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College basketball: 5 profound coaching dramas

The foremost drama of coaching — in terms of regularity, though not in terms of raw emotional impact — is the attempt to avoid being fired.

The coaching drama which captures the heart and tugs at the emotions is the attempt of the beloved veteran to finally make a first Final Four, or a first Rose Bowl, or win a first conference championship.

The power of a given coaching drama can’t be measured in the same way across several programs or several sets of circumstances. This is something which has to be measured on a case-by-case basis.

Program A might be an established power, meaning that the expectations and pressures surrounding a coach are more oppressive than at other places.

Program B might be a school which has seldom enjoyed next-level success, but the accumulation of talent on this season’s roster was supposed to lead to a breakthrough… and that’s not happening.

Program C has been off the map for quite some time, and suddenly, it has a chance to step into the sunshine of the NCAA tournament conversation.

The five coaching dramas mentioned below are not necessarily tethered to the quest to keep a job; they fit into the different categories mentioned above, and will form a portion of the larger story of the 2015-2016 college basketball season:

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TOM CREAN, INDIANA

This is the classic coaching drama, the one in which the embattled leader of a storied program tries to give administrators a compelling reason to retain him.

Indiana is 3-0 in the Big Ten, but the list of victories is comprised of the lower tier of the league: Rutgers, Nebraska, and a Wisconsin team which is almost certain to miss the NCAA tournament. Indiana has that poker-chip win over Notre Dame in its pocket, but very little else on the resume. The Hoosiers are just beginning to find out what kind of team they have, and as we’ve said here earlier in the season, merely making the Dance with a lower seed might not be enough to stay on. Indiana rightly aspires to be a big-hitter, not a team which barely sneaks into the field.

Crean faces what could be the two most defining months of his tenure. If he does turn Indiana into a 5 seed and a team which makes a run at the Sweet 16, he’d change a lot of perceptions (though not all of them). If he fails to orchestrate a dramatic transformation in Yogi Ferrell’s final season, it will be very hard to escape the conclusion that he’s not the man to lead IU back to the pinnacle of college basketball.

JOHNNY JONES, LSU

Everyone knows how much LSU has underachieved in spite of the luminous presence of Ben Simmons. That said, the Bayou Bengals look like a completely different team with Keith Hornsby (injury) and Craig Victor (eligibility) finally on the floor again. They didn’t merely beat Kentucky earlier this week; they thrashed the Wildcats and made their frontcourt look decidedly impotent.

LSU has a lot of work to do in order to compensate for its ruinous non-conference journey. If Jones can get into the NCAAs and win two games, he would chase away most, if not all, of the storm clouds which linger over him.

LEONARD HAMILTON, FLORIDA STATE

Hamilton has taken Florida State to the Sweet 16. He’s won an ACC tournament. He’s been very good for the Seminoles, toiling away at a football school and gathering results that have not been easy to attain.

His team this season is a young one, but the arrival of Dwayne Bacon to complement the terrific Xavier Rathan-Mayes (who has held up his end of the bargain for FSU) was supposed to catapult the Noles into bubble territory at worst, and ideally into a mid-level NCAA tournament seed. There’s no shame in losing to North Carolina, but Saturday’s loss at Clemson represented a very worrisome development for a team which is searching for itself. Can Hamilton get his underclassmen to be more responsive and clearheaded in a brutally deep Atlantic Coast Conference? That question drips with drama, giving a splash of narrative color to the next two months.

KEVIN STALLINGS, VANDERBILT

Stallings has been one of the better coaches in Vanderbilt history. If officials had called a travel on Georgetown’s Jeff Green nine years ago, the Commodores would have played North Carolina for a chance to go to the Final Four. Stallings also won one of Vanderbilt’s two SEC Tournament championships in 2012, registering the kind of achievement which lingers in the public memory.

This season, however, Stallings is suffering one setback after another, precisely when his team was supposed to be ready to graduate to a higher plateau. Vanderbilt has been soft on defense, and that lack of late-game stops has caused the Commodores to lose a series of close games. What’s particularly frustrating about this season is that Vanderbilt has blown double-digit second-half leads on multiple occasions. Victories are slipping through this team’s fingers left and right.

You’ll get a lot of different verdicts on Stallings from national analysts and experts. A failure to make the NCAAs this season would lead a lot of pundits to downgrade him. Can he and his team bounce back in the coming weeks?

FRANK MARTIN, SOUTH CAROLINA

This is the happy coaching drama on the board. Can a long-dormant South Carolina program skyrocket not only into the spotlight, but into the Big Dance (perhaps with a high seed), in the span of one season?

South Carolina has lived in the bottom third of the SEC under Frank Martin, but that could very well change this season. Conference play is just beginning, but the Gamecocks sit at 14-0, a development few (if anyone) anticipated. The SEC is a league in which only Texas A&M has joined Carolina in meeting (if not exceeding) preseason expectations. If Martin’s men can validate their non-conference start with a similarly strong showing in the SEC, the Gamecocks could become a factor in a not-very-deep conference for the next decade.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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