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Profile of a possible savior: Tim Jankovich

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This guy’s been coaching for longer than Will Wade’s been alive.

2K Classic
I can point too, pal!
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Southern Methodist University hasn’t made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament since the 1960s, but that could change this spring under Tim Jankovich, who is in his first full year as head man on the Mustangs’ sidelines. Despite a gaudy 24-4 record, SMU is ranked just 17th in the AP poll thanks to the subpar competition in the American Athletic Conference (sorry, PirateWolf), but Jank’s ‘stangs have a championship résumé in KenPom’s rankings with both a top 25 offense and defense.

Jankovich’s squad has won 20 of its last 21 games, with the only defeat coming on the road by two points against fellow POAPSter Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats. Though he’s primarily patrolled the sidelines in flyover country, could Jankovich make the leap east and replicate his AAC success for NC State in the ACC?

Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:

1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?

Jankovich, serving in an interim capacity while Larry Brown was golfing due to an NCAA suspension, piloted the Mustangs to a 9-0 start and top 10 ranking a year ago, and, as mentioned above, what is now his team—Brown abruptly resigned over the summer—is in the top 20 now. He’s a ridiculous 33-4 at SMU, but this will be his first NCAA tournament as a head coach.

Previously, he piloted Illinois State to four 21-or-more-win seasons in five years but never made the big dance, falling in the MVC championship game three times (twice in overtime). Jankovich was also unable to make postseason play at North Texas, his first gig as a head coach. Additionally, he had a stint as the head coach at Hutchinson Community College.

The well-traveled Jankovich has had 10 different stops as an assistant, most notably a four-year stint at Kansas. He was part of Bill Self’s original staff that replaced Ol’ Roy after Ol’ Roy changed his mind and decided that he did, in fact, give a shit about Carolina.

2. Has he built a program from the ground up?

The Mean Green have a brutal basketball history. They have been ranked once in the AP poll, back in 75-76, and they have never won an NCAA tournament game (in their three whole trips) during an existence that dates to the 20s. Jankovich inherited a 5-21 North Texas team and promptly won 14 games in his first year. He went from the ground to basically .500. Unfortunately, he never did much better and decided to jettison that basketball desert after four years for Hutchison. The dude that followed him for the Mean Green managed a high of seven wins during his four-year stint.

I think of ISU as one of those sneaky mid-majors that springs Big Dance upsets, but the Redbirds actually haven’t been to the tournament since ’98 (under Kevin Stallings, whose name seems to keep coming up in my POAPSmears in some sort of Kevin Bacon degrees of separation sort of way). The Redbirds, in fact, were coming off a couple of losing seasons when Jankovich arrived, including one where it managed a brutal 55 points per game. Jank’s first team improved by 10 wins over his predecessor, Porter Moser, but he could never break through and win the MVC tournament in his time in Normal. While Dan Muller is thought of as a hot name in the “up-and-coming” ranks, ISU declined significantly in the couple years subsequent to his taking over for Jank.

3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?

That’s more or less alluded to above, but heck yes. North Texas’s 9-win improvement was the second most in the NCAA that year. And he did it with…(wait for it)…defense! The Mean Green went from 298th to 99th in points allowed from pre-Jank to Jank. (Sorry, no fancy KenPom numbers from way back then.) Same story at ISU; his first team climbed from 67th before him to 26th in KenPom’s defensive metrics. That rise led to the aforementioned 10-win improvement. Last year he was undefeated at SMU; when Larry Brown came back, the ‘stangs were a still respectable but less impressive 16-5. Now, SMU is arguably the best it’s ever been.

4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?

The answer here depends on how you define success. Until now, he’s never been a head coach at a school with a genuine opportunity to make a sustained run in the tournament, but he’s been much better than the status quo wherever he’s coached. In short, I’d say yes.

5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?

His head coaching exploits are already well chronicled above. In chronological order, Jankovich has been an assistant at the following high-major (and high-majorish) programs: Kansas State, Texas, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt (under Stallings!), Illinois, and Kansas. He’s got a total of 34 years under his belt as a college coach; I’d say that’s pretty significant.

6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?

SMU is the best in just about every measure, leading Cincinnati in KenPom, the AAC standings (by half a game), but trailing the Bearcats by a hair in RPI.

7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?

I give you this delicious quote: “If they…play their tail off on defense and rebound at a high level. If they do that, they earn more freedom on the offensive end.” Defense is first in Jankovich’s philosophy, and the numbers bear it out. The Mustangs are 20th in AdjD. If he had just said fannies, a la Chuck Amato, we’d know he’d be a perfect fit at State.

8. So how about offense?

Jankovich, unlike his predecessor, is a proponent of the three-point shot. The Mustangs are 122nd in percentage of points from the bonusphere this season, up from 275th a year ago. His teams seem to understand shot selection, taking over 70% of their total shots from either the arc or at the rim. His teams are, however, deliberate, like Virginia deliberate. It might not be fun and gun, but SMU’s offense is resulting in 1.12 points per possession this year and a KenPom AdjO ranking of 21st.

9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?

Jankovich’s first pledge as head coach at SMU was Elijah Landrum, a three-star point guard who also held offers from Houston, Texas Tech, and VCU. There are a couple of other three-star pledges in the class of 2017, both top 300 type guys. The top recruit is William Douglas, who is ranked 115th by 247sports. Shake Milton is the only SMU-recruited consensus four-star on the roster, though Duke transfer (and former top 30 prospect) Semi Ojeleye has blossomed into a stud after not getting much floor time for Coach K.

This is not ACC level recruiting, but it’s good enough for a 24-4 record with an experienced and competent coach. Jankovich, who was well regarded as a recruiter when an assistant at high-major programs, would likely lure better talent to Raleigh. He’s also been handcuffed a bit by scholarship reductions due to an NCAA violation that occurred under Brown’s watch. He has a slew of top 100 recruits listing SMU from the class of 2018, when scholarship levels will return to normal.

10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?

He was “coach in waiting” under Brown, but his footprint is basically Texas and the Midwest.

11. Any other random red flags or positives?

The major red flag for Jankovich is his association with some pretty shady dudes, Brown chief among them. The Dean Smith protégé had numerous run-ins with the NCAA, most recently an academic fraud scandal (gasp!) that cost him nine games. It was more costly for SMU, which was given a postseason ban a year ago and a loss of scholarships. (Aside: note that this bit of justice was meted out for exactly ONE case of academic fraud that occurred before a recruit was even enrolled at SMU. Meanwhile, a decades-long, institutionalized system of academic fraud designed to keep players eligible at UNC is yet unpunished).

Eddie Sutton, who Jankovich also coached under, nearly killed Kentucky, getting the school a two-year postseason ban and one-year TV ban for a laundry list of violations that included bribing recruits, though Jank joined Sutton much later when he was at Oklahoma State.

Some of us who are getting long in the tooth might consider this a positive, but Jank has coached for longer than some POAPS candidates have been on the planet. He’ll be 58 when next season gets underway. That still gives him 7-10 years of coaching life in all likelihood, but can he relate to the kids these days? Do you want to bring in a guy that, even if he’s wildly successful, will in all likelihood have a short tenure? In just a few years, opposing whippersnapper coaches will be whispering in players ears: “You sure you want to play for a guy that might not be around to see you graduate?”

On the positive spectrum, the dude shot 91.7% from the line in his college career and over 50% from the floor from the guard position. Maybe he can teach some free throwing around here?

Another bit of intrigue is that Semi Ojeleye should be a grad transfer possibility. Could Jank bring him along?

Summary:

Would he be better than Gottfried?

I don’t think there’s any question that Jankovich could beat Gott’s players with his players, or his players with Gott’s players, and his history of immediately improving programs from year one is intriguing.

OK, so what is his ceiling?

Let’s see how far he takes the Mustangs. If he makes a run with the talent gap he’ll face perhaps as soon as the second round, then there is no ceiling on what he could accomplish with ACC talent, provided he can lure said talent to Raleigh. If he doesn’t recruit at a high level by ACC standards, he’s probably Jim Larrañaga. Hey, if that’s your floor, that’s pretty good.

Would he take the job if offered?

Probably not. Damn, I spent all this time on this for nothing. Despite the fact that he’s not a 40 or even 30-something, Jankovich should be a hot commodity for high-major schools coach shopping this offseason. An Indiana native who has spent nearly his entire career in flyover country probably has his sights sets on a Big 10 or Big 12 job. Maybe he returns to K-State, his alma mater, after we hire Bruce Weber! (I kid, I kid.)

Indiana, Ohio State, Oklahoma…those would probably be Jank’s dream jobs if he is even job hunting, and he may well have a shot at all of the above.

How would I feel if he were hired?

I can get past the age thing. I love the experience and the results he’s had as a head coach, especially this year at SMU. As the weight of losing buries my moral compass, I find the association with a who’s who in crooked coaches to be less untenable, but Larry Brown? Larry Brown??? I question the man’s judgment there.

How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?

The answer here is also dependent on how SMU does in the tournament. If the Mustangs were to make the Final Four, I think the average State fan would be pretty excited to get the guy that led little old SMU to college basketball’s biggest stage for the first time since it fell to the San Francisco Dons in the 1956 Final Four. If Jank gets jerked from the tourney early, I think the response would largely be, “Who? We totally screwed this up again!”