Dement, Hunter bring experience to sidelines

Coaching 'em up
SoConFor several years, the trend has been pretty clear. If you're an athletic director and you need a basketball coach, you go young.

Maybe you raid Tom Izzo's staff and hire a Michigan State assistant. Maybe you find somebody with ties to Rick Pitino or Mike Krzyzewski or Kelvin Sampson.

It has been a pretty successful way of doing business. Just like corporations that try to land graduates from the fancy business schools, athletic directors like their hires to have a little pedigree, as well.

That's what made this offseason's coaching changes in the Southern Conference so interesting. Because when Western Carolina and UNC Greensboro needed new coaches, they didn't immediately look for the hot 30-something assistant coach. Instead, they looked for experience and hired a pair of coaches who have a combined 43 seasons of head coaching experience and 769 victories. To say the Southern Conference received a quick infusion of coaching experience would be an understatement.

"I thought I would get another chance, but you don't know," said new UNC Greensboro coach Mike Dement, who most recently coached at Southern Methodist. "I was confident I did a good job -- but when you're out, you realize how competitive it is. I consider myself pretty lucky."

Although Dement -- who is starting his second stint as the UNC Greensboro coach -- only spent one season between head coaching positions, new Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter's wait was longer. Let go by Ohio University after going 19-11 in 2001, Hunter spent four seasons as an assistant coach to Herb Sendek at North Carolina State. Hunter's institution of the Princeton-style offense in the NC State program played a significant role in the Wolfpack's reaching four consecutive NCAA Tournaments and last season's Sweet 16.

"I had a strong desire to become a head coach again," Hunter said. "I had a wonderful experience with Herb and at NC State, and I have many good memories. But I really enjoy running my own program, preparing our team and coaching the games."

There's little question that both Dement and Hunter appreciate the opportunity to be a head coach again. Although both coaches left their previous head coaching positions under less-than-ideal situations, Hunter and Dement have far more success than failure on their résumés.

Hunter, with 25 seasons of head coaching experience and 509 victories, spent 13 seasons at Division III Wittenberg (Ohio) University. There he won a Division III national title and finished third on two other occasions. In 1989, Hunter was hired by Ohio and led the Bobcats to the 1994 NCAA Tournament. Three players he coached -- Dave Jamerson, Gary Trent and Brandon Hunter -- were selected in the NBA draft. He has had two losing seasons in 25 seasons.

Hunter finds similarities between Western Carolina and Ohio. Both schools are in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Both programs hired him when they were struggling -- Western Carolina finished last season 8-22 overall and 3-13 in league play. And both jobs require that the coach find players that nearby high-major programs don't want.

In Ohio, there aren't a lot of high school players dying to play for the Bobcats. Not if Ohio State or Cincinnati or, of late, Xavier is an option. The same is true in a state that includes North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest and NC State. In addition, the University of Tennessee is only 100 miles away.

"It's easy to identify the top 150 players; it's especially easy to tell who the top 40 or 50 are," Hunter said. "But there are still another 200, 250 guys who are very committed, very talented and very good basketball players. Some of those guys are going to be late bloomers."

At Ohio, Hunter made a living on guys who didn't have true positions at the high-major level. He admits that he likes wide bodies who are going to present matchup problems for opposition. Those are some of the kind of guys Hunter wants for his Princeton offense.

"We really need to continue to increase the talent level and depth," Hunter said.

Like Hunter, Dement had success at his previous stops. His first stop was at Cornell. There he had a role in a pretty good trivia question (What was the last Ivy League team other than Penn or Princeton to reach the NCAA Tournament?) when he led the Big Red to the 1988 Ivy title. From there, Dement was hired by UNC Greensboro for the first time, then went to SMU in 1997. In 18 seasons, he has had only five in which his team finished under .500.

Out of coaching a year ago, Dement spent time watching other teams practice and play. He also assessed what was important to him.

"I spent a lot of time reflecting, and I got in better habits like working out, going to church and going for walks with my dog," said Dement, who replaced new Siena coach Fran McCaffery. "I had forgotten what I was in this [for] to begin with. But when you're out, you tend to realize how fortunate you were to coach."

Dement admits it's a bit weird to return to a place where he coached in the early 1990s -- no, he didn't buy the house he lived in before -- but he said he's excited to be back. He even said this week that he was excited to be back on the road recruiting.

Dement's job at UNC Greensboro should be easier than Hunter's at Western Carolina. Last season, the Spartans were 18-12 overall and 9-7 in the league. UNC Greensboro improved as the season went along and upset SoCon regular-season champion Davidson in the conference tournament. The Spartans will build around sophomore forward Kyle Hines, who averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, and junior guard Ricky Hickman (14.5 ppg).

Summer indicators
Good signs: A year ago, Davidson beat Missouri in its season opener and hung tough with several other high-major opponents. Don't be surprised if the Wildcats do the same this November and December. Yes, Davidson lost big man Logan Kosmalski and reserve forward Conor Grace, but the Wildcats return five players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game. One of those players is wing Brendan Winters, who averaged 16.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. This week, Winters was invited to try out for the United States' World University Games team. Throw in the fact that Davidson coach Bob McKillop might be the premier coach in the SoCon, and the Wildcats should be very solid.

On a completely unrelated note, the Southern Conference coaches probably aren't crushed that they don't have to find a way to defend East Tennessee State guard Tim Smith. Although Smith did decide to return to the Bucs for his senior season after originally entering the NBA draft, ETSU no longer is part of the Southern Conference. While much has been made about conference realignment in the ACC, Big East, Conference USA and Atlantic 10, East Tennessee quietly moved into the Atlantic Sun. Smith led the Southern Conference in scoring a year ago, averaging 22.2 points per game. He scored 30 or more points on six occasions and dropped 41 points on Georgia Southern late in the season.

Red flag: That Davidson was not an NCAA Tournament team last season spoke to where the Southern Conference fits in the basketball landscape nationally. The Wildcats rolled through the regular season, going 16-0 and finishing an astonishing six games ahead of every other school. No team in college basketball won its league by as many games as Davidson did. But when the Wildcats lost to UNC Greensboro in the SoCon tournament, they had little chance of getting an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. They ended last season with an RPI of 78.

Consecutive losses to UMass, Seton Hall and Princeton around the holidays seriously damaged Davidson's chances. But the Wildcats weren't helped by their league, either. Davidson was the only Southern Conference team in the RPI top 115. Elon, East Tennessee State, Western Carolina and The Citadel all had RPIs worse than 270. As a result, the SoCon finished last season No. 20 in conference RPI. If the league has aspirations of ever being more than simply a one-bid league, improving its RPI is crucial.

Worth watching: For much of the last decade, the College of Charleston has been the Southern Conference program that made the biggest splash nationally. This upcoming season will be an interesting one for the Cougars. College of Charleston won 18 games overall and 10 in league play a year ago with a senior nucleus. Tom Herrion's team returns only one of its top five scorers from last season, junior guard Dontaye Draper. The Cougars will be extremely young as Drew Hall will be the only senior who played regularly last season.

When a team returns a decent part of a squad that won the league by six games last season, it makes sense to pick that team again. Maybe this time Davidson can win the only games that truly matter -- in the conference tournament -- and make someone's life miserable in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

2006 Bracketology


* – NCAA Tournament
# – NIT

Note: East Tennessee State moved to the Atlantic Sun conference this season.

Note: ETSU's Tim Smith would have been the league's leading returning scorer at 22.2 points per game.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.