably where I’m looking first, at the Indiana alum who has turned a nothing program into one of the nation’s most talked about. — Gary Parrish

Bruce Pearl, Auburn

Parrish got to May first, so an acknowledgement right here that he makes a lot of sense and I do believe May will be among the 3-4 coaches at the top of Ohio State’s list. In the interest of keeping this list varied and eclectic, I’ll offer up Bruce Pearl for discussion. I recently traveled to Auburn and spent some one-on-one time with Pearl; he was willing to go on the record about his potential candidacy on the carousel this year. At 63, I believe that IF Pearl is going to take one more move, it will be this year or next. Likelihood? I’d go under 50% for this year as of March 6, but a lot changes in this month. Ohio State should put Pearl on its list of targets. He is built to build up programs and has coached winners (and made a Final Four) twice in the SEC. His force of personality is matched maybe — maybe — by five other coaches in the game. He’s won big at a football-first institution before (Tennessee) and turned Auburn into a near-annual Top 25 program. So long as Ohio State’s power brokers are good with having a big-name coach bringing in a lot of attention, Pearl’s got the wins (670 of them) and charisma to inject a lot of hope into a top-25 job in the sport. — Matt Norlander

Jake Diebler, Ohio State interim coach

What if the answer for Ohio State is hiding in plain sight here with Diebler? Yes, I get that Ohio State can probably spend as much or more as any school in the market to land one of the best candidates in the country. And yes, I agree with Parrish and Norlander above — May and Pearl would be excellent options. But Diebler has taken over the program in the wake of Holtmann’s ouster and not only done a satisfactory job, but an outstanding one. Since Diebler’s temporary promotion, Ohio State has defeated No. 2 Purdue, Michigan State in East Lansing and in the process played its way into the NCAA Tournament picture. That’s remarkable considering how dead this team looked one month ago. Diebler’s past experience as an assistant elsewhere and his familiarity with the program as both an assistant and now as the head man gives him a real shot to stick this job and be a worthwhile internal investment who continues to shine in the role. It wouldn’t be the sexy splash of a hire that outside candidates might offer, but it very well could be the right move to maintain continuity and also to retain a rising star in the coaching ranks. — Kyle Boone

Mick Cronin, UCLA

Ohio State should have made this happen seven years ago when Cronin was working less than two hours away as the consistently successful coach at Cincinnati. Following his 13-year stint with the Bearcats, which included nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances, Cronin has only solidified his winning reputation. He is 112-47 (65-24 Pac-12) in five seasons at UCLA entering Thursday night’s showdown with Arizona

This season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Bruins, but that should only make Cronin easier to pry away from what is historically a better job than Ohio State. Is UCLA still a better job now? Not unless your perception of such things is unduly influenced by history. It’s an open secret that the Bruins are way behind in the NIL space, which is worrisome for college basketball’s all-time leader in national titles. Also, the Bruins join the Big Ten for the 2024-25 season, which will mean a grueling travel schedule for the program and a major uptick in competition.

There’s a reason former UCLA football coach Chip Kelly left to be merely be the offensive coordinator at Ohio State. Being a coach in the Big Ten’s West Coast minority is going to be brutally difficult. Cronin is from Ohio, has won big in the state before and has now also reached a Final Four while piloting a solidly successful big brand at UCLA. It could have worked seven years ago, and there’s even more evidence now that Mick Cronin would win big as Ohio State’s coach. — David Cobb

Lamont Paris, South Carolina

Similar to Cronin, South Carolina’s Lamont Paris also has roots in Ohio. The 49-year-old was born less than 100 miles from the Ohio State campus in Findlay, Ohio. Paris played college basketball at Wooster, also located less than 100 miles from Columbus.

Paris is one of the top candidates for National Coach of the Year because of what he’s done in Year 2 with South Carolina. The Gamecocks are a lock to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. South Carolina won 11 games last season but is now 24-5 heading into the final week of the regular season.

Paris coached at Wisconsin as an assistant from 2010-17 and received a promotion to become Greg Gard’s top assistant following the retirement of legendary coach Bo Ryan. Paris helped transform Chattanooga from a 10-win team in his first season to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2022. He’s now accomplishing big things in the SEC. He should be one of the first calls Ohio State makes. — Cameron Salerno

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