The Court Report is a weekly notebook from Matt Norlander that shares stories and insider information from around college basketball and runs every Wednesday.
So long as the college sports industrial complex doesn’t completely lose its figurative mind — but that’s always a possibility — 2021 will likely go down as the high-water mark against which all other absurd coaching carousels are measured.
March-into-April gave us arguably the noisiest coaching-turnover cycle ever in college hoops. Now college football has managed to one-up basketball. It all adds up to the most consequential year of coaching changeover at the highest levels, in both sports, we’ve ever seen and probably ever will see. Lincoln Riley’s and Brian Kelly’s decisions earlier this week to leave top-10 jobs for other top-10 jobs rightfully prompted a lot of discussion and criticism over where college football is, or is headed. (It’s unbefitting, no matter how much money is on the table, that Kelly decided to quit on his team while it still is in play to earn a bid to the College Football Playoff. We can’t normalize this.)
“I don’t think it can get crazier [than this year],” one industry source said.
Take a scan and here’s the truth: five of the top 10 jobs in college basketball and college football announced changes in 2021. This has never happened before within a calendar year.
North Carolina (Hubert Davis)Texas (Chris Beard)Indiana (Mike Woodson)Arizona (Tommy Lloyd)Duke (Jon Scheyer announced in June, takes over in spring of ’22)
USC (Lincoln Riley)LSU (Brian Kelly)Florida (Billy Napier)Oklahoma (TBD)Notre Dame (TBD)
While high-major college football and college basketball hirings are two separate discussions, both occupations still pay in the millions, the salaries are escalating and the capacity for the preposterous is only increasing. One major discrepancy can be seen in how USC and LSU went with seemingly pie-in-the-sky hires (but pulled them off), yet UNC and Duke didn’t consider outside-the-family candidates.
In checking with sources, and referencing the contracts publicly available, when you add up the eight signed coaches’ salaries there’s more than $325 million committed on their contracts alone at the schools above. Depending on the men chosen to take over at Oklahoma and Notre Dame, you can probably add about another $90 million to get the commitment from 10 schools well over $400 million for 10 hirings.
That doesn’t even factor in the likes of Michigan State, which has a $95 million guarantee to Mel Tucker, who signed a 10-year deal. Penn State’s James Franklin also re-signed for $70 million. We’re at more than a half-billion dollars worth of investment in coaching at 12 schools in 2021.
“The 100% guarantee is insane to me,” said one agent who works in the college football space. “These ADs are scared. They don’t know what they’re doing. If you’re USC it makes sense to me. You had to do something. You’re in LA and you’re going to give Lincoln Riley $100 million. If you’re good, you get that $100 million back.”
Another industry source gave athletic directors much more credit for their savvy and knowledge of how this all works.
“This has been brewing for a couple of years and is a reaction to a couple of things,” the source said, citing the problematic timing of college football’s early signing period. What everyone can agree to is that there’s never been more buzz, pressure and/or uncertainty in coaching at the highest levels of both sports. We’re seeing that bear out with college football’s hiring cycle now.
At Oklahoma, athletic director Joe Castiglione is undertaking the unenviable task of having to hire a new coach in all three major sports: both basketball gigs and the football post opened this year. Other top 25-level jobs in each major men’s sport — Marquette and Utah in hoops; Washington and Virginia Tech in football — came open. When you take into account just how great these jobs are, and how seldom they come up, let alone within days or weeks of each other, it’s hard to envision a year like 2021 ever happening again. And yet …
“The timing of things is going to get more interesting if we go to a 12-team playoff and then there’s all these coaches who have a chance to be involved,” one source said. “These schools have s—loads of money and big-ass boosters and universities who believe this s— is important.”
While 2020 changed the world forever for endless reasons, it also was supposed to be the great economic reset for college athletic departments, many of which laid off employees or instituted furloughs. Instead, 2020 was a big scare — and 2021 became the belligerent response to that scare. In many ways, the coaching changes at the top of men’s basketball and football from this year will plot the stories in both sports for the next decade.
Iowa State, Minnesota the feel-good surprises of November
There are 18 undefeated teams. Arguably the two most surprising are Iowa State and Minnesota. Both were picked to finish last in their respective leagues. More than three weeks in, the schools are a combined 12-0 under first-year coaches. At Iowa State, T.J. Otzelberger has the Cyclones up from 113th at KenPom in the preseason to 72nd as of Wednesday morning. Even better: ISU is ranked 19th in this week’s AP Top 25, the program’s first appearance since the 2018-19 season.
It’s almost impossible for any power-conference team to triple its win total from the prior season before December arrives, but that’s what ISU did. The Cyclones were 2-22, fired Steve Prohm and hired Otzelberger, who has a relationship with ISU AD Jamie Pollard that goes back more than 15 years.
ISU beat Xavier (by 12) and Memphis (by 19) to win the preseason NIT last week, giving the Clones two wins over ranked teams which, at the time, was only matched by Duke, Gonzaga and Purdue — the top three teams in the country. To win both games so definitively was glaring. The Clones turned Memphis over 22 times and made the Tigers look like a sub-NIT team.
The six-game winning streak is the longest of Otzelberger’s six-year career as a head coach.
It’s happened, in large part, because Otzelberger has a roster full of transfers who were sold a vision that the staff hasn’t wavered on. Former Minnesota guard Gabe Kalscheur had 30 vs. Memphis and averaged 21.0-points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.0 steals in the NIT event. He’s complemented by another Big Ten transfer, former Penn State G Izaiah Brockington, who also had 30 points (his came against Xavier).
Otzelberger calls it “voluntary cooperation” from his team, and Kalscheur and Brockington have become the two key leaders Otzelberger was hoping they’d be back when he landed them in the spring.
“I’ve never been part of a group that’s embraced their role exactly the way we’ve outlined for them now,” he told CBS Sports. “We wanted him (Brockington) to come here and see himself as an alpha. Kalscheur and Brockington have set the tone every day for our program so we can have an example. We’re not just telling them, we’re showing them.”
This is new for Otzelberger, too. In his previous five seasons at South Dakota State and UNLV, he never won more than three of his first five games, and in four of those five seasons his team crested and played exponentially better in February than it did in November. Keeping freshman PG Tyrese Hunter on as well (he signed with Prohm and stayed despite plenty of skepticism he’d de-commit) has been another major factor.
If Iowa State beats Arkansas Pine Bluff Wednesday night, Otzelberger will be the third ISU coach in history to start 7-0.
Ben Johnson was a sleeper hire who’s working well for Minnesota so far.
Up at Minnesota, Ben Johnson was maybe the most surprising hire in power-conference basketball this year. The Gophers alum spent recent seasons at Xavier, but he also has experience as an assistant at his alma mater. The Golden Gophers have one player — Eric Curry, who was recruited by Johnson years ago — getting minutes this season who played for Minnesota last season. On Tuesday night, Minnesota beat Pitt 54-53 in an ugly game on the road — but Johnson will take any win any way so early into his career.
Johnson said the most illuminating contest that’s given an insight into this team’s potential hasn’t been any of the regular season games; it was a closed preseason scrimmage vs. Oklahoma.
“We have used that every game up to now,” Johnson said. “We were able to go on the road, play a well-coached team and it was the first time these guys saw this is what it takes. Every single possession.”
Tuesday’s victory was Minnesota’s first road conquest in 646 days
Bumps are sure to come, and probably soon (Minnesota’s next three games are at Mississippi State, vs. Michigan State and at Michigan), but I talked to Johnson Wednesday morning, and he was in great spirits over an unexpected undefeated November.
“I think what our guys have been able to do in a short period of time really speaks to their competitiveness and willingness to be coached,” he said. “The big challenge for us is we didn’t really have a summer and all these guys came from really good programs and learned to play a certain way for three, four, five years. Now you’re trying to say, ‘OK, fellas, here’s how we’re going to try to do it here.’ And it’s not that our way is better, it’s just different.”
At the center of it all is the big man, Curry, who believed he was done with his college career earlier this year. Two knee injuries and another to his foot led to him being a grad assistant for this team in the spring. Then he changed his mind and begged Johnson to let him play. Johnson resisted, then relented. It’s worked so far. As the only player on this team with previous experience in a Minnesota uniform, Curry is the emotional center. Him playing alongside five other seniors is the reason Minnesota’s yet to lose.
“We needed to figure out what’s the way to be competitive,” Johnson said. “We owe it to the guys on this team, but also make it for the class of ’22. They can come in early next year and make a difference. They were seniors, which was by design for this year, but they were the right seniors.”
Missouri Valley could expand to as many as 14
On Nov. 16, CBS Sports reported the Missouri Valley was seriously considering further expansion (Belmont was announced as a future member in September) and noted three schools that were heavily involved: Murray State, UT Arlington and Kansas City. I’ve since acquired more intel, including another school that’s in the midst of making an impassioned pitch: UIC.
The Valley is losing Loyola Chicago to the Atlantic 10 next year. Bringing Belmont aboard will keep the league at 10 schools, but it won’t stay that size for long. One source told CBS Sports the MVC is willing to go as large as 14 teams. Increasing from 10 to 12 is an inevitability, with Murray State and UT Arlington being the frontrunners.
“I keep hearing 14 schools,” one source said. “That’s what they’re interested in.”
UIC makes sense. It would maintain the Valley’s presence in its largest market (Chicago). The Flames would be considered a “budget-neutral” addition because schools travel to Chicago to play the Ramblers in Valley competition. And though it’s a mid-major, UIC is not small; the school has north of 30,000 undergrads and claims approximately 300,000 alumni in the greater Chicago area. Sources say UIC has had significant conversations with MVC commissioner Jeff Jackson and others at the Valley. School officials are attempting to get Valley representatives on UIC’s campus for a full-blown pitch before Christmas. UIC was previously considered but lost out to Loyola Chicago and Valparaiso when those schools joined in the past decade.
UIC will also be seriously examined because of its budget. The Flames, currently in the Horizon League, have by far the biggest athletics spending allotment of any school in their conference ($18.5 million, which even outpaces some Valley schools that also pay for football). Diversity is also a selling point; the Valley doesn’t have a school with nearly the amount of Black and Hispanic representation in its student body the way UIC does.
“It certainly brings a different dimension to the profile of the league than it’s ever had,” one source said.
The source added Missouri State isn’t expected to leave the Valley. This has been whispered about in recent months due to the school’s upgrades in football. Fact is, Missouri State president Clif Smart is on the Valley’s board for expansion. The school’s football stadium, last renovated in 2014, seats 17,500 and is “nowhere near FBS-ready,” according to a source. “It’s nowhere near a James Madison, which is going FCS to Sun Belt. Not in that scope. It would be an awfully big swing.”
And if Kansas City falls through (despite its prime location, skepticism remains from some over its financially ability to make the jump), Omaha is another potential candidate. The league is familiar with the city, what with Creighton once being a member and all.
Avoid playing OT vs. Florida State at all costs
Sure, Florida State had its clock cleaned at Purdue Tuesday night, but lucky for the Boilermakers the game never got to overtime. The NCAA record for most consecutive wins in overtime games is 12 and belongs to the Seminoles. The streak was extended in the past week when FSU managed to squeak out a come-from-behind home victory against Boston University on a put-back from freshman Matthew Cleveland. There’s a somewhat-random macro nature to overtime outcomes, so to win 12 in a row over the course of multiple seasons is extraordinary.
How extraordinary? I crunched the numbers. In order to determine the chances of a team winning x-number of consecutive OT games, you need to take the probability of that team winning each game as it’s forecast at the beginning of each overtime, then multiply all those percentages together and voila: you have your number. Per KenPom’s win probability graphs, FSU had a 50%-or-better chance in nine of its past 12 overtime games dating back to Jan. 13, 2018.
Here’s the absurdity of it all. FSU’s chances of exiting 12 consecutive overtime games with a win its pocket: 0.2%. That equates to 1-in-500 odds. Thirty-one FSU players were featured in those 12 wins. Florida State won those 12 games by an average of 4.8 points. The last time the Noles failed to win in an overtime game was almost six years back to the day: Dec. 2, 2015 at Iowa.
Never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never get involved in an overtime game against Leonard Hamilton.
• Three weeks in, my greatest concern for power-conference programs expected to make the 2022 NCAA Tournament resides with Oregon, Rutgers and Virginia, which are a combined 13-9.
• Duke’s loss Tuesday night at Ohio State means Purdue merely has to beat Iowa at home Friday to earn its first No. 1 ranking in program history. Most AP Top 25 appearances without being No. 1 in men’s hoops history: Maryland, Purdue, Utah, Minnesota and LSU, all of which have topped out at No. 2. (Data courtesy of College Poll Archive.)
• NCAA.com’s Andy Wittry ran the rosters of every team to discover that Jalen (or some variation on the name) is now the most popular in men’s college basketball. Michael, Jordan, Trey and Isaiah are next in line.
• While we still have not had a countable forfeit yet (those will only apply to intra-conference play, per each league’s rules), college basketball has lost more than half a dozen games due to COVID this season. Most recently: Georgia State, which was forced to cancel its Wednesday game vs. Tennessee State.
• There’d never been a player in the proud 50-year history of Indiana’s Assembly Hall to score at least 43 points in that building. Until Sunday. Trayce Jackson-Davis’ 43-point performance is the best. Indiana beat Marshall 90-79. He’s the first IU player to score at least 40 since 1994.
• A little more than three weeks (and nearly 1,350 games) into the season, the five best games so far:
1. Nov. 26: No. 5 Duke 81, No. 1 Gonzaga 81.
2. Nov. 24: No. 22 UConn 115, No. 19 Auburn 109 (2OT)
3. Nov. 24: No. 23 Florida 71, Ohio State 68
4. Nov. 15: Belmont 95, Furman 89 (OT)
5. Nov. 19: Arizona 82, Wichita State 78 (OT)
• I know Texas is opening a state-of-the-art arena in 2022, but it sure would be great if Chris Beard made a point to play one home game in old Gregory Gym on campus every season and make it a student-only thing. That’s what happened Monday night, and it looked marvelous.
• FYI: The NET rankings will debut in six days. Here’s one link for when they go live.
• Shoutout to Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis, who recently won his 800th Division I game. He’s one of just nine men’s coaches to do that, alongside Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins, Roy Williams, Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Eddie Sutton. Ellis and Huggins are the only ones not in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
• Look how far we’ve come. CBS just celebrated its 40-year anniversary of broadcasting college hoops. Here’s what it looked like back in ’81. Dominique!