I apologize for posting this much later than I normally do, but the day job has been taking up most of my time, and I wanted to wait and see how the roster moves would shake out.
Before we get into basketball, I want to Congratulate our Softball team on an amazing season! They were a lot of fun to watch, and fought hard to the end before finally being eliminated in the semi-finals of the WCWS last night. They were under-rated all year and badly under seeded in the tournament, but I expect they will be a national championship contender again next year. Now, on to hoops.
2018-19 Season Re-Cap
It was another up and down season that ended with a first round NIT loss and the dismissal of Coach Avery Johnson. There were some terrible losses including a blow out to Northeastern, and blowing huge leads at home to Georgia State and Texas A&M. There was some hope after we upset Kentucky and played Tennessee to the wire on the road. Unfortunately, another poor stretch in February left us on the wrong side of the bubble. Mercifully, the season came to an end with a loss to 16 point underdog Norfolk State in the NIT.
Avery Johnson left the program in much better shape than he found it. He recruited well and promoted the program, restoring a lot of fan interest. In the end, he just couldn't adapt his coaching style to the college game.
The Search and Nate Oats
Greg Byrne ran a very efficient and professional coaching search, unlike the unmitigated crap show Bill Battle put us through the last time we went through this process. It is rumored that he wanted to hire Rick Pitino, but could not get approval from the Board of Trustees. Byrne made it very clear in his first press conference that we would not be taking a chance on anybody with NCAA baggage. He also warned us that agents will sometimes float names to try to generate interests for their clients. I think we saw a bit of this with the Andy Kennedy, Kelvin Sampson, and even John Pelphrey rumors that were circulating. I am very curious as to what happened with Thad Matta, as several fairly well respected writers were reporting he was going to be the man right up until the point that Coach Oats was officially announced. Many have speculated that Matta doesn't really want to get back into coaching but needs to search for employment to maintain his buy out from Ohio State, but I'm not really buying that. If anything, it seems to me Ohio State would have a stronger case for ceasing his payments if they can prove he is turning down opportunities like Bama and UGA. I have a theory that we may have leaked that info to put some pressure on Coach Oats to make a quicker decision. In any event, it doesn't really matter how we got here, the Nate Oats era has begun!
Coach Oats promises to bring an up tempo style with a focus on defense and three point shooting. His four out offense led to back to back NCAA tournament appearances, including an upset of Arizona, and a top 25 ranking in Buffalo. Originally from Michigan, where he was a successful high school coach, he has ties to both the Midwest and North East.
As is the case with all up and coming coaches from mid-majors, the big questions will be: 1) Can he recruit at the level necessary to win in the SEC and 2) Can he adjust to the higher level of competition. It's obviously way too early to make a determination, but the early returns have been mostly good.
He convinced Kira and Petty stay, and also signed Coach Johnson's previous commits of Gary, Forbes, and Shackleford. He's signed a couple of PG transfers in James Bolden from West Virginia and former McDonald's All American Jahvon Quinerly from Villanova. Unfortunately, we lost Trendon Watford to LSU, but signed a Juco small forward in James Rojas instead. Coach Oats is also bringing his former Buffalo commit Raymond Hawkins, a 3 star center from NV.
Looking Ahead- Next year
One thing I like about Coach Oats is that he seems very forthcoming in his interviews. There's not a lot of coach-speak or attempts to manage expectations. He seems genuinely, pleasantly surprised with the talent already on the roster, and has openly stated that he expects to make the NCAA tournament in year one. Any time there is a change in coaches and systems there will be an adjustment period, but if everyone buys in and the team can develop some chemistry, I think it could be an exciting year. As I stated above, Coach Oats is inheriting a pretty talented roster that was only one spot out of the tournament last year. A good first season would go along way toward legitimizing Coach Oats in the eyes of local prospects. We will know fairly early in the season how good we can be, as a November trip to the Bahamas could see us matched up with the likes of Gonzaga, North Carolina, or Michigan.
Overall State of the Program
I'm going to be brutal here. We've been mostly irrelevant for the better part of three decades now. Anthony Grant, Avery Johnson, and the other failed coaches before them are not the problem. They are a symptom of the problem. We just hired a coach who was coaching high school basketball five years ago. We may or may not eventually get around to renovating our antiquated arena. Meanwhile other schools like Ole Miss and auburn (who just went to a final four, by the way) are playing in brand new facilities, and the rest of the conference has landed established, proven coaches. If we are honestly ranking the SEC coaches based on what they've accomplished in the college game to date, we would probably be next to last (thank God for Vandy). The reality is that mid-major coaches are much more likely to turn out like Stan Heath than Billy Donovan. Regardless, even if he is successful, unless something changes at the top and our administration makes a commitment to the sport, the best case scenario is he that he does so well we lose him to a blue-blood and are back in the same position.
Meanwhile there is still a lot of uncertainty in the college basketball world with the FBI trials wrapping up. The fact of the matter is that unless the NCAA decides they want to cook their golden goose, not much is going to happen to the likes of Bruce Pearl and Will Wade. As long as Pearl is at auburn, Wade at LSU, Howland at $tate, and Penny in Memphis, it's going to be very difficult for us to recruit at the level necessary to compete.
All of that said, there is still reason for hope and optimism. Ronald Steele pointed out on this very blog a couple of years ago that our teams had a couple of major problems. I'm paraphrasing because I'm too lazy to go back and find the exact quote, but basically he said 1. We don't have an identity. Successful teams have a system and implement it well, and 2. Our players don't have the freedom to make plays. Coach Oats teams certainly have an identity, always ranking near the top in tempo, defensive efficiency, and three point attempts. His comments seem to indicate that he doesn't want anybody to be afraid to shoot. I think this team is going to be fun to watch, and will have a chance to be successful.
The roster is set and we should have scheduling news soon. Otherwise, enjoy the off-season. November will be here soon enough.