As the NCAA Tournament reaches its second weekend the LSU basketball coaching search is heating up. This is part two of our three part series looking at potential hires for the Tigers. You can read part 1, targets from Power 5 conferences, here. Tomorrow, I'll highlight three out-of-the-box candidates that LSU should look at.
In this article I highlight three viable candidates from mid-major programs, and also tell you which 'hot' mid-major names you should discount as the search winds down. While LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said he was looking for an established winner in his season ending press conference, the Tigers have been linked to a few candidates from smaller schools. These coaches would bring more youth, and potentially higher upside than a re-tread hire from a bigger school.
The rankings below are ordered by who is the most likely candidate to get the job, not necessarily who I think would make the best Tiger coach.
Mid Major Conference Candidates
1. Will Wade, head coach at VCU
Full disclosure, I had Will Wade further down this list prior to the weekend. However with reports saying that Alleva and deputy AD Eddie Nunez flew to Virginia to meet with Wade he rocketed to the #1 spot on this list. Wade is two years into his tenure at Virginia Commonwealth, having the undeniably difficult task of replacing local legend Shaka Smart, who left for the Texas Longhorns. Wade has continued the success of his predecessor, making back to back NCAA Tournament appearances while going a combined 51-20. He previously coached at Chattanooga for two seasons, going 40-25 with one CIT appearance. Wade was a hot name for the Vanderbilt coaching job last year before Bryce Drew took that job, and at only 34 years of age he is quickly becoming one of the hottest mid-major coaching candidates in the country. Optimists will point to his youth, his three year run of success, and untapped ceiling as reasons the Tigers should hire him. He may indeed get the job, but I'd be wary if Tiger fans expect Wade to truly rebuild the LSU program. He won the past two years at VCU with mostly Smart's recruits, and since he only has a couple short two year coaching stints on his resume nobody truly knows if he can recruit at a high level in a major conference. Plus, would Wade's hire truly excite LSU boosters and alumni? Wade would quickly have to answer skeptics in all of these areas and more.
2. Kermit Davis, head coach Middle Tennessee State
Davis has been at MTSU for 15 seasons, and the question is would he really want to leave? He is 57 years old and likely could have one final stop in his career, if he wants it. Davis has slowly turned the Blue Raiders into a true mid-major powerhouse, with 24+ wins in five of their last six seasons, including three NCAA Tournament appearances. If there ever was a time he should leave, this is it. There were recent reports that he was negotiating a contract extension with the school, but LSU would still have time, and the resources, to lure Davis away. He may not be the true long term answer for the Tigers, but he would be perhaps the best mid-major option to truly rebuild the program before he eventually gives way to a younger successor.
3. Randy Bennett, head coach at St. Mary's (CA)
I debated moving Bennett to the 'keep an eye on' category below, but he just makes too much sense for the Tigers. Will he be the next LSU head coach? Probably not. Yet Bennett would likely be the best possible hire that Joe Alleva could make. If you're not familiar with Bennett he has spent the last 16 years building up the St. Mary's program from a laughingstock into one of the best programs, mid-major or otherwise, on the west coast. His resume includes ten consecutive 20+ win seasons, all with a post-season berth, and five NCAA Tournament appearances. Oh, and he's somehow done all of that in the shadow of the West Coast Conference behemoth that is Gonzaga. What he has done at St. Mary's is truly remarkable, and all signs point to the 54 year old as finally wanting to get out from under the Zags shadow. Can LSU lure him away from the West Coast to the Baton Rouge? They would need to offer him a very long term contract, likely in the range of $3+ million a year for 6+ seasons, with heavy buy outs. He wants security if he leaves the Gaels. One of the most promising aspects of a possible Bennett hire are his connections to the Australian basketball academy pipelines, a resource that he has used to churn out premier talent year after year. Those kinds of outside-the-box recruiting talents would be a huge asset to LSU, a program that will always be in the recruiting shadow of Kentucky in the SEC. I would be extremely disappointed if Joe Alleva didn't make any attempt to lure Bennett to Baton Rouge.
Keep an eye on: 1. Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State: If LSU fails to land one of their top targets, Forbes is an intriguing prospect with great success at his previous two stops, albeit short ones. He's also only 51. 2. Joe Dooley, FGCU: Similar to Forbes, if LSU strikes out on its top targets Dooley seems like a good option.
Hot Names, Unlikely Hires 1. Greg Marshall, Wichita State: Marshall makes $3 million per season with the Shockers. LSU would likely have to significantly increase that to get serious interest from Marshall. 2. Archie Miller, Dayton: If he is saying no to Indiana, he probably won't even take a call from LSU.
The NCAA Tournament has finally tipped off across the country, but the only madness at LSU is coming in the form of fans' ire over the direction of the program under Athletic Director Joe Alleva who will be hiring a coach for the third time during his tenure at the school.
Yet, college basketball is a rare sport where fortunes can truly be turned around quickly with the right hire. It's not always about getting the 'biggest name', plenty of programs have risen on the backs of previously anonymous coaches.
Although it's hard to believe now, not many casual basketball fans knew about Mike Krzyzewski when he was hired by the Duke Blue Devils in 1980. Coach K had never made an NCAA tournament during his five years as head coach at Army, and he went a dismal 9-17 during his final season there before being hired by Duke.
There are many similar stories like Gonzaga's Mark Few, Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, Notre Dame's Mike Brey, and even Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. These coaches were no-names before getting the head job at their current schools, jobs they haven't surrendered for decades and counting. Frankly, why should they? If college basketball has taught us anything it's that programs can be built from the ashes up to perennial title contenders. You no longer need to be hired by a handful of programs to have a realistic shot at sustained long term success.
The LSU basketball program, and vacant head position, doesn't have to be any different. It's hard to write the history of college hoops without LSU with legendary names like Pistol Pete Maravich and Shaquille O'Neal, and a run to the Final Four that captivated a nation in 2006 with Glen 'Big Baby' Davis.
While Alleva wants to lure a top-rung coach to Baton Rouge, realistically that's not likely to happen. However there are intriguing names from Power 5 conferences and mid-major programs as well as a few out of the box prospects. In this three part series we will take a look at each category, and give three big names to watch, and three names that are hot-yet-unlikely to end up in Purple & Gold.
Top Power 5 Conference Candidates
1. Tom Crean, former head coach at Indiana, Marquette
Crean was fired today at Indiana, perhaps not a surprising move but one that surely raises some eyebrows outside of Bloomington. Crean rebuilt a program that had collapsed to the basement of the Big Ten and made the NCA A Tournament four times in nine seasons with the Hoosiers, including three appearances in the Sweet 16. Yet, the administration at Indiana wants to return that program true year-in-year-out national title contention and felt Crean couldn't get over the hump. Perhaps the expectations at Indiana are too high, but other schools with coaching vacancies will certainly benefit from Crean's firing. LSU offers him a relatively soft landing spot with low expectations, something he will surely relish after a decade dealing with overzealous Hoosier boosters and administration (cough, cough, LSU football, cough). Couple in his tenure at Marquette, and Crean had turned two programs into consistent winners with occasional national title aspirations. in Marquette would bring immediate national recognition, cache' and optimism to a program that sorely needs all three. Plus, he is relatively young at 50 years old and could conceivably spend the next two decades patrolling the Tiger sidelines. This would be an unmistakably fantastic hire by the Tigers.
2. Mark Gottfried, former head coach at North Carolina State, Alabama
Most everything above about Crean can also apply to Gottfried. In addition, Gottfried would bring his familiarity with the SEC and southern recruiting to LSU. He coached at Alabama for 11 exceptional years, going 210-131 with five NCAA Tournament appearances, including a run to the Elite 8 in 2004. Add in three NIT trips and Gottfried led the Crimson tide to the postseason in all but three of his seasons in Tuscaloosa. If Crean's firing at Indiana was a bit of a head scratcher, then Gottfried's dismissal was down right shocking. He took North Carolina State to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first four seasons, making the Sweet 16 twice. His squad's stumbled to a 31-34 combined record the past two seasons, but nobody should mistake NC State for other in-state programs. His six year tenure with the Wolfpack, when looked at in whole, was highly successful. A Gottfried return to the SEC makes a ton of sense, and LSU offers the perfect landing spot.
3. Chris Collins, current head coach at Northwestern
Collins name has skyrocketed towards the top of most coaching searches the past few weeks, and will only be enhanced by his team's continued run in the NCAA tournament which, by the way, is Northwestern's first ever trip to the big dance. That alone could be the headline on almost any resume. He's also from a big-name basketball family. His father, Doug, coached and played in the NBA and was a constant presence on NBA television broadcasts the past decade. Unlike Crean or Gottfried, a Collins hire would offer a little bit more unknown for the Tigers. That's both good and bad. While the former duo have likely shown their ceiling to be consistent NCAA tournament appearances yet rare true title contention, nobody knows yet with Collins. Perhaps he could be the next Tony Bennett, Sean Miller, or Brad Stevens. Yet, this seems like the least-likely hire of the three we outlined today. Collins seems to be a bit too 'hot' of a name right now for LSU to land.
Hot Names, Unlikely Hires 1. Mike Bray, Notre Dame: This is the Jimbo-to-LSU redux. Despite the fantasy of many LSU boosters and 'sources' Bray isn't leaving Notre Dame for LSU. 2. Sean Miller, Arizona: See above. You aren't prying Miller away from Tucson unless your Duke, UNC, or Kentucky. 3. Scott Drew, Baylor: This seems like a lateral move for Drew. A bigger offer will come for him.
This continues our four part series on position groups the Saints are targeting in Free Agency. Check out our Saints Free Agent HQ for breakdowns of the DE,G, and CB targets for the team.
The linebacker position, much like the Saints need at defensive end, is nearly a critical 'must have' in free agency. It wouldn't be hard to argue that this is the position with the biggest void in talent on the team.
Hau'oli Kikaha showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie season before being sidelined all of 2016 with an injury, and Craig Robertson proved to be a valuable pick up in 2016 free agency, providing solid contributions at all three linebacker spots.
The rest of the group? It's hard to find much optimism. Danelle Ellerbe has been injury prone in his two seasons with the team. Former first round pick Stephone Anthony barely saw the field last season, a dreadful sign for a player they thought would be a fixture at MLB for the next decade.
This is a position that the Saints much address now if they expect to contend in 2017. While the draft provides from intriguing options throughout the first two rounds, there are plenty of players in free agency that would immediately transform the team's linebacking corps.
Dont'a Hightower - New England Patriots – 26 years old
Hightower is perhaps the Saints biggest target in all of free agency. He is a versatile linebacker, rushing the passer on nearly 30% of his snaps while still being extremely valuable in both pass coverage and run defense. In short, he is one of the most valuable assets on the entire NFL free agent market this season. It's likely the Patriots won't offer him the money other teams can, so unless Hightower takes less money to stay on the league's best team he will sign elsewhere. Why not New Orleans?
Zach Brown - Buffalo Bills - 27 years old
Brown was a solid contributor to an underperforming Buffalo defense in 2016. He put together his best year as a pro ith 149 tackles, 4 sacks, and 11 tackles for loss. Brown would bring a great veteran presence to the locker room, and you could count on solid contributions at any one of the linebacker positions. That versatility, and stability, makes him a prime target for many linebacker needy franchises. However, his best fit would be a role player alongside a true impact playmaker at MLB. The Saints don't have that yet, so if they sign Brown they would need to sign or draft other players to fill that role.
Lorenzo Alexander – Buffalo Bills – 33 years old
Alexander is almost the perfect antithesis to a reliable, and young, Zach Brown. Not that Alexander isn't good. He's coming off the best season of his 10 year career, at age 33 nonetheless, making a run at the league's sack title with 12.5. His age, and history, makes it unlikely that Alexander would be called on to be an every down back wherever he signs. His best role would be a nickel package edge rusher on a team with linebacker depth. That isn't the Saints, so while his 2016 sack total will catch most people's eye, it's unlikely the Saints would see him as a good fit unless his market value plummets to true bargain territory. Still, if it's late March and he's still available, and the Saints still have cap space, this could be an intriguing target.
Gerald Hodges – San Francisco 49ers – 26 years old
Hodges carved out a nice role in San Francisco as a run stopping inside linebacker that has developed into an average coverage guy. The big upside here is his age. At only 26 years old he is just entering his prime and still has upside. Hodges is exactly the kind of mid-level free agent that Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have typically gone after at the position in free agency.
The best thing I can say about Gerald Hodges (51) is that he's a pretty sure tackler. But his instincts are a shade off. He's more of a SLB pic.twitter.com/rwzwFMTWFk
Kevin Minter – Arizona Cardinals – 26 years old
Many people, especially in Arizona, try to paint Minter's tenure with the team as a disappointment. Perhaps they expected the former second round pick to develop into a star, which he hasn't, but his last two seasons have been very productive. Minter had 94 tackles in 2015, and 81 in 2016. He also posted his career high sack total at 2.5 in 2016. A young player with still plenty of upside, Minter should get a prove-it type of one or two year deal from a team with a need at linebacker.
This continues our four part series on position groups the Saints are targeting in Free Agency. Check out our Saints Free Agent HQ for breakdowns of the LB, G, and CB targets for the team.
It's a need for every NFL team, yet demand continually outpaces supply. Defensive Ends, or perhaps more appropriately pass rushers, are perhaps the most valued asset right now in the NFL outside of franchise quarterbacks. As such, teams aren't letting the premier players at that position get to free agency without resigning or franchising them.
As an example, the three most prolific rushers who were to enter Free Agency this year were all franchised by their teams. Chandler Jones of Arizona, Melvin Gordon of San Diego, and Jason Pierre-Paul will all play at least one more year with those clubs before hitting the open market. It's a smart move by those front offices. Yes you are paying a high price, and in Pierre Paul's case perhaps even overpaying, for an every down edge rusher but that's the market value right now and for the forseeable future.
With those 'big three' names no longer availble the pool of edge rushing free agents has gotten a little bit shallow. However, there are a few premier guys left, and if the Saints are looking for mid-level value at the position there are quite a few players they could target. Here's a look at a few guys the Saints like will, and should, target.
Nick Perry - Packers - 27 years old
Perry is an interesting case. He had his most productive season yet in 2016 with 11 sacks but there are concerns about the production before his contract year. He never exceeded four sacks during his four prior seasons in the league. However, he wasn't the primary pass rusher on those pervious teams with defensive coordinator Dom Capers devising schemes around uber-rushers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. Perry is still young and in his prime. He is, in my view, the premier rusher still available on the market. With the current deluge of cap space around the league Perry is going to get paid, likely overpaid, for what his value was in his contract year. That's top market value. If the Saints were to open up the checkbook for one player on the market this year, this should be him.
Jabaal Sheard - New England Patriots - 27 years old
Sheard is the definition of mid level value at this position. He's not a star. Your fantasy football loving friends have likely never heard of him. But he was an exceptionally solid addition to the Patriots roster the past two seasons with 13 combined sacks. He was a contributor for the Browns before that as well, averaging just under six sacks per year during his four seasons with Cleveland. If the Saints deem Perry too expensive they should target Sheard as a value signing with potential upside at only 27 years old.
Charles Johnson - Carolina Panthers - 31 years old
Will the Panthers let their most productive pass rusher of the past half-decade walk away? GM Dave Gettleman has shown he will not overpay to keep players on his roster. Ash Josh Norman, Jared Allen, or DeAngelo Williams. Yet Johnson seems to be a different case. He played for only $3 million last season, a bargain-basement one year deal for a still-productive end. If Johnson is truly available, and he may not be (see the crypic Tweets sent today by Johnson indicating a deal with Carolina may get done) the Saints should jump at stealing him from their division rival.
Alex Okafor - Arizona Cardinals - 26 years old
Okafor isn't a big name, and likely will never be. But he is young, will come cheap, and has proven he can be a solid situational pass rusher. He likely wants a shot at becoming an every down player and the Saints may be a teams that can give him that shot, either opposite of Cam Jordan or as a converted edge rushing OLB. Think of him as Bruce Irvin lite, with quickness in his first step and the length (6'4") to disrupt the interior. He recorded eight sacks in 2014, but struggled with just 5.5 his last two seasons combined. This is just the type of player that the Saints should take a shot on at this position if Perry and Sheard are gone. . .young guys who have shown flashes of excellence but will be undervalued by the market due to inconsistent production.
DeMarcus Ware - Denver Broncos - 34 years old
The future Hall of Famer was a major part of the dominant Dever defenses since signing there in 2014. However his production has steadily dropped as he aged, falling from 11 sacks his first year witht the Broncos to 7.5 in 2015 and four last season. The other factor for Ware is he likely only wants to play on a true contender during his twilight years. Does he view New Orleans as one of those franchises? Consider this a long shot.