Let me start off by saying I love Cal. I think he's a great person and a damn good coach who has been responsible for one of the best runs Kentucky basketball history and whenever he does walk away he should be remembered as such.
That being said, the vibes around the program are...not great. Cal seems isolated and at war with the media, fans, and his AD and it feels like this thing is headed towards a nasty break-up. I think it can be salvaged but am growing increasingly pessimistic that neither side will make the changes necessary. I am rooting for it to work because I like Cal as a person and his failures as a coach have been largely exaggerated because traditional media and basketball purists didn't like him.
But what happens if it doesn't. Who should replace Cal? What characteristics should we be looking for? Personally I think being the coach at Kentucky requires more than most jobs. Winning is the most important factor but it probably takes more than that. You need a personality that fits the culture of Kentucky. So I'm going to create a list of guys I have my eye on as first tier candidates. I’ve kept the list to active college coaches. This is not a tactical breakdown (I don’t have that kind of time and this is already long enough lol) of their style rather just a general overview of their results, recruiting, and fit with Kentucky.
Thoughts- For me Muss is the clear first choice and perfect fit. He’s a hit on social media and has embraced the Arkansas job (which has it’s own unique challenges and fan base) while also proving he can coach. He’s older than you’d think based on the way he carries himself and 58 is probably a little older than I’d want otherwise but it’s worth the risk in my opinion. He’s got a 75% winning percentage at Nevada and Arkansas and made one 3 S16’s (one at Nevada) and two E8’s. I’d prefer a guy with some FF experience but again Muss is so far and away the clear first choice for me in terms of current college HC’s that I’ll overlook it.
In addition to college coaching Muss also has experience coaching basketball at all levels. He has experience in the G-League and coaching international ball plus three full seasons as a NBA HC (Golden State and Sacramento).
Recruiting- Can Muss get his guys? In short, yes. According to 24/7 Arkansas had the number 2 ranked class last year (including the composite ranking when you add transfers). He pulled in 3 5 star guys this year. In 2021 he only took one HS kid (a 4 star) and 4 transfers and finished 59th in the composite ranking, it appears that class was likely impacted heavily by COVID because it’s the outlier at Arkansas. In 2020 he finished 9th in the composite ranking with Moody being the highlight of the class and finishing as an All SEC player and SEC Freshman of the year before becoming the 14th pick in the draft.
Outlook- Personally I don’t love the odds of Muss being willing to leave Arkansas. He’s 58 and is rumored to love being in Fayetteville and the fans love him. He’s embraced their basketball tradition and they’ve backed him with facilities and he’s paid well (he’s in the top 10 of highest paid coaches at $4m a year). He also reportedly placed a special clause that allows him to leave without paying a buyout if he goes to San Diego which seems like he intends Arkansas to be his last stop before going back west but we’ll see. He’s the guy I’d most want but this doesn’t feel likely.
Thoughts- Next guy is Scott Drew and I think he’s a hell of a coach. When he took the Baylor job it was one of the worst jobs in high major jobs in the country. They were coming off the Dave Bliss scandal (the sanctions came in Drew’s 3rd year) at a place that traditionally spent no money on athletics and when they did it tended not to be on basketball. He changed the trajectory of the program and built it from scratch. He’s got a 64% winning percentage (all of it at Baylor except his first year as Valpo’s HC where he won the league and made the NIT) but that is weighed down by those early years at Baylor. He’s made only 3 E8’s, one FF, plus the one title (he had the best team in the country during the COVID year so there is a chance he would have gone back-to-back). He’s won the B12 (probably the best or 2nd best conference in basketball) in back-to-back seasons
Recruiting- Recruiting has been a little confusing under Drew and he’s pivoted a couple of times. To start at Baylor he had to be very good at identifying talent due to Waco being at the bottom of just about everything in CBB. After about a decade he started getting high level talent by taking advantage of the extensive talent in Texas. Rico Gathers, Perry Jones, Isaiah Austin, Taurean Prince, etc. headlined those classes but he really excelled at filling out squads with those gritty tweeners (at all positions) he built the program on. Recently he’s really used the portal while still appealing to the right elite talent. He grabbed Keyonte George last year and had the 23rd ranked HS class but 42nd in composite. In 2021 he had the 15th ranked composite class with one 5 star HS prospect. In 2020 it was 32nd.
Outlook- This one is less likely than Muss in my opinion. Drew has built a very good program from nothing and he’s a perfect fit for Baylor (and Waco). He’s a deeply religious man (with a deeply religious family) who embraced the challenges of building something special at Baylor because of the religious nature of the school. He’s getting brand new facilities and it feels like he’s there until he steps into an administrative role. There are also questions about if his culture can be replicated at any other school. He’s thrived on identifying his guys and the fans have supported that even during rough patches. Kentucky fans are not known for their patience and I remain skeptical that he’ll just abandon what he’s done at Baylor to achieve the quick results he’ll need to win at a new place.
Thoughts- I hesitate to mention him this early but I think he’ll be high on Mitch’s list if the time comes to consider a replacement. Let me start by saying that Chris is a good basketball coach and I think he can win some games. Does he win enough for Kentucky? No. He has a 66% winning percentage but has never won his league. Not at Gardner-Webb in the Big South, not at Butler in the Big East, and not at Ohio State in the B1G. He’s also only made it out of the first weekend once in 2017 with Butler where he was a 4 seed and beat a 13 and a 12 (MTSU upset Minnesota in the first round). That doesn’t feel good enough and he’s also not a dynamic personality. He is from Kentucky and is only 51 so he probably does understand what it takes but he feels very….Tubby-ish (which is basically what we have now with Cal and fans are furious). A guy who can win big if the conditions are right but is most likely going to be good not great.
Recruiting- He has shown some recruiting chops at Ohio State (which makes his results a little more concerning in all honesty). Last year he finished 8th in the composite. No 5 stars but solid 4 star guys (4 in the top 100). In 2021 he was 49th (a theme among all these names is the 2021 year seems to be heavily impacted by COVID and portal stuff) with one top 50 guy. In 2020 he was 48th with no top 100 guys. In 2019 he was 14th with 3 top 100 guys. In 2018 he was 27th In 2017 it was his first year at OSU he finished 24th with 2 top 100 guys.
Outlook- Holtmann is uninspiring and has some huge question marks but he honestly seems like the perfect Mitch hire. He’ll also likely be fairly cheap compared to most of the guys under serious consideration. If you squint hard enough you can kind of talk yourself into him winning big, he did develop guys like Keita Bates-Diop who was at OSU when he got there and is now in the NBA and it’s possible to believe that at Kentucky his recruiting will jump from being in the mid 20’s to being in the top 10/15 and that better caliber of player leads to more wins. You can also say that the B1G for most of his time there has been a knife fight and can wear you down, but the SEC is trending that way as well so I’m not sure that is a good argument in his favor.
Thoughts- Another guy I think Mitch will be high on is Brad Underwood. He wouldn’t be my first choice but I think I believe in him more than Holtmann. Problem is he’s already 59 and probably not won enough to make that worth it. He’s got extensive experience at the JuCo level and got a late start as a D1 HC. In 10 years he’s got a 68% winning percentage but only 59% at Illinois but to be fair they were a mess when he got the job and the portal didn’t really exist for quick fixes. He’s won his league 4 times, 3 of times at SFA in the Southland and once in the B1G. He’s never been out of the first weekend with one big upset at Illinois (one to a good Loyola Chicago team and the other he lost as a 4 seed to Houston who we know is excellent). He did take SFA to two separate upsets beating 5 seeded VCU in 2014 and 3 seeded West Virginia in 2016.
Recruiting- The recruiting at Illinois has been…solid. Cal realized this and took two of his assistants to be on his bench (possible Underwood coming could keep them since they’ve worked together before and presumably still have a good relationship). In 2022 Illinois finished with a top 10 composite class with 3 top 100 players (including former UK commit Skyy Clark) and 3 4 star transfers. In 2021 they finished 24th with just one top 100 guy but this is the COVID year and they lost two very good recruiters to Kentucky at the same time. In 2020 they finished 16th with 2 top 100 guys. In 2019 they finished 69th (nice) with just 1 top 100 guy (Kofi). 2018 he was 25th with Ayo being the lone top 100 guy. In his first year at Illinois he was 30th.
Outlook- I honestly have no idea where his head is at. He’s 59 and Illinois is a decent job in a good conference and paying him well (just signed an extension in 2021 that bumped his pay to $4m). Kentucky can certainly match that but without significant tournament success I’d be hesitant. I think he’s a tough SOB and could win at Kentucky and would win fans over after the initial disappointment but does he want to start over? I think it’s probably unlikely he leaves but he had no qualms with leaving Oklahoma State after one year for Illinois.
Thoughts- He’s back. 7 years ago he was seen as the heir apparent to Cal but then it all came crashing down (some of it his fault, but not all of it). The dude can coach ball and he’s won at both stops. He’s won 73% of his games at Xavier/Arizona combined and he’s won 8 combined regular season league titles. He’s been to 4 E8’s (one at Xavier) but does have some brutal losses as favorite in the E8 at Arizona. He’s currently back at Xavier this year and no surprise he’s winning. We’ll see how they do as Big East play gets ramped up but he just beat a top 5 team in UConn over the weekend and they’re 4-0 in league play.
Recruiting- A decade ago Miller was hyped as the perfect Cal replacement for two reasons, A.) he’s close with Cal and comes from the same area of the country. B.) he can recruit. From 2009-2020 Arizona reeled in elite talent with multiple top 5 classes and rarely dropped out of the top 10. He was even able to get some dudes during NCAA investigations (more on that later). The guy recruits his tail off. This year at Xavier (not a great place to recruit elite talent to) he got two top 100 guys.
Outlook- I like Sean Miller and is probably my favorite guy on this list but ultimately I think it would be hard to get him to Lexington unless the move happens soon. Not to mention we don’t know how Mitch will feel about the NCAA stuff. The elephant in the room is that Miller was embroiled in the FBI/NCAA nonsense. He was cleared and all of it fell on his assistant but I’m sure that will bother some people. Miller is a good coach, he’s a tough guy, and he can recruit. I suspect that Texas probably makes a run at him if they decide to move on from Beard but I also think Louisville might be interested if they move on from KP (I don’t expect that) as will Georgetown when they fire Ewing. As of right now Miller is my number one guy to replace Cal in terms of current college coaches but i tremains to be seen how his relationship with Cal might impact his willingness to replace him.
Thoughts- To be honest a year ago I wouldn’t have considered Dan Hurley for this list. But he’s got UConn rolling right now. Hurley has won 60% of his games but to be fair to him that record is likely skewed by taking over three reclamation projects. He started at Wagner in 2010 and after a rough first year (.500 in league play) he won 25 games and finished 2nd in the conference. That got him to Rhode Island which had been bad since the late 90’s when they had 3 or 4 NBA guys including Cuttino Mobley and Lamar Odom. They had not been to a NCAA tournament since 1999 until Hurley got them into the tournament in his 5th year in 2017. They made the field as an 11 seed and upset Creighton in the first round before losing a close game to 3 seed Oregon. The next season they won 26 games, won the A-10, and were a 7 seed in the tournament. They beat Oklahoma in the first round before losing to 2 seed Duke. He then took over a UConn program that was lost at sea after being cast to the American and were dealing with recruiting sanctions that saw their roster gutted and wins vacated under Kevin Ollie. They lost their traditional rivals and were poorly coached. This was before the portal allowed a quick fix to Hurley grinded for the first couple of years. He got them back in the Big East in his 3rd year and they’ve slowly improved. This year they are currently a top 10 team and appear to have the program back to where we’re used to seeing it.
Recruiting- His recruiting has improved as he’s settled at UConn (and their program got some stability). His first class was bad but coming off sanctions and stranded in the American that probably should have been expected. His 2019 class was 18th in the composite with 2 top 100 guys. His 2020 class had another 2 top 100 guys. In 2021 he pulled in a top 10 class with 4 top 100 guys. This past year he loaded up on the portal to really kick-start the program and only took 1 HS prospect but next year he has another 4 top 100 guys committed. It appears he at least understands recruiting enough to adjust to the level he’s at.
Outlook- I think Hurley could be had. UConn is a premier program but they probably don’t have the money to compete with Kentucky if we really wanted him as he makes under $3m a year. His buy-out was a little over $6m but I can’t find an update with his latest extension, I’d imagine that dropped a bit. Hurley is a northeast guy though and while I think his personality can be a good fit he has spent almost his entire life in that part of the country. Kentucky has had good success with coaches from the northeast but UConn might be the actual perfect fit for him and we all know you can win a title there.
I have other names but this thing has already sucked up a bunch of freetime on a holiday weekend. Would love to hear other names or opinions on coaches listed. Personally none of these names excite me and frankly no one is going to be the perfect blend of everything that Kentucky needed the way Cal was in 2009. It’s a shame things have gotten to the point where he feels this embattled but I don’t think it’s over for him. I do expect him to walk away in 2024 no matter how that season ends but that is no more than gut feeling based on the current climate. He’s still recruiting guys in the 2024 class and I think there is a scenario where he gets through this and stays at Kentucky another 5-7 years.
This was not written in an attempt to push him out but rather give a realistic outlook on the situation should he go. I intentionally didn’t mention guys Donovan or Jay Wright who I’m sure some fans will clamor for when the time comes (and I think both would get a call) because we all know their pedigree, it would just be a question of what they want.
If you’ve hung in this long I appreciate you and welcome any discussion about who you want to be considered or think will be that I didn't think of.