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Coaching Search Bracket: Sean Miller vs. Jerome Tang

Jerome Tang played a crucial role in helping Scott Drew build Baylor but has never run a program. Sean Miller can coach, but the question is whether a school will risk that NCAA penalties keep him from doing so.

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Baylor v Gonzaga Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Missouri’s embarked upon its fourth search for a basketball coach in roughly a decade, and as usual, you can find a listicle of candidates anywhere. We also know every fan has their preference. As does each of us on the masthead for this website.

A thought occurred to us: What would happen if you, me, and everyone else ran the process?

How are we doing this? We’re rolling out four regions featuring a pair of matchups. We’ve assembled a profile for each candidate: their background, play style, pros, and cons. At the bottom of each piece is a poll, where you have 24 hours to make your preference known. The fan vote will make up 50 percent of the vote.

Who makes up the other half? The Rock M staff.

If the staff is unanimous and the fans make the same selection, easy enough. If, however, there is a consensus amongst the staff, but the fans disagree, we have a tie. To break the tie, we’ve enlisted the services of Jim Root (@2ndChancePoints), who will render the final verdict.

On Saturday, we looked at the Young Bloods Region, featuring Kim English, Todd Golden, Dennis Gates, and Jeff Linder. The Steady Risers Region saw us pit Niko Medved against Casey Alexander, while Matt McMahon and Grant McCasland squared off.

Today, we’re moving on to the Risk Tolerance Region. Here, Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang draws former Arizona coach Sean Miller. Our other matchup features former Louisville coach Chris Mack and former Ohio State coach Thad Matta.

Tang’s name was among the first batch of coaches tossed out after Cuonzo Martin’s dismissal. Miller’s has appeared on various hot boards. And we’ve added in Matta and Mack. As we detailed already, this region is intended to help us get a sense for how risky you’d want MU to be in making a hire.


Baylor v Gonzaga Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
  • Name: Jerome Tang
  • School: Baylor (Associate Head Coach)
  • Age: 55
  • Seasons: 18
  • Record: NA
  • Salary: Unknown
  • Buyout: Unknown

Background

Athletic directors aren’t immune to chasing trends, and this season offers an example: Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd.

The coach-in-waiting at Gonzaga, Lloyd couldn’t pass up being handed the keys in Tucson. Expectations were modest. Under a cloud from the FBI’s investigation into pay-for-play, the Wildcats had slipped behind Lloyd’s former employer in recent years.

All Lloyd has done is guide the Wildcats to a Pac-12 regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

This brings us to Jerome Tang.

He’s spent 18 years with Scott Drew at Baylor, helping the Bears rebuild in the wake of unspeakable tragedy and capping the ascent with a national title last April. Yet Tang’s only received passing interest over the years – even as Matthew Driscoll, Paul Mills, and Grant McCasland became roots in Drew’s coaching tree.

Is this the year that changes?

Tang’s name was tossed out in the immediate aftermath of Cuonzo Martin’s firing. It’s also cropped up at Kansas State, which is replacing Bruce Weber. At a minimum, a high-end mid-major program might tap Tang to fill a vacancy.

His path to this position is also inspiring. Back in 2003, he made a pittance as a high school coach at a private Christian high school in Houston and coaching Houston Hoops in the summer. As Drew settled in from Valparaiso, Tang’s name kept coming up in conversations he had around the state.

He wanted a meeting. Tang figured it was a put-on. But they quickly hit it off. Two decades later, he’s an invaluable piece of Drew’s program. “It was like he was my kindred spirit,” Drew told The Athletic’s CJ Moore.

How has his influence been felt?

Tang suggested the Bears shift their recruiting model, one that landed a slew of five stars about a decade ago. Instead, the program prioritized fit. And it leaned heavily on the transfer portal to land Jared Butler (Alabama), Davion Mitchell (Auburn), MaCio Teague (UNC-Asheville), and Jonathan Tchmwa Tchatchoua (UNLV), while Mark Vital and Matthew Mayer with in-house projects.

Those imports also gave Drew a crew of elite defensive pieces – and led him to ditch his use of a 2-3 zone. He tasked Tang with re-configuring the approach. The result: a modified version of Texas Tech’s no-middle system.

Play Style

The No-Middle defense tells you its intention — keep the ball on one side of the floor.

Doing so allows you help defenders to load up, knowing that it won’t have to rotate on a reversal. Baylor’s defense almost plays a zone on the weak side of the floor, allowing defenders to serve as deep safeties looking to pick off skip passes. And no matter what, the Bears bust their assess in scramble mode to close down shooters.

Ball-screen defense is the calling card of the scheme. Look at a defender’s feet. They’re pointed directly at the sideline. A dribble can’t even think about using a ball screen. To solve the problem, an offense may have a screener pop for a kickout. Or have a big chase their pass into a side ball-screen.

Baylor’s solution: switch and heavily deny the reversal. Want to hunt a favorable big-little switch inside? Fine. Baylor’s fronting the post and sending a hard double. Target a big in space on the perimeter? Cool. He’s probably long and has the agility to stay in front.

No doubt, elite-level athletes help. But they also have to be willing to work hard through multiple efforts, often long closeouts, to force late-clock situations. The results, though, have been worth it. Baylor ranked fourth in half-court defensive efficiency two years ago, and it’s 26th this season.

Pros

Tang’s Rolodex in Texas and Oklahoma is deep on the recruiting trail. It’s helped the Bears scale back up their recruiting, landing the likes of freshmen Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan. The Bears also have Keyontae George, a top-five prospect and Houston native, ready to arrive in Waco next year.

But as we just detailed, Tang helped engineer an overhaul that helped Baylor make its leap. Drew entrusted him and gave wide latitude to make it happen. Tang delivered.

Moreover, Tang’s likely not going to be fazed by the scale of the project in Columbia. It pales compared to what he encountered in Waco, and that was when he had zero experience with a college staff. So yes, he’d be sliding over a seat, but his experience and portfolio at Baylor have more than prepared him for a job like MU.

Cons

No offense, but if you wanted to emulate Baylor, why not hire McCasland from North Texas? Or Mills from Oral Roberts? They’ve both made the transition already and compiled track records at the mid-major level, including upsets in the NCAA tournament last year.

Heck, McCasland’s shown he can build an elite replica of the no-middle in Denton.

And while Tang deserves credit for the defensive retooling, another member of Drew’s staff, John Jakus, retrofitted the Bears’ offense. Maybe Tang’s philosophy is stellar, but it’s also unknown at this point. Meanwhile, MU just paid $6 million to buyout a coach known for a defense-first mentality and a hit-or-miss offensive approach.

Listen, Tang’s overdue for an opportunity to mold and shape a program. That said, does MU want to have any potential growing pains come as it tries to expedite a rebuild?


COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 07 Northern Arizona at Arizona
  • Name: Sean Miller
  • School: Unemployed
  • Age: 53
  • Seasons: 17
  • Record: 422-156 overall
  • Salary: $4.05 million*
  • Buyout: None

*This is what Miller reportedly earned at Arizona, which extended him in 2017. The school bought out the final year of that deal when it dismissed him.

Background

You don’t need me to tell you Sean Miller is good at coaching basketball.

The on-court credentials are impeccable. He’s won 73 percent of his games over 17 seasons. He helped the Wildcats win at least a share of five Pac-12 regular-season titles in Tucson, made seven NCAA tournaments, and reached three Elite Eights. Over that same period, thirteen players heard their name called in the NBA draft, including five lottery selections.

But how Miller went about doing it is a thornier matter. You know about that, too.

Since 2017, a federal investigation into corruption within college hoops has dogged the program. A former assistant coach pled guilty. Prosecutors played a tape where that assistant, Book Richardson, told an aspiring agent Miller doled out $10,000 a month Deandre Ayton.

In the fall of 2020, the NCAA dropped a Notice of Allegations on the program, a document released publicly last spring and detailed five Level I violations. Miller wasn’t directly named. But he’s charged with failing to promote an “atmosphere of compliance.” A month later, in April, the school handed Miller walking papers.

The question is what punitive measures an independent arbitration panel has in store. Will it spare Arizona and hammer Miller, including a dreaded show-cause penalty? Or will he get off with a similar punishment to Bruce Pearl, who missed just two games?

That’s a wide range of outcomes. And that group, the Independent Arbitration and Review Panel, is moving glacially slow. Hiring Miller makes the conclusion obvious: a school expects a relatively light sentence.

Undoubtedly, the entire matter cast a cloud over a blueblood, but functionally, Miller found solutions. In 2019, he had the nation’s No. 6 recruiting class featuring two McDonald’s All-Americans in Nico Mannion and Josh Green. And in 2020, the Wildcats inked the No. 7 group. All the while, his staff back-filled with high-profile transfers like Jordan Brown, James Akinjo, Jermarl Baker, and Justin Kier.

Consider this: the median rating of players in Arizona’s last two recruiting classes would have been equivalent to 90th nationally. Elite? No. But the Wildcats weren’t scrounging the bottom of the barrel.

The results, however, were underwhelming relative to Miller’s track record. Two years ago, Arizona started 9-0 but limped to a 21-11 finish, undone by poor jump-shooting, stretches of lazy defense, and poor late-game execution. Still, that group might have made the NCAA tournament – if not for the pandemic. And last season, an extremely young roster went 17-9, but a preemptive postseason ban meant another year without dancing.

It’s been reported that Miller’s itching to get back on the sideline. A university will inevitably take the plunge at some point. When? And would MU let Miller rehabilitate his career in Columbia?

Play Style

Early on, Miller estimated his teams only ran a set action on 30 percent of possessions. Like a lot of coaches, Miller preferred a motion system because it’s difficult for opponents to scout. But a couple of years ago, Miller hinted that he’d drawn recent inspiration from Arizona alum Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors, while his staff had started mining Euroleague film for ideas.

That said, the Wildcats would also build in elements like a pattern motion involving ball-screens. They called staple actions like chin, which could have a shooter coming off staggered screens or a punch play to feed the post. They’d also call plays triggered by an Iverson cut. And like most teams, weave actions are in the playbook.

What differentiated Arizona was its personnel. That’s not to say Miller is poor at scheme. He’s just not running a distinctive system. He evolves with the times and identifies high-end talent to operate within his framework.

Pros

Ironically, the ongoing investigation offered Miller a chance to show how deftly he could recruit amid a crisis. The uncertainty led top-tier prospects at home to steer clear. Needing to replace seven of its top-eight players after the 2020 season, Arizona’s staff looked beyond its shores to the international market for five newcomers – a move Miller tried to sell as a planned long-term shift.

Optics aside, the likes of Azuolas Tubelis, Bennedict Mathurin, Kerr Kriisa, and Pelle Larson were stellar raw components. Just look at what Tommy Lloyd’s done with them. Miller deserves some credit for the foresight.

Setting aside the acquisition method, Miller clearly showed he could maximize the pieces he had on hand. His worst finish in KenPom before 2017 was 87th – his first year leading the Wildcats. But at Xavier and Arizona, he had both programs playing a top-30 level within three seasons.

Once Miller serves his penance, it’s not hard to imagine him working international contacts and the transfer portal to fill in around the occasional top-shelf prep pieces. Moreover, athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois might have the kind of leverage to structure a contract that pays Miller what he earned out west ($4.05 million) while also building in strong guardrails if this hire goes sideways.

Chancellor Mun Choi hired Reed-Francois to end a business-as-usual approach. Tasking Miller would certainly be a declaration of intent.

Cons

Miller’s never had to build a program. Instead, in 2005, Thad Matta handed over a Xavier program on terra firma, which Matta himself inherited from Skip Prosser. And while the end of Lute Olson’s time with the Wildcats was far from a smooth transition, Arizona’s reputation and resources offset the poor planning.

MU’s not crawling out of a crater like the one that greeted Cuonzo Martin, but it’s a stiffer challenge than Miller’s encountered. MU’s not poor, but it’s not spending north of $10 million annually. Columbia is not Tucson, either. And how effectively can Miller reshuffle a roster as the IARP takes its sweet time adjudicating his case?

Honestly, I don’t expect MU would go down the road with Miller. Quin Snyder’s staff ran afoul of the NCAA. So did Frank Haith. And then there was tutor-gate, which MU reported and still resulted in stiff penalties.

But even if MU did put on a black hat and make the hire, would it go all in? For example, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes saw steady spending increases that surpassed $10 million, per federal data. At Houston, Kelvin Sampson’s budget doubled to $9 million within a couple years of his hiring. On the Plains, Bruce Pearl saw investment ramped up before getting a large extension this winter.

If you’re going to hire Miller, give him the kind of backing he had out in the desert. That’s how you make a statement loud and clear.


Poll

Which coach would you prefer to see leading Missouri next season?

This poll is closed

  • 59%
    Jerome Tang
    (267 votes)
  • 40%
    Sean Miller
    (179 votes)
446 votes total Vote Now