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Potential Wake Forest Basketball Hires: The Mid-Major Tier (1/2)

Who are some of the hottest mid-major coaches out there who Wake could take a run at?

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NCAA Basketball: Lipscomb at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports


This is next installment of articles that Blogger So Dear will have exploring the candidates who could be the next Wake Forest head basketball coach. I solicited names from Twitter, friends, family, co-workers, and pretty much all other corners of the internet to compile a list of 23 coaches who are at least within the realm of possibility for our next hire.

The tiers are as follow:

  1. The Home Run Tier
  2. The Wes Miller Tier
  3. The Mid-Major Tier
  4. The Red Flag Tier

Most of these are self-explanatory titles, as they encapsulate most of the candidates who fall within it.

This article is the first of two articles that will look at the best mid-major coaches out there who Wake could possibly go after. All of these guys are having great years currently and most have either improved a program substantially, or taken over a good school and kept the vibes going.

I would also say that most of these guys have at least one big question mark, varying from sample size, to recruiting, or something else entirely.

Mid Major Tier (1/2)

Name School Age Overall Record NCAAT Appearances Year as HC 2014-2016 KP Average 2017-2019 KP Average 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 KenPom
Name School Age Overall Record NCAAT Appearances Year as HC 2014-2016 KP Average 2017-2019 KP Average 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 KenPom
Russell Turner UC Irvine 48 178-127 1 9 88 131 90 91 84 139 147 106
Casey Alexander Lipscomb 46 129-116 1 8 279 124 265 298 274 165 167 40
Craig Smith Utah State 46 97-60 0 5 218 89 219 216 143 81 42
Earl Grant Charleston 42 127-63 1 5 201 107 279 122 89 115 118
Kyle Smith San Fran 49 160-118 0 9 132 105 119 165 113 111 158 47

These aren’t listed in any preferential order, so let’s jump right in:

Russell Turner (UC Irvine)

This is a name that could prove to be very relevant in a couple months. Turner was an assistant coach at Wake Forest from 1994-2000 under Dave Odom and helped coach the Deacs to two ACC Championships (95-96) and one NIT title (2000). Following his time in Winston-Salem he went to Stanford, where he was an assistant for 5 years before moving on to the NBA, where he was an assistant for the Golden State Warriors for eleven years.

He has been the head coach at UC Irvine for the past nine years where he has compiled a 178-127 record, but just one NCAA Tournament appearance. Currently the Anteaters sit at 106th in KenPom, but was in the top 100 for a couple of seasons in 2014-15.

As you would expect, he plays a slow and methodical pace on offense, usually ranking in the 200+ in tempo. The biggest plus on him is his team’s ability to defend inside the three-point line incredibly well. They rank 1st in the nation currently in 2pt% allowed at 40.5%. His teams have finished in the top 10 nationally in the past four years, and finished 1st nationally in 2014.

Offensively it has been a struggle at times, so he is definitely a coach who hangs his hat on defense.

One big question is whether or not he wants to uproot his family and move back to the East Coast. His wife has two degrees from schools in California, and at age 48 he has two kids. That would be a big change to move across the country, especially since he has been out there for the past 20 years.

This is a name that Ron Wellman is familiar with, so if he is the one making the hire I would not be surprised at all to hear his name pop up in the search.

Casey Alexander (Lipscomb)

On the other end of the tempo spectrum is Casey Alexander, currently the head coach of Lipscomb. He is 129-116 in eight years of coaching the Bisons and has one NCAA Tournament appearance.

He has been a bit of a hot name in the past few weeks because of an 11-game win streak that propelled his team to 26th nationally in KenPom. They did fall on Wednesday at home to Liberty, so they are back to 40th, but that is still quite good for an Atlantic Sun team.

Alexander was hired to Lipscomb from Stetson after the 2013 season. He has ranked in the top ten in tempo the past three years and he has a commitment to forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. This year they have been especially good at crashing the boards defensively and limiting second chance opportunities. Their 21st national defensive efficiency ranking is very impressive.

When he inherited Lipscomb it was around 300th in KenPom and it took three years to get stability, with all those years also in the mid 200s, but 2017 saw a jump up to 165th and a 20-13 record. Last year he went 23-10 and won the Atlantic Sun to send Lipscomb to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

He is 46 years old and graduated from Belmont (Lipscomb’s rival). It would be interesting to see if he is possibly holding out for that head coaching gig when Rick Byrd retires, but he is going to be a big name this off-season.

His resume is fairly similar to Wes Miller and he’s achieved a better KenPom ranking than Miller ever has as well. There is a large difference, however, in getting a team into the top 50 vs. just the top 100.

His team this year has four seniors so it would a good time to make a leap to a bigger school after the season.

Craig Smith (Utah State)

This is a name that I had honestly never heard of until I started looking into some oddities in the top 50-100 of KenPom. Smith is in his first season as the head coach at Utah State after four seasons at South Dakota. He has hit the ground running as the Aggies are 42nd in KenPom with a 19-6 record overall and a 9-3 record in the Mountain West.

At South Dakota he went 79-55 with no NCAA Tournaments. he did lead the Coyotes to an final ranking of 81 in KP last season, which is no small feat.

He didn’t exactly inherit a great situation from Tim Duryea either in Logan, as the Aggies went 17-17 last season and really only returned two big time players in Sam Merrill and Quinn Taylor.

He sped things up a bit and has seen a huge leap in both offensive (42nd) and defensive efficiency (51st).

Smith is 46 years old and graduated from North Dakota. He has spent almost all of his time in the middle of the country to the Rockies. He was an assistant at North Dakota State, Colorado State, and Nebraska (under Tim Miles) before he got his first head coaching job at South Dakota.

He doesn’t have any ties to the ACC or the East Coast, but has shown a proclivity to improve teams right off the bat and get them into the top 100/50 of KenPom. That is something that could rejuvenate the Wake fan base pretty quickly if it translates to the major basketball level.

Earl Grant (Charleston)

He is the only coach on this list of coaches who I have seen in person, as I have spent the past two years down in Charleston, SC. This is his fifth season as the head coach at Charleston, compiling a 127-63 record. He has made one NCAA Tournament in five seasons at the helm.

The biggest thing to note aside from his success in the past three years (71-25) is that his teams are slow as molasses. This year they are up to 282nd nationally, but the past four full seasons are as follows: 323, 314, 335, 322.

Something worth noting though is that on the offensive side his team’s average possession length is in the 200’s, but the defensive average possession length is in the 340’s. That means the D is doing a great job of denying easy looks and preventing the ball from getting to where it needs to be.

Grant is from North Charleston and has been in/around this area for most of his life. He was an assistant from 2010-14 at Clemson before moving over to College of Charleston. He also spent some time under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. Given this, he may be content to stay down here.

Last year Charleston went 26-8 and won the CAA Tournament over Northeastern to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999 under John Kresse. The Cougars almost upset Auburn in a 13 vs. 4 game, inevitably falling 62-58.

The Cougars have seen a resurgence under Grant, improving from 279 his first year, to 122, to 89, and now at 115 this season.

His teams protect the ball very well and are usually very solid from the free throw line. Interestingly enough though his teams have a very bad assist rate percentage overall, meaning that a lot of points are scored on one-on-one matchups.

The Cougars lose Jarrell Brantley and Marquise Pointer after this year, but should return Grant Riller, who is one of the top players in the CAA.

Grant is going to get a high major look soon, and might be somebody Wake could look at after this season. It may just be exposure bias, but I like Grant a lot from what I have seen.

Kyle Smith (San Francisco)

Like the other Smith on this list, Kyle Smith of San Francisco is a name who crossed my mind for the first time during this season when perusing unusual teams on the KenPom top 100 charts.

He has been head coach of the Dons for three seasons and is one win away from his third straight 20 win season. Overall he has a record of 61-36 at SF and is currently ranked 47th in KenPom. While the Dons are at worst the third best team in the WCC this season, and split their two games against Saint Mary’s, they may unfortunately get the 4 seed in the tournament (behind Gonzaga, BYU, and Saint Mary’s) and have to face off against a Gonzaga buzz-saw in the semis of the WCC tourney.

Smith was the head coach at Columbia for six seasons before making the move across the country. He ran a slow-paced offense there, but has sped up a little bit at San Fran.

He thrives on disallowing opposing teams to shoot from behind the three point line, ranking in the top 55 for eight out of his nine seasons as a head coach in 3PA% (oddly enough the one year he didn’t, Columbia went 25-10 and they were ranked 284th nationally in this stat).

There was an excellent article in The Athletic last November that presented Smith as an extremely dedicated analytics “nerdball” coach who uses stats almost exclusively to determine playing time. If you have a subscription and a few minutes I highly recommened this article by Brian Bennett.

Aside from his time at Columbia he has primarily been on the West Coast. He spent 9 years as an assistant at San Diego, before a two year stint at Air Force, and a 9 year stay at St. Mary’s under current head coach Randy Bennett.

He is 49 years old and I obviously am drawn to his statistical/analytical approach to the game of basketball and think that exploiting these “inefficiencies” in processes could lead to a quicker turnaround for a struggling P5 program than other methods.

I think there are some questions though, as this is his first time getting into the top 100, but six of his years were at an Ivy League school with a very poor history of basketball. He is a big of an enigma and I’m not sure I want Wake to take a chance on him, but I will keep following him wherever he winds up because of my intrigue in his style and approach.