October 15, 2007

A lot to like in mid-major coaching ranks

What could (insert name of favorite mid-major coach here) do for my program?

Many athletic directors at high-major schools were undoubtedly wondering that last season. Seven mid-major coaches won at least one game in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

Out of that group, six landed on Rivals.com's Top 10 Coaches on the Rise. We eliminated all of the coaches at the six major conferences, instead focusing on coaches who are on the verge of making a leap from the mid-major ranks.

Rivals.com coaches on the rise
1. Anthony Grant, VCU
No athletic director would be surprised if Grant isn't on this list next season. Grant is relatively young (41), has a great pedigree (former Billy Donovan assistant at Florida) and enjoyed remarkable success in his first season as a coach last season. The Rams won 28 games and nearly reached the Sweet 16, upsetting Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and falling to Pittsburgh in overtime. Grant also has proven he can recruit. The Rams landed the No. 5-ranked class among mid-majors according to Rivals.com.
2. Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois
The Salukis locked up Lowery this past offseason to a long-term contract that featured a $750,000-a-year salary, an unprecedented number for a Missouri Valley Conference school. But, that's not going to stop high-majors from continuing to pursue him. The 35-year-old led the Salukis to a No. 4 seed in the 2007 NCAA Tournament, the highest seed an MVC school has received since Larry Bird and Indiana State were a No. 1 in 1979. Moreover, his teams have a reputation for playing superb defense.
3. Lon Kruger, UNLV
Nobody on this list has a more impressive resume. Kruger became only the fourth coach to lead three different programs to the Sweet 16 when the Rebels beat Georgia Tech and Wisconsin in the first two rounds of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Kruger also took Kansas State and Florida to the Sweet 16. At 55, some may question his age, but nobody can question his results.
4. Tom Pecora, Hofstra
Pecora's stock has fallen off a bit he was No. 1 on this list last year. But, Pecora remains one of the hottest coaches in the mid-major ranks. He has led Hofstra to 48 wins over the last two seasons. Pecora turned down the Seton Hall job last year and this could be the season he winds up regretting that move. The Pride is losing two players (Loren Stokes and Carlos Rivera) who combined to average 33.7 points a game in 2006-07.
5. Dana Altman, Creighton
Altman caused quite a stir when he returned to Creighton one day after accepting the Arkansas job this past offseason. But, the reversal may actually lead to more job offers. For years, many believed Altman would never leave Creighton. Now, athletic directors know he will consider making a switch. Altman has a solid track record, having racked up a 260-141 (.648) record in 13 years at Creighton. He has also been named coach of the year in three different conferences (Southern, Big Eight and MVC).
6. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
It looked like Marshall was destined for the high-major level, but after leading Winthrop to the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, he took the Wichita State job in April. It's tough to blame him for not holding out for a more prestigious position. The Shockers paid a high-major type of salary, signing Marshall for $750,000 a year. If Marshall has the kind of success at Wichita State that he did at Winthrop, he'll be getting a raise soon. He led Winthrop to seven NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons.
7. Karl Hobbs, George Washington
Hobbs would have been higher on this list if it hadn't been for the Colonials' humiliating loss in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Vanderbilt rolled to a 77-44 thrashing over the Colonials. But, the former Connecticut assistant has long-term success to fall back on. He has led the Colonials to the A-10 regular-season title or tournament title in each of the last three seasons.
8. Mark Fox, Nevada
If Fox leads the Wolf Pack to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, he might be mentioned among the best coaches in college basketball at any level. Fox has led the WAC program to four consecutive trips to the Big Dance. But, much of that success has been attributed to three-time WAC Player of the Year Nick Fazekas, who was a second-round draft pick. The Wolf Pack also lost starting point guard Ramon Sessions.
9. Sean Miller, Xavier
The school signed Miller to a contract extension through 2016 after he led the Musketeers to the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, where they nearly upset eventual runner-up Ohio State. But, we wouldn't be surprised if Miller isn't at the Atlantic 10 school by this time next year. The team returns one of the nation's top backcourts with guards Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell and has the talent to make a deep postseason run.
10. Brad Brownell, Wright State
Grant may have been the only first-year coach who enjoyed more success last season. Brownell led Wright State to a school-record 23 wins and an upset of Butler in the Horizon League Tournament, which landed the Raiders an NCAA Tournament invite. With two other NCAA trips (2003, 2006) on his resume from his days at UNC-Wilmington, Brownell's stock is climbing fast.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.


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