"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, April 04, 2008

Exclusive: Jonah Keri on the Marquette Coaching Search

Fresh of our Q&A with Mike DeCourcy, it is our pleasure to welcome another Exclusive Q&A to Cracked Sidewalks. Today's Q&A is with Jonah Keri, who contributes to the New York Sun as their college basketball writer. If you aren't familiar with the NY Sun, it's actually a little gem of sports coverage that also includes contributions from John Hollinger, Tim Marchman, Aaron Schatz and Steven Goldman. When not covering college basketball, Mr. Keri also contributes as a baseball columnist for ESPN.

We first became familiar with his writing when he published an interesting article on Inconsistent Teams, which had coverage of Marquette. The stats-driven coverage reminded us of our own analysis of Marquette as a High Risk Stock. Several email exchanges later, Mr. Keri was kind enough to also answer some of our questions and bring his perspective to the Marquette Coaching search as well.

What do you think are the most important criteria Marquette will need to consider for the next coach?

JK: Someone committed to continuity. While Marquette obviously plays in an elite conference, some of the best situations I've seen in the college game reside among the top mid-majors. At Butler, for instance, Brad Stevens did a great job in his first season as head coach. He made a few tweaks of his own, but mostly, he followed the blueprint set forth by his predecessor and mentor Todd Lickliter. If/when Stevens leaves one day, you get the feeling that Stevens' successor will likely be a well schooled top Butler assistant. There's a lot to be said for building a winning system, so that if the next Marquette coach gets wooed by a glamour program a few years down the road, it won't leave the program grasping for answers.

In your opinion, which coach would be the best fit for the job?
JK: Tony Bennett, to me, is one of the top five coaches in the country. With a number of his top seniors graduating from Washington State this year, and the Bennett ties in the state of Wisconsin, I'd make a big run at him. There are any number of terrific mid-major coaches out there too. Would Bob McKillop consider leaving Davidson after their Cinderalla run? I'd want to find out, because he does a great job both of running a motion offense and getting great performance from a defense that's lacking in athleticism. I think I may have just described Bo Ryan, actually.

Marquette has a lot going for it (Big East, great facilities, commitment to pay large dollars), but coaching searches are always less fruitful than fans want. To what extent will MU be able to attract a top candidate?
JK: Well I thought Tom Crean was a pretty good coach for as long as he lasted at Marquette, for what it's worth. I think a lot of how the search goes will depend on how many other plum jobs are out there. This isn't like last off-season, where Tubby Smith's departure from Kentucky started a chain reaction of movement to attractive coaching gigs. Marquette could be a prime destination this time. If that happens, there's no reason the school can't get someone very good.

Buzz Williams, the ex-UNO coach and current MU assistant, is a hot name on the message boards because the feeling is he could stop the bleeding. Hiring from within paid dividends for Pitt with Jamie Dixon, do you see any parallels here?
JK: I'm absolutely a fan of hiring from within, if a strong candidate exists. And yes, with Tyshawn Taylor reportedly bolting and potentially more recruits thinking about it, getting a handle on things quickly makes a lot of sense. At the same time, if there's a better candidate out there who may require a little more time and wooing, it might make sense to be a little patient, or as patient as Marquette can be without triggering a mass exodus. Hypothetically, if they convinced someone of Bennett's ilk to sign on, that might be as attractive--maybe even more attractive--to recruits than hiring Buzz Williams or another assistant. With that said, no one knows what's in the hearts and minds of these recruits better than they do. Marquette's administration would do well to reach out to the incoming class and see what they're thinking, how patient they're willing to be, etc.

One of the best aspects of the Big East is that the BE Champion should be considered a strong candidate to also be the national champion. However, it's clear that one motivator for Crean to move to IU was the ability to attract better recruits and contend for that same NCAA championship. To what extent do you think Marquette will be able to contend for the Big East and NCAA Championship?
JK: If Dominic James and Jerel McNeal stay, and most of the recruiting class keeps their commitments, Marquette's looking pretty darn good for next year. Indiana loses D.J. White and probably Eric Gordon too. Indiana will always attract top talent. But for right now, I'd take Marquette's chances over Indiana's for next season.

A big issue in Marquette land with Crean over the last few days is not THAT he left, but HOW he left. Basically his bosses and his players found out the same time everyone else did. What's your opinion?
JK: Brian McNamee said it best: It is what it is. Coaches make power plays all the time, and many of them don't say anything until the news is official and ready for public consumption. Meanwhile we have student-athletes generating millions for their schools, with no compensation of their own and no leverage other than to transfer on the fly and sit out a year when something like this happens. The Crean situation is no different than hundreds that have come before it. It is what it is.

Part of the fun with a coaching search is all of the various names that pop up, but sometimes they appear to be names that are selected at random. As a media insider, what's your take on why/how this occurs?
JK: Hey, I have no inside knowledge that Tony Bennett's name has even been mentioned, but I floated him out there myself! I think the media tries to analyze what's out there, consider possible connections in terms of geography, relationships and playing style, then go from there. When we hear the actual names under consideration, it's only because the school in question has decided to make those names public. Otherwise all we can do is speculate. And hey, it keeps things interesting and keeps people engaged.

If you're a Marquette fan, you have to be bummed that Crean bolted for Indiana. But it's also an exciting time in a way, with the future lying in front of you and all these possibilities on the table.

Bonus Stats question - This year was the first year that more of the "Pomeroy-stats" started getting published by national writers (such as yourself and Luke Winn). To what extent do you think that these possession-based stats will gain more popular acceptance?
JK: First of all, let's elaborate a bit. The Pomeroy you're referring it is Ken Pomeroy, and he does tremendous work. I hit his Web site, kenpom.com, constantly for information that can help me better understand the game and the players that play it. Pomeroy's work at BasketballProspectus.com is also excellent. Dean Oliver, who's the author of the terrific book "Basketball On Paper", is another big influence. Luke Winn at SI does great work with all of these metrics (as does Grant Wahl at SI, Andy Glockner at ESPN and others), more are catching on every day, and I just try my best to keep up.

As for when this catches on more widely, I think it'll happen fast. Basketball doesn't have the same entrenched dogma and unbreakable (and often misguided) traditions that baseball does. I expect basketball writers, teams and coaches to run with this very soon, if they haven't already. On the professional level, Daryl Morey of the Rockets has done amazing things by applying these principles to player acquisition and evaluation. Others are doing the same. It's exciting to see people seeking out new sources of knowledge and applying them to their jobs. It can make the quality of play higher and the game more enjoyable for all of us.

Jonah, thanks for taking the time to offer your perspective.

Also, feel free to check out Jonah Keri's Final Four preview on Which Number One Is the True Number One?


Matt Quandt said...

Quick question: Are we hiring a guy for recruits or for the University? To me this talk about making a decision for this batch of recruits seems short-sighted, and likely not as important as what we the fans are making it out to be. A factor? No question. But let's not mortgage the long-term stability and profitability of the bball program (and, consequently, the athletic department) on the whims of these two kids — Taylor and Williams. Especially when the core group of talent will be back for next year.

That being said, keeping the current batch of players happy and present is more important than acquiescing to the demands of two recruits.

I'm curious to see what others think.

Tony said...

Somewhat unrelated. The trustees are meeting today. I hope they have a system that either has white or black smoke coming from the chimney at the end of the day.

Also, this rumor about Mbakwe. Probably a gopher fan.

timb74 said...

Marquette is a prime destination. Their TV time has to compare favorably this past two seasons with the glamour schools. Recruits love TV time and in the East, Midwest, Mid Atlantic and Northeast, Marquette gets great exposure.In hiring,they must seek the most ethical recruiter (promoter) in these markets and keep this momentum positive. There is pressure, but this is a happy problem.

Demond Sanders said...

A reporte from Dayton says the hot rumor is the UD coach Gregory to Marquette. It's on his blog for what that is worth. . .

Demond Sanders said...


ultimatemaxim said...


Rosiak blogged yesterday about Mbakwe leaning towards transferring at the end of the school year for some sort of family reason.

Tony said...

Yeah, I saw that but couldn't remember where... Rosiak of course.

That'd suck. Seems like a good kid, hard worker, tons of energy, etc. Great fit for MU.

I hope the cracked sidewalks folk setup a webcam on a Gesu chimney so we can see what color the smoke is.