Start the inspection. March is for brackets, buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas searching to make the most of their moment. But for some coaches invited to the dance party, it’s also a time to sweat.
For Oklahoma State’s Travis Ford, he’s feeling some heat after his fifth-seeded Cowboys fell to No. 12 seed Oregon on Thursday. Three other coaches have much to gain by earning a victory or two this week: Minnesota’s Tubby Smith, UCLA’s Ben Howland and Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy. Smith and Howland, who face each other today in Austin, could be coaching for their jobs. Kennedy could build capital with a prolonged stay.
Who says the madness is confined to the court? The sidelines have drama as well.
Tubby Smith (Minnesota)
Will this March be different? For Tubby Smith’s sake, it better be.
Consider the evidence: His six-year tenure at Minnesota has been unremarkable, with no NCAA tournament victories in two appearances (2009 and ‘10). The bad news? There’s a good chance that pattern will continue.
The Golden Gophers slipped into the Big Dance this year as the South Region’s No. 11 seed, but expect a brief stay after drawing UCLA in the Round of 64. The Big Ten was among the deepest leagues in the country this season, but Minnesota proved to be little threat while finishing 8-10 in conference play. (It’s not a good sign when Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State are the only teams with worse league records.)
Six years is plenty of time to establish a direction. Smith is a proven winner — he went 79-43 at Tulsa, 45-19 at Georgia and 263-83 at Kentucky — but his stop at Minnesota has been underwhelming to this point. Exhibit A: His 123-80 record at the university, with no more than 23 victories in a single year (in 2011-12).
Smith may need an upset or two this week to secure his job. That would require breaking a March trend with the Golden Gophers, though. Talk about a tall task.
Ben Howland (UCLA)
His touch? Gone.
There are few other ways to describe what has happened to Ben Howland at UCLA. After he led the Bruins to five consecutive NCAA tournament berths — including two Final Four runs and a national runner-up finish in 2006 — deep March advancements have been scarce. Now the 19-year coaching veteran finds himself fighting off questions about his future.
After missing March Madness last season, UCLA is making its second appearance in four years. The sixth-seeded Bruins should arrive for a Round of 64 matchup against Minnesota on Friday with urgency. They last advanced beyond the Round of 32 in 2008, and their draw in the South Region doesn’t look kind. If they beat the Golden Gophers, third-seeded Florida likely awaits.
Lose Friday, and Howland could be sent packing after 10 seasons and 233 victories in the City of Angels. Win, and it gets tricky. Will one victory this week be enough to save him? It’s unclear. UCLA enters the tournament at 25-9 after winning the regular-season Pac-12 title. That follows a string of struggles given the Bruins’ standards: A 14-18 mark in 2009-10, a 23-11 record in 2010-11 and a 19-14 campaign last year.
Change could be near. Howland must prove he deserves more time.
Andy Kennedy (Ole Miss)
He should feel fine after a rally to remember in Nashville. But make no mistake: some insurance wouldn’t hurt.
Andy Kennedy had much to gain from Ole Miss’ surprise run through the SEC tournament: His first NCAA tournament berth with the Rebels in seven seasons, his first campaign with more than 24 victories (they’re 26-8) and a chance to breathe a sigh of relief about his immediate future. Yes, there was plenty.
But why leave doubt? Until this season, Ole Miss was hardly relevant after his arrival from Cincinnati. The Rebels last earned an NCAA tournament berth in 2002 under former coach Rod Barnes. Missing the Big Dance after closing the regular season at 12-6 in the SEC —good for tying Kentucky and Alabama for second place — would have been another setback in Kennedy’s attempt to show progress in Oxford. By beating NCAA tournament-bound Missouri, Vanderbilt and SEC regular-season champion Florida on consecutive days to slide off the bubble, the Rebels put some doubts about Kennedy to rest.
Still, is this only a mirage? Ole Miss, as the West Region’s No. 12 seed, opens against physical Wisconsin on Friday. Extending the Rebels’ run a little longer would do wonders for Kennedy’s job security.
Travis Ford (Oklahoma State)
The temperature? Yes, it’s rising in Stillwater, Okla.
In most places, finishing 24-8 overall and 13-5 in the Big 12 would be a positive development. Not at Oklahoma State, where Ford had ample talent on his roster this season to win a conference title but instead finished a game back of Kansas and Kansas State. (The Cowboys went 2-3 against the co-Big 12 champs.)
The issue: Underachievement has been a theme of late for the Cowboys. They missed the NCAA tournament the previous two years, going 20-14 in 2010-11 and 15-18 last season. In Ford’s five-year tenure, Oklahoma State has failed to advance beyond the first weekend in three NCAA tournament appearances.
Most likely, Ford saved himself by slipping the Cowboys into March Madness as a No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region. But after falling to No. 12 seed Oregon — though, arguably one of the most underrated teams in the field — the early exit won’t sit well among some around the program fatigued by results that fall short of potential.