There’s just something about that new (courtesy) car smell.
Athletic directors around the Mountain West Conference seem to think so, anyway. Since there was no coaching turnover for the 2014-15 men’s basketball season, the conference has had 10 coaching changes, affecting nine of its schools in the past four seasons, including the UNM Lobos.
It’s probably no coincidence, then, that the league has struggled to reach its old form of being an annual contender to get multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament.
But that doesn’t mean rookie head coaches are always the problem. In fact, as the past 11 months have shown, the league has generally seen the first-year head coaches catch lightning in a bottle and struggle to recapture that magic in the second season. (No, not always as Eric Musselman and Nevada are an exception to a lot of Mountain West rules lately.)
On March 10, 2018, it was two first-year league coaches in UNM’s Paul Weir and first-year San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher squaring off in the Mountain West tournament championship game with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line — the Lobos having gone 19-15 with a third-place regular-season finish and the Aztecs going 22-11 with a fourth-place finish.
And now, as the calendar flips to February of their sophomore campaigns, Weir and Dutcher are leading the two programs considered the biggest disappointments in the MWC thus far this season. Both programs — UNM (9-11, 3-5 MWC) and SDSU (12-8, 4-3) — are still 10 wins away from last year’s total with only 10 regular-season games left for the Lobos before the conference tournament and 11 for the Aztecs.
After Nevada (20-1, 7-1), the league’s clear-cut top dog, it’s a couple more first-year head coaches wowing the league as Craig Smith at Utah State (16-5, 6-2) and Justin Hutson at Fresno State (15-5, 6-2) are tied for second place in the league — the Aggies having just won in Albuquerque this past weekend and the Bulldogs set to host the Lobos on Saturday in Fresno.
So is there something Weir can look to this year’s rookie coaches for to try and recapture the magic from a season ago?
“I hate even answering that question to be totally honest with you,” Weir said on Thursday.
“Because I think that’s me not owning my own flaws or weaknesses to date that have maybe put us this way,” Weir said. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I don’t call coaches, mentors or whoever and ask them, ‘Hey. What do you think? How are things going?’ And a lot of them say the second year’s always the hardest year. There’s a lot of other great coaches and great programs in their second year that are really, really struggling. There’s coaches in our own league … who, in year two, happen to be in a step back. That’s wasn’t anything I ever saw happening, and it’s not something I really want to say is going to happen (at UNM). …
“I think there’s some merit to what you’re saying (about second-year coaching struggles), but I don’t know if that necessarily takes me out of being responsible for that. That’s still on me. I do think as a first-year coach there are some inherent advantages you can tap into that maybe you can’t quite (do) as a second-year guy.”
THE NUMBERS: Of the 10 new head coaches in the MWC in the past four seasons, three won at least 22 games and two more — Smith and Hutson — are well on their way this season.
The combined record of first-year head coaches in the MWC since the 2015-16 season (10 head coaches as Utah State has had two changes) is 158-140. Of the four coaches who have already completed their second season, two had a worst record in year two and all three second-year coaches this season, according to KenPom.com, have teams that will not pass last year’s win total, bringing the total to five out of seven.
ON DRINNON: Freshman point guard Drue Drinnon, who missed the past three games while under concussion protocol from a fall in practice on Jan. 17, returned to practice on Thursday for the first time since the injury and is expected to be available on Saturday at Fresno State.