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Pat Kelsey’s move ignites coaching carousel in the Carolinas

Kelsey’s jump to Charleston leads to a familiar face returning home, and a new opening in the SoCon.

NCAA Basketball: Winthrop at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

After an illustrious nine-year stint as the head coach at Winthrop, Pat Kelsey accepted a well-deserved promotion last week. As the leader of the Winthrop program, Kelsey guided the Eagles to eight winning seasons in nine years. Kelsey compiled a 185-95 record and qualified for three NCAA tournaments in the process.

Last week, Kelsey accepted a new gig, and it is one that won’t even be taking him out of the Palmetto State. The College of Charleston pounced on Kelsey after Earl Grant left to become the head coach at Boston College. Grant leaves the program after an impressive seven-year run where he compiled a record of 127-89, including a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2018.

For the College of Charleston, this hire feels like an absolute home run. After bailing on the UMass job at the last minute in 2017, many speculated that Kelsey would be at Winthrop until a program from a major conference came calling. After leading Winthrop to a 23-2 record this past season, it felt like that call for Kelsey might be coming sooner rather than later.

There will assuredly be skeptics that claim Pat Kelsey is merely taking a lateral step by embracing the job at Charleston, but he certainly doesn’t see it that way. During his introductory press conference, Kelsey boldly claimed that the College of Charleston job has the potential to be one of the 30 best in college basketball.

By Charleston standards, the Cougars are coming off a bit of a down season after finishing 9-10 overall and 6-4 in CAA play. There is also some reason to believe Kelsey could have a little bit of work to do if this team is to return to the NCAA tournament anytime in the near future.

Over recent weeks, a couple of notable players have left the Charleston program. Zep Jasper entered the transfer portal and committed to Auburn, and Brevin Galloway decided to follow Grant to Boston College as a grad transfer. It will certainly be interesting to see how this roster takes shape heading into Kelsey’s first season at Charleston.

A familiar face taking the reins in Rock Hill

The moment it was confirmed that Kelsey was moving on, there was one name that Winthrop fans keyed on to. Mark Prosser was always sort of seen as Pat Kelsey’s apprentice, and he spent six years next to him on the Winthrop bench. If you ask some Winthrop supporters, this hire was a “no brainer.”

Prosser has spent the last three years testing himself in the challenging Southern Conference, and his three-year run in Cullowhee was largely a mixed bag in terms of success. Unsurprisingly, Western Carolina struggled in Prosser’s first year posting a record of 7-25 overall and 4-14 in conference play.

Year number two was seen as a roaring success. The Catamounts took a substantial leap, finishing 19-12 and 10-8 in Southern Conference play. In an emerging conference featuring consistent winners such as Wofford, Furman, UNC Greensboro, and East Tennessee State this was a huge step in the right direction.

Prosser and the Catamounts failed to build on the progress seen in year two and sputtered to a 4-13 SoCon record in 2020-21. While the Catamounts were unfortunate with injuries, close losses, and COVID pauses, Prosser’s poor showing in year three could still be enough to warrant some concern in Rock Hill.

Despite leaving Cullowhee on a sour note, when Winthrop came calling Prosser didn’t hesitate to pounce on the opportunity. Through his first couple of days as the Winthrop head coach, he has continuously emphasized that Rock Hill is “home.”

Winthrop is currently the toast of the Big South, and despite Kelsey’s departure the expectation in Rock Hill next season will be another NCAA tournament berth. That could be a challenging feat, however. Winthrop absolutely cruised through the Big South this year, not losing a single conference game. Kelsey set an esteemed standard at Winthrop, and if the team gets off to a rocky start next year Prosser’s honeymoon period might not last for very long.

Unfortunately for Prosser, Pat Kelsey isn’t the only notable name leaving the Winthrop basketball program this offseason. Leading scorer Chandler Vaudrin is headed to the NBA, and key supporting pieces Adonis Arms, Charles Falden, and Josh Corbin have entered the transfer portal.

Some very interesting players are still set to return including Kelton Talford and colossal post presence D.J. Burns Jr., who should be a preseason favorite for Big South Player of the Year.

Coaching change and roster turnover aside, Winthrop supporters will still reasonably have high expectations for next season. Winthrop has firmly established itself as the most consistent program in the conference, and there is enough returning next year that fans should expect another team that is at least in contention for the Big South championship.

Where do the Catamounts go from here?

The situation in Cullowhee is dire. Despite a disappointing year three, plenty of Western Carolina fans were still upset to see Mark Prosser leave as there was still belief that he was in the process of building a successful program on the mountain. Prosser’s absence was followed by a mass exodus of the Western Carolina roster.

Eight Western Carolina players have entered the transfer portal so far, including nearly every notable contributor from last season. The Catamounts currently only have four players on the roster that are on scholarship. As a program that has only made the NCAA tournament on one occasion, in a conference that is seemingly getting more difficult every single year, this might not be the most attractive job in the world.

Whoever inherits this position will be tasked with a serious rebuilding effort, one that probably won’t happen overnight. It is impossible to project who Western Carolina may hire here, but there will still be some intriguing names on the market.

UNC Wilmington assistant Monty Sanders should be one name in serious contention for this gig. Sanders was a WCU assistant for the first two years of Mark Prosser’s tenure in Cullowhee. Some Catamount fans even partly attribute the disappointing 2020-2021 season to Sanders’ departure. Before joining Mark Prosser’s bench at WCU, Sanders spent the previous eight years as an assistant at his alma mater, Elon. Known as a recruiting savant with deeply entrenched ties in the Tar Heel State, it would be a crime if Sanders didn’t at least get an interview.

Another interesting in-state name is UNC Greensboro assistant Andre Gray, who has 17 years of collegiate coaching experience at numerous programs throughout North Carolina. The Spartans currently run one of the best programs in the Southern Conference, so perhaps Gray has learned what it takes to win in the SoCon from his time working with Wes Miller.

It seems unlikely Western Carolina AD Alex Gary would do this, but nearly everyone is in consensus that former East Tennessee State head coach Jason Shay was unfairly asked to resign after supporting his players when they protested before a game this season. It is reasonable if the WCU administration thinks Shay might be bringing in too much baggage that could fracture the fanbase, but he would be a phenomenal fit for this program.

After spending five years as an assistant at East Tennessee State, Shay led the Buccaneers to a 13-12 record in his first year as the head coach. If Shay is hungry and eager for another opportunity, accepting the job to lead one of ETSU’s biggest rivals sure would make for some great storylines.

This seems like more of a longshot candidate, but if the Catamounts wanted to grab some headlines they could make a push for Northwest Missouri State’s Ben McCollum. McCollum has built the best program at the Division II level, winning three national championships over the past five seasons. It seems inevitable that McCollum will eventually make the jump to Division 1, but he’ll probably be slightly picky and wait for what he views as the right fit. It still wouldn’t hurt to call, though.