The 2014-15 college basketball season is still in progress with the Final Four this weekend, but that’s not stopping several teams that missed out on the Big Dance from making a splash. The Mississippi State Bulldogs hired former UCLA Bruins head coach Ben Howland, and the Tennessee Volunteers hired former Texas Longhorns head coach Rick Barnes.
The addition of these two coaches to the SEC means that the conference boasts four coaches who have made a Final Four, which my colleague Tim Letcher explores in more detail here. However, when looking at the hiring of Howland and Barnes by Mississippi State and Tennessee respectively, which team comes out on top in their coaching hire?
The easy answer would be Tennessee.
The Volunteers are on their fourth coach in a little over five years after Donnie Tyndall’s NCAA woes led to his departure after just one season with the team. Barnes brings the stability that the Vols so desperately need. His hiring is so important because he could be the only thing keeping the Tennessee men’s basketball program from falling apart.
However, the argument for Howland’s hire by Mississippi State seems to be just as strong.
The Bulldogs have recruited well over the past few seasons, but continued to underperform under Rick Ray. Fred Thomas, Craig Sword and Gavin Ware were all extremely talented players coming in. That has led to the Bulldogs competing in most games but being unable to finish. Howland could come in and change that immediately, transforming Mississippi State from a recent consistent SEC bottom feeder into a mid-level SEC team almost overnight.
You can find more details about Howland’s impact with the Bulldogs in an article I wrote a few days ago.
However, unlike Howland, whose job is to turn around a Mississippi State program that actually holds the most SEC titles/championships since 2002 behind the Florida Gators and Kentucky Wildcats, Barnes is coming to UT with the sole purpose of bringing stability to a program that hasn’t had any since Bruce Pearl invited Aaron Craft to a barbecue.
Down the road, Howland may be the coach to turn his program around and bring back the talented Mississippi State teams of a decade ago, but right now, there may not be a coach more important to the future of a program in all of college basketball than Barnes.
The SEC is beginning to focus on college basketball a little bit more, and no matter who the better hire is, every college basketball fan is a winner.