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Coaching Search Bracket: Kevin Willard vs. Dana Altman

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Kevin Willard steadily remade Seton Hall into a rugged defensive outfit in the Big East — and did it on a relative shoestring. Dana Altman’s taken Oregon to a Final Four, but is he itching to get back to his Midwest roots?

Oregon v Arizona Photo by Rebecca Noble/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. And Monday saw us offer a pair of riskier pairings in Sean Miller and Jerome Tang, and Chris Mack and Thad Matta.

Today, we’re wrapping up the first round with the Power Players Region. Here, you can choose between Oregon’s Dana Altman and Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard. Our other matchup sees Washington State’s Kyle Smith go against on the field.

Altman’s been reported as a possible target. Meanwhile, each author picked a high-major coach they though had outperformed their resources. Matt Watkins went with Smith. Matthew Harris chose Willard.


NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
  • Name: Kevin Willard
  • School: Seton Hall
  • Age: 46
  • Seasons: 12
  • Record: 222-159 (269-208 overall)
  • Salary: $2.1 million*
  • Buyout: Unknown

*Current as of 2019, when it was reported Willard was in line for a “significant” pay bump.

Background

Originally from New York, Willard moved to Kentucky with his family during his high school years when his father took the coaching job at Western Kentucky University. Willard played one season in Bowling Green prior to transferring to the University of Pittsburgh to finish out his career.

In an unusual twist, Willard began his coaching career under Rick Pitino with the Boston Celtics. After Pitino was ousted, Willard followed Pitino to Louisville. Willard would spend six years on the bench learning from the one of the best to ever coach the game. He finally got his shot at the D-I first chair at Iona. He coached three seasons in New Rochelle.

Willard was announced as the head coach at Seton Hall University prior to the 2011 season. The 2022 campaign marks his 12th season in South Orange.

Play Style

One can’t talk about Willard’s style and begin anywhere other than the defensive end. In his 12 seasons at Seton Hall, half of his teams have ranked top 35 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. His teams routinely make life difficult on opponents by focusing on disallowing easy and/or open looks as opposed to creating turnovers. In recent years Willard’s teams have also shown a propensity to block a lot of shots. Athletic defenders are a must.

After his first six seasons Seton Hall had failed to record a single season with a top-70 offense in terms of adjusted efficiency. In his last six seasons, he’s had four such teams topping out at 17th in 2018. Even from the 2021 season to the present season some changes have been made. A priority was put on better spacing and ball movement. Yet, a long-standing tradition of excellence on the offensive glass remains. Statistically, the 2022 offense is a balanced one. The Pirates create approximately 21 percent of offense from spot ups, 15 percent from transition, 15 percent from pick-and-roll primary offense, and 8 percent from looks on offensive rebounds.

Pros

Of the coaches involved in our project, few are more experienced or accomplished at the power-conference level. Willard is poised for his fifth NCAA Tournament bid in 11 chances. Seton Hall is widely regarded as one of the more difficult jobs in the Big East, if not all of high-major hoops. Although the school has ramped up spending in recent years, much of his tenure was spent in the lower quarter of big school basketball in terms of expenditures.

Yet, Willard has found a way to rehabilitate the program and turn it into a consistent winner in a difficult conference. The list of established high-major coaches currently enjoying success that Mizzou could approach, and lure away, is not an incredibly lengthy one. Willard presents one of the few such potential opportunities.

Cons

College basketball is a national game, but location still matters. Willard has spent the last 15 seasons in the Northeast after being raised there. It’s true that he did spend six years in Louisville, but that happened to coincide with the Cardinals playing in Conference USA and…the Big East.

How would that translate to a school half a country away in a league that he has no geographic or historical connection with? Further, Willard’s name has popped up as a potential candidate at schools like Maryland and Louisville. While Mizzou would have the financial might to offer him more compensation that Seton Hall, if one or both of those schools are involved, the negotiations take an immediate turn towards the skies.


Pac-12 Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images
  • Name: Dana Altman
  • School: Oregon
  • Age: 63
  • Seasons: 33
  • Record: 299-124 (709-367 overall)
  • Salary: $3.525 million in 2022
  • Buyout: $4 million before April 22; $3 million afterward

Background

In Dana Altman’s last season at Kansas State, he faced a Missouri team on its way to an undefeated campaign in the Big Eight Conference. Let all of that sink in for a minute.

Good?

Altman has been around for a minute. At 63, he’s not young. However, 33 seasons at 63 years old? That’s truly amazing. He’s been a Division I head coach every year since he was thirty-one years old. If you’ve followed college ball at all over that time, you surely know who he is. As such, the write up will only hit the important notes.

Why are we even discussing Altman? More on that below. However, Dana grew up in Nebraska. From 1983 to 1986 he was the head coach for Moberly Community College, about an hour north of Columbia. He served three seasons as an assistant at Kansas State prior to accepting his first big job at Marshall. One season later, he returned to Kansas State where he coached for four years. He then headed up the Creighton program for 16 seasons. As you can see, the ties to the Midwest are strong. Over the last 12 years he’s spent his time in Eugene. Perhaps a trip back to the region is in order?

First things first, though.

In Altman’s twelve seasons at Creighton he won three regular season Missouri Valley Conference titles and six tournament titles. In the 11 seasons between 1999 and 2009, he tallied hose titles along with seven NCAA tournament appearances. Note here that Creighton was a Missouri Valley Conference. A very good mid-major, but not the Big East program it is today. As such, Altman’s hire by Oregon was a bit of a surprise.

However, Altman has proven that he can do it at any level. In a dozen seasons at Oregon, he’s only had one where the Ducks finished with less than 20 wins — this one. They have won 25 or more five times. Oregon’s won four-regular season Pac 12 titles and three tournament crowns. In the NCAA Tournament, Altman’s clubs have reached the second weekend five times and made a Final Four run in 2017.

His Ducks will miss the dance this year, bringing his resume to eight tournament appearances in those 12 seasons. Looking at Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, eight of Altman’s 12 teams finished between 10th and 45th. While the Pac-12 has not been the best high-major conference, his results are impressive.

Play Style

Defensively, Altman has been known to throw many different looks at opponents. Generally, you’ll see a majority of man-to-man defense. However, in some season, Oregon’s usage of zone creeps up into the upper reaches of high major rankings. In 2019, for example, the Ducks made a run while playing a majority of zone defense. There will also be a fair amount of pressure defense applied. Altman will not be content to sit back in a contained man defense.

Offensively, Altman’s teams have been very good. Seven of his 12 Ducks teams have finished top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency. These squads are buoyed by good shooting and low turnover rates. They are, however, not proficient in getting to the free throw line. Altman’s best teams are generally a combination of those that have top level three-point shooting and above average defense. The rest remains fairly constant.

Pros

The positives are obvious. In terms of experience and excellence, Altman’s resume is nearly unimpeachable. He’s won at Creighton. He’s won at Oregon. Conference titles. Tournament success. It’s all there. Further, his squads generally play a fun brand of ball. There are some intriguing geographic connections as well.

Cons

Why?

Why would Altman leave a stable program in Eugene that is flush with Nike cash and a world of resources? Especially to return to the Midwest to helm a program such as Mizzou? Unlike the Pac 12, money is flying around SEC hoops programs. (Get your heads out of the gutters, guys…I’m talking program expenses, though I can understand the confusion.)

Mizzou is going to require a rebuild. Altman is nearing retirement age. What is the draw? And then there’s the fact MU, a program that’s decidedly middle-class among high-majors, would spend $10 million alone — $6 million on Cuonzo Martin and $4 million for Altman —in buyouts to make this happen. That’s before Altman even gets his salary. And at Oregon, the Ducks were inching close to $11 million in hoops spending.

That’s a significant investment from a school that’s been trying to get its budget in order.


Poll

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

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Kevin Willard
    (137 votes)
  • 65%
    Dana Altman
    (259 votes)
396 votes total Vote Now