Every coaching change has ripple effects, even in the doldrums of a pandemic. The ripple effects of its latest spin — Danny Manning’s ouster at Wake Forest — could make significant statements about two separate mid-major leagues.
When the Demon Deacons locked up Steve Forbes to replace Manning, it opened up a sparkling opportunity late in the game. Forbes’ tremendous five-year run in Johnson City — in which he never won less than 24 games in season — had a historically successful program on solid footing, with the new coach having at least a chance to inherit quality players like Bo Hodges, Patrick Good and Daivien Williamson.
But regardless of how the roster shakes out next season, Forbes had proven what is possible at ETSU.
Before the world was turned on its ear, the Bucs were one of the handful of teams to actually cut down nets in 2020 when they beat Wofford in the SoCon Tournament final. That punched their ticket, but even had they lost that game, there was a chance — even if hazy — that they would’ve received an at-large. In a college basketball landscape continuously tilting more in the favor of high major schools, that sort of program-altering, at-large potential is attractive.
Attractive enough that it, among other things, reportedly has Chris Jans in the mix with the potential for the Bucs to increase his salary.
Source confirms to KTSM that East Tennessee State has interest in New Mexico State basketball coach Chris Jans. No deal in place as of now but ETSU would be able to significantly increase Jans’ base salary.— Colin Deaver (@ColinDeaverTV) May 4, 2020
The New Mexico State head coach is not stuck in a dreary situation. He’s led the Aggies to a 82-17 record over his three seasons in Las Cruces, obliterating the WAC along the way to the tune of a 42-3 regular season record, three regular season titles and two NCAA Tournament appearances (via the league auto-bid). In a pandemic-free reality, the Aggies were very likely dancing again this year with a team that had shaken off injuries to be riding a 19-game winning streak when the season ended.
NMSU, at least on its own, is no low major. The Pan-American Center is a top-50 stadium in the country in terms of capacity (12,482) and has a Final Four banner hanging in its rafters. The program also has Pascal Siakam, which is a pretty big selling point that continues to get better. And beyond that, it had 2018 WAC POY Jemerrio Jones get a run of games with the Lakers at the end of last season. Few mid-major programs have that kind of NBA cred to sell to recruits.
Nonetheless, should Jans bolt for ETSU, it would reflect strongly on both the WAC and the SoCon.
On the one hand, it makes clear what has been obvious: the possibility of nabbing an at-large in the WAC as it’s currently situated is a Herculean task. We have an almost annual conversation on this site whether the Aggies, usually as they’re in the midst of a 20-some game winning streak, could survive a loss in the WAC Tournament. As much as we’d like to stump for them, the hit the metrics take with the WAC schedule simply doesn’t make that argument feasible without a whale of a non-conference.
That’s especially the case after a year that saw the league take a significant step back, dropping from 17th to 24th in KenPom adjusted league efficiency.
That doesn’t mean the WAC can’t eventually help out the Aggies, even if the only other program to make the NCAA Tournament since it underwent a mass exodus in the early 2010’s — CSU Bakersfield — has just left the league. As always Grand Canyon remains intriguing, now in a different way with a proven mid-major winner in Bryce Drew at the helm, and resource-laden Cal Baptist is off to a great start in its first two years in Division I.
But the WAC’s rosiest short-term outlook is probably still short of where the SoCon already is.
Its banner 2018-19 season saw four teams finish in the KenPom top-100, headlined by a tremendous Wofford team that ran through a tough league undefeated. UNC Greensboro and Furman got high seeds in the NIT that season and a year later, all three programs plus ETSU are continuing to trend upward. That quartet seemingly has the SoCon positioned to be a quality mid-major league for years to come, where a gaudy conference record can put you in the mix for an at-large.
It’s easy to see why the Bucs are interested in Jans. He’s rebuilt his head coaching career in Las Cruces after getting fired after his first season at Bowling Green in 2015 for inappropriate actions in a local bar. A friend of Forbes, he’s got a similar background to the new Wake Forest head man having spent time under Gregg Marshall and coaching in the JuCo ranks.
It is important to note it doesn’t appear anything has been reported on Jans interest in ETSU, other than the implication that he is listening.
The story’s flashpoint really is the progression, which may not seem natural. Jans’ resume screams “Mountain West” school as his next move, much like it was with his predecessors at NMSU, as Marvin Menzies went to UNLV and Paul Weir went to New Mexico. Given his Midwest roots, a move to the Missouri Valley would also seem to make sense intuitively.
The SoCon? That may be a tough pill for some of NMSU’s rabid fan base to handle.
The Aggies and Bucs have been comparable from a KenPom perspective since Forbes took over in 2015, and both have occupied the “dangerous, tough mid-major” mantle and been constantly in the mix in the Other Top 25 poll. ETSU has gotten two NCAA Tournament bids (including this year) during that time while NMSU has gotten three — under Weir and Jans — with a fourth virtually certain had the WAC Tournament gone forward.
That, from a raw numbers standpoint, screams lateral move. But when you consider the context of both conferences, such a move makes absolute sense and may give Jans the best jumping point to a high major job, if that’s an eventual goal of his. That should make the SoCon very excited, and make the WAC bite its collective fingernails.