First-year men's college basketball coaches: Who's overachieving, who's not?

Xavier head coach Sean Miller has changed his approach to the game since his Arizona days, and now has the Musketeers as a legitimate Big East contender. Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly every first-year coach has a learning curve after taking over a new program. A few weeks to get their feet wet, find their way around campus, learn the area.

That wasn't the case for Sean Miller, who returned to Xavier after spending eight years with the Musketeers as an assistant and head coach in the early 2000s.

Which doesn't mean everything is the same. The biggest change? Since Miller left in 2009, the Musketeers moved from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East.

"Being in the Big East Conference, how strong the Big East is right now, it makes an already really special place that much greater," Miller told ESPN this week. "That's no disrespect to being in the Atlantic 10. But Madison Square Garden, the pageantry, the 20-game season, it ignites the fan base. The profile, being in the Big East, that's the biggest difference.

"But a lot of the things that made Xavier special are still in place. A university aligned with college basketball. They support it. They love it. With no football, basketball has always been the front porch here. It's created a love affair between the city of Cincinnati and Xavier basketball. Now with the Big East next to it, it's amplified it."

Miller took over a program used to winning. Xavier went to the NCAA tournament in all but two seasons from 2001 to 2018 -- but the Musketeers hadn't gone dancing since Chris Mack left for Louisville after the 2018 tournament.

With four of their top six scorers returning from last season, though, Miller wasn't planning on a rebuild.

"We had experience returning here. Jack Nunge, Zach Freemantle, Colby Jones, that's three All-Big East performers. All veteran players," he said. "For a new coach, that's certainly a great setup."

When Miller took stock of the roster, he knew he needed one more key player, so he went into the portal for a scoring combo guard and came out with Souley Boum, who once had 16 points against Miller's Arizona team in 2020-21. Boum was a high-level scorer at UTEP, but it was something else that caught Miller's eye.

"A player who draws fouls over a four-year college career, they know how to do that. That's not something they won't carry with them," Miller said. "We wanted a guard who could play, who could score. He's a wonderful guy. He really is. I give him a lot of credit, he joined a group that had already been together. He just really has fit in extremely well."

Boum is one of the best transfers in the country and leads the team in scoring, while Freemantle, Nunge, Jones and fellow returnee Adam Kunkel are all averaging double figures. The quintet has Xavier atop the Big East standings, and in position for a top-four seed come Selection Sunday. The Musketeers went on an 11-game winning streak after neutral-court losses to Duke and Gonzaga in late November.

The losses dropped Xavier to 4-3 coming out of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, Oregon, but Miller wasn't concerned.

"What it did was harden our group. I don't think anybody really panicked," he said. "It makes you aware of what you have to improve. November is sometimes fool's gold. Not until you get against better opponents do you realize you're missing something. We kind of knew from day one what we could do well and the things we needed to work on."

The team's offense has taken off since, ranking fifth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency in the past 13 games. Miller, not known for pushing the pace and free-flowing offenses during his time at Arizona, now has a team ranking in the top 15 nationally in tempo and fifth in the country in 3-point shooting percentage. By comparison, only one of Miller's Wildcats teams ranked in the top 100 in tempo: his first, in 2010.

He credits his season away from coaching for the change.

"You start thinking, what are the things, if you get another opportunity, you would do differently? What are the things you believe in and want to keep?" Miller said. "Playing at a faster pace sounds good but you need the firepower that can do that. You can try to play fast, but if certain guys can't score the ball or shoot the ball, it doesn't work as well.

"But playing at a faster tempo, that's something that's here to stay."

Based on Miller's first three months back at Xavier, it looks like winning is there to stay as well.

Jerome Tang: National Coach of the Year favorite?

Last season, Arizona's Tommy Lloyd was the longtime assistant-turned-head-coach who took the country by storm, guiding the Wildcats to a 33-4 record after spending 20 seasons as an assistant coach for Mark Few at Gonzaga.

Kansas State hoped for similar success when it hired Tang last spring, convincing him to leave Baylor after 19 years as an assistant with Scott Drew.

"When you spend that much time in one place and you work with a guy that closely, you have your beliefs but they allow you to insert some of you into the program." Tang told ESPN this week. "Mark [Few] could go on vacation and not have to worry about anything. When Scott got COVID, he said the least of his worries is the basketball, the coaching. The responsibilities both of our head coaches gave us really just prepared us. The similarity is that Tommy and I both were hired by programs that gave us the resources that we needed."

Despite Tuesday's four-point loss at Iowa State, Kansas State is off to a 17-3 start, tied for first in the Big 12 at 6-2 -- and ranked No. 5 in this week's AP poll, its highest ranking since 2010-11. All this for a team picked to finish last in the preseason Big 12 poll.

"I knew we were a tournament team when practice started. When they picked us 10th, I thought, well, then, 10 teams from the Big 12 are going to the NCAA tournament," Tang said.

After last season, Kansas State lost nine of its top 11 players, leaving just Markquis Nowell and Ismael Massoud. But Tang went into the portal to rebuild the roster, including two junior college transfers and former SEC Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson, the Florida forward who hadn't played since collapsing on the court against Florida State in December 2020.

Tang took a chance on Johnson returning to his old form, and it paid off. Johnson ranks third in the Big 12 in scoring (18.3 PPG) and rebounding (7.5 RPG). Combined with Nowell, who is fifth in the league in scoring (17.1 PPG) and first in assists (8.3 APG), Kansas State has one of the elite duos in college basketball.

"It's their experience. And they are both great human beings, great young men and their teammates love them. It's easy to celebrate them," Tang said. "And not just them. You've got Desi Sills. Baybe [Iyiola]. Tykei [Greene]. You've got guys who have played a lot. We can have tough and transparent conversations with them, where we're at, where we need to get to, what needs to change. And they're grown. They know how to handle things. They have emotional maturity."

Kansas State opened the season with 15 wins in its first 16 games, including back-to-back road wins at Texas and Baylor. Against the Longhorns, the Wildcats scored 116 points -- then handed Tang's former school a loss four days later.

That's when Tang knew he had a legitimate top-15 team on his hands.

"It was just how they handled it," he said. "How they handled one win to the next, the in-between preparation."

At Baylor, Tang helped produce one of the biggest turnarounds in college sports history, with Drew taking over a program mired in scandal in 2003 and leading it to its first national championship less than 20 years later. While the rebuilding effort at Kansas State isn't as severe, the Wildcats already have their most wins in a season since 2019, and are positioned for their highest NCAA tournament seed since 2010.

"I never saw Kansas State as a rebuild," Tang said. "It simply needed to be elevated."

It's clear Tang has huge plans in Manhattan. After Kansas State's overtime win over Kansas earlier this month, he grabbed the microphone once everyone had rushed the floor in celebration.

"I told y'all we'll get you one court storming," he said. "From here on out, expect to win."

How the other new power-conference coaches are faring