May 25, 2024

Dribble Handoff: Kentucky’s Mark Pope, Arkansas’ John Calipari among coaches at new schools thriving so far


College basketball’s coaching ranks underwent a significant makeover during the 2024 firing/hiring cycle, as 14 major conference jobs changed hands, including some of the top positions in the sport. New faces are at places like Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio State and USC, just to name a few.

Making any assessments about how new coaches are faring would have required patience a decade ago. But in the transfer portal era, the data starts rolling in early on which first-year coaches are off to good starts. When a coaching change happens, it’s safe to assume a mass exodus of players is coming with it.

That leaves new staffs with no choice but to start nearly from scratch and pull together a roster in a matter of months. That process has been playing out across the sport this spring and will continue for several more weeks. While most of the new coaches don’t have their 2024-25 teams finalized just yet, they have all established a foundation, at minimum.

For this edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are picking the new power conference head coaches they believe are doing the best job so far.

Jake Diebler, Ohio State

The only coach in his first year at a new school with a team ranked in the top 15 of the Top 25 And 1 is Diebler. So I suppose Ohio State’s coach has to be my answer to the question asked.

I’ve quickly become a believer.

First, Diebler was able to keep leading scorer Bruce Thornton from entering the transfer portal and leaving despite rampant tampering throughout the final weeks of the season. That was a big victory for the Buckeyes. After that, Diebler secured commitments from heralded transfers Meechie Johnson (South Carolina), Aaron Bradshaw (Kentucky), Micah Parrish (San Diego State) and Sean Stewart (Duke) to remake Ohio State’s roster in very little time. Assuming Thornton starts next season alongside those four transfers, that’s a really nice first five that should have the Buckeyes in the 2025 NCAA Tournament after missing the sport’s signature event in each of the past two years. — Gary Parrish

Dusty May, Michigan

As of Thursday morning, Michigan has the third-best transfer class this cycle, according to EvanMiya.com. May managed to bring aboard two high-quality bigs (Danny Wolf, Vlad Goldin), which I think will prove to be the difference in getting Michigan into the 2025 NCAA Tournament. He’s also added a nice piece in the backcourt by way of (gasp!) Ohio State in Roddy Gayle, plus fellow guards Rubin Jones (North Texas) and Tre Donaldson (Auburn). 

To top it off, they brought in transfer Sam Walters (Alabama), who was seldom-used as a freshman but could emerge as one of the stronger stretch 4s in college hoops next season. He also hired maybe the best top assistant of any new coach in a new spot this cycle in Mike Boynton. May inherited a program that was in dysfunction and has Michigan, in my estimation, lined up to be a top-25 team next season. And what’s more, I don’t think he’s done. One more notable transfer could be on the way in the next two weeks.  — Matt Norlander

John Calipari, Arkansas

We’ve gotten so used to Calipari cleaning up on the recruiting trail and been blinded in part by his recent postseason failures that pushed him away from Kentucky so much that what he’s doing right now in his first season at Arkansas is somehow getting hardly the appreciation it deserves. He’s reeled in three top-30 recruits who were previous UK recruits, added two important UK transfers in Adou Thiero and Zvonimir Ivišić, and also addressed needs in the backcourt and frontcourt with Johnell Davis and Jonas Aidoo from FAU and Tennessee, respectively. 

If any other high major coach in his first year on a new job did as well as Calipari has done in the last six weeks we’d be building statues. What Calipari does with the roster and whether he can parlay this success into a deep postseason run is ultimately the biggest question, but he’s assembled the talent and experience to make a significant splash in Year One with the Hogs. — Kyle Boone

Eric Musselman, USC

There isn’t a massive name in USC’s transfer haul. But there are nine solid additions who should give Eric Musselman a chance to compete in Year 1 as the Trojans transition from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten. Eight of them have played at least three college seasons, and the one who hasn’t is Desmond Claude from Xavier, who is arguably the most talented of the bunch. Claude averaged 16.6 points per game during a breakout sophomore season with the Musketeers. 

All of the transfers averaged double figures at their previous schools, and there is plenty of size and versatility in the group. USC limped to a disappointing 15-18 (8-12) mark in Andy Enfield’s 11th and final season with a team that featured highly touted freshmen Isaiah Collier and Bronny James. Musselman’s first squad likely won’t have those big names, but it will have the veteran DNA and scoring punch that the 2023-24 Trojans lacked. — David Cobb

Mark Pope, Kentucky

A few days after Pope officially got the job at his alma mater, the final scholarship player from the 2023-24 roster entered the transfer portal. Rebuilding a roster from scratch is no easy task, but Pope has done a masterful job at it thus far. The biggest weakness of last year’s Kentucky team was defense. Pope helped shore up that unit by landing San Diego State guard Lamont Butler and Drexel‘s Amari Williams — both players who have won their conference’s defensive player of the year award. Pope also landed Dayton‘s Koby Brea, who ranked as one of the best pure shooters in college basketball. 

The Wildcats still have some holes to fill on the roster, but it’s hard to not be impressed with what Pope has done in such a short period. — Cameron Salerno





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