WORSHAM: Inside LSU basketball’s Milwaukee-bound coaching search

By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

A round trip flight from Baton Rouge to Milwaukee this weekend takes about four hours and costs less than $300.

Should Joe Alleva opt to fly commercial, it could end up being time and money well spent.

Want to know who LSU’s next head basketball coach will be? Chances are good he’s coaching in Wisconsin this weekend.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center is one of the sites of the NCAA Tournament’s Second and Third Round matchups this week, and if Alleva is serious about landing a “proven winner,” there will be several in attendance he’s got a shot of hiring.

Former LSU assistants Eric Musselman and Kermit Davis each bring their 12th-seeded squads against Power 5 foes led by promising young coaching prospects. Davis’ Middle Tennessee State will square off against Richard Pitino’s Minnesota at 4 p.m. CST Thursday on TNT, while Musselman’s Nevada takes on Steve Prohm’s Iowa State at 8:57 p.m. Thursday on TruTV.

While I’ve heard names outside of these four – more on those in a minute – all have been linked to the opening in Baton Rouge.

It’s probably safe to rule Prohm out, despite his connections to Louisiana. He was an assistant at Centenary, Southeastern, and Tulane from 1998-2006, before head coaching stints at Murray State and now in Aimes. His buyout, however, is likely a deal breaker, valued at half his $1.5 million salary per remaining contract year. Back of the napkin calculations tell me that’s at least $2.25 million. LSU will spend money on this hire if necessary, but I’m hearing from several places that’s too steep.

It’s not safe to rule Davis out. There are reservations among fans about his age (57) and a résumé that reads similarly to Johnny Jones’ — slow-built, sustained success at a mid-major – but Davis comes highly recommended. Alleva will spend the coming days taking calls from coaches, ADs, and other basketball figures across the country, and the word is many coaches with plenty of cache are backing Davis for the job.

For good reason, too. Unlike Jones when he arrived from North Texas, Davis has an NCAA Tournament win under his belt: last year’s famous victory over Michigan State in the upset of the tournament. His teams are tough, edgy, and defend their tails off, something LSU seriously lacks of late. (Four of the last six year’s Davis has coached a top-50 defense in terms of defensive efficiency — Jones has never coached such a team.) This year’s bunch is 30-4, cracked the top 25 by season’s end, and knocked off Vanderbilt at home, Ole Miss on the road, and rolled through Conference USA.

He’s affordable, and he’s certainly interested, but would he sizzle with fans and recruits? I’m not sure, but winning excites everyone. And if he wins another tournament game or two this year, he’ll certainly give Alleva something to think about.

To do that, he’d have to beat Pitino’s squad in game one, and there’s growing chatter of LSU interest in the famously-surnamed skipper. LSU associate athletic director Eddie Nunez, who Alleva said Friday is currently in charge of the basketball program in the absence of a coach and who will be involved in the coaching search, played under Billy Donovan at Florida in the late ’90s. Donovan, of course, played for Pitino’s father, Rick, and Richard was a Donovan assistant at Florida from 2009-2011, reaching the Elite Eight in his final year in Gainesville.

Pitino is green, with just a handful of seasons under his belt. His career record (93-74) is very close to Jones’ record at LSU, and he’s well below .500 in Big 10 play (27-45). But, he led the Gophers to an NIT title in year one, and rebounded from a difficult 2016 campaign to earn a tournament berth and Big 10 Coach of the Year honors this year. Moreover, his buyout is reasonable – $1 million before May 1, $750,000 after – there’s no love lost between Pitino and Minnesota’s athletic department. Keep a close eye on this matchup.

Musselman, meanwhile, boasts maybe the best hybrid of the qualities LSU needs in its next coach. He has ties to the program – not only is he a former assistant, but he’s got ex-LSU star Ronald Dupree on staff in Reno. He’s affordable, making just $400,000 a year at Nevada with a buyout of only $250,000. (There’s some foggy language in his deal that could also require Musselman to pay his base salary of $300,000 to the University over the remaining two years of his deal. That’s still less than $1 million, well within LSU’s reach). And he’s got a killer resume, from NBA experience (he finished second in Coach of the Year voting in 2003 to some guy named Gregg Popovich) to his work at Nevada, where he inherited a 9-win team and transformed them into CIT champs in year one and Mountain West regular season and tournament champs in year two.

I’ve heard Musselman has interest in the LSU job, but there’s a couple of hang ups. First, Nevada will be really, really good next year. They could bring back six of their seven best players, they’ve signed perhaps the nation’s top JUCO player, and former top-60 twin prep stars Caleb and Cody Martin will be eligible after transferring from North Carolina State last year. Second, Musselman, despite a journeyman career, is a west coast guy. He owns a home in Danville, Calif. – just 20 miles from Berkeley, where the Cal job could soon open, should Cuonzo Martin bolt for Illinois, Missouri, or another opening.

Of course, other names are in the mix who won’t be in Milwaukee this weekend. Don’t rule out Tom Crean, should Indiana send him packing. Nunez worked for him at Marquette; he fits the big name descriptor Alleva is rumored to be seeking. Mike Brey continues to be a name tossed around, but I have reservations that he’s all that serious about leaving Notre Dame. Yes, he played college hoops in Louisiana. Yes, his sister went to LSU. Yes, he interviewed for the LSU job in 2008 and has connections to Alleva back to their Duke days. I just don’t see him bolting from a team established at the top of the ACC for one mired in the depths of the SEC at the moment.

Speaking of big names, there have been some crazy ones sent my way, particularly in the mold of former NBA coaches currently out of work. Avery Johnson and Mike Dunleavy did it; I wouldn’t be completely shocked if someone with professional experience reaches out to Alleva to express interest. Crazier things have happened.

For now, narrow your focus to Milwaukee, where you’ll see several really good coaches in action this weekend. If you look closely enough, you might even catch a glimpse of Alleva there, too, taking in all the action and pondering his next big move.

 

*Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Richard Pitino’s buyout, originally identified as $500,000. Pitino received a contract extension in 2015 that upped the buyout from $500,000 to $1 million before May 1 and $750,000 after. 

 

 

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Cody Worsham

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