Can coach Kenny Brooks turn around Kentucky in the SEC?

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Two days after fourth-seeded Virginia Tech was upset in the second round of the women’s NCAA tournament, the Hokies’ Kenny Brooks has stepped down to take over as head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.

Brooks, a Virginia native, leaves Blacksburg after eight seasons. He guided Virginia Tech to its first Final Four appearance in 2023 and compiled a 180-82 record since taking over in 2017. In Lexington, Brooks replaces Kyra Elzy, who was let go this month after consecutive losing seasons.

In 22 seasons as a Division I head coach, Brook sports a .717 career winning percentage. He has had just one losing record, in 2003-04, his second season at James Madison, where he coached for 14 years prior to joining Virginia Tech. Brooks was 8-4 against SEC teams with the Hokies.

Virginia Tech led the ACC in offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage in 2023-24, while Kentucky was last in both categories this past season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

How will Brooks fit into the SEC? What is Virginia Tech’s path forward? We take a look.

What does Brooks bring to Kentucky

Kentucky reached its greatest period of success in women’s basketball with three trips to the Elite Eight in a four-season span from 2010 to 2013 under coach Matthew Mitchell. After he retired for health and family reasons just before the 2020-21 season, Elzy was elevated from her assistant role to head coach and guided the Wildcats to just the program’s second SEC tournament title in 2022.

Kentucky has had real success, but also some down years. For a long time, it was difficult to be the “other” basketball program in Big Blue Nation. Not much different from the situation for women’s hoops teams at places such as Kansas, Duke and North Carolina, where the spotlight on legendary men’s programs can be all-consuming.

That has changed gradually over the years, to the point where that spotlight can expand for other sports at those schools. We know how much love for basketball there is at Kentucky, and Brooks can tap into that.

Going into the SEC has its pluses and its drawbacks. From a conference stability standpoint, the SEC is rock-solid. There is a lot of visibility for SEC programs. But the league has been dominated by one program — South Carolina — for the past decade, and Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley shows no signs of slowing down.

Plus, LSU is the defending national champion, and perennial NCAA tournament programs such as Texas and Oklahoma are joining the SEC. The conference, even in so-called down seasons, is stacked.

This had to be a difficult move for Brooks, a Virginia native who to this point had spent his entire coaching career there. Now, he moves from one commonwealth to another, from a league where his Hokies won a regular-season title this year to one where doing that could be about as tough as winning a national championship. But his success at James Madison and Virginia Tech are good indications that he is up to the challenge. — Michael Voepel

What does Brooks’ departure mean for Virginia Tech?

The 2024-25 campaign was already going to be one of transition for the Hokies after three-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley finished her college career. And there was no guarantee all-American Georgia Amoore, who is a senior, would stay a fifth year. But with Brooks now departing, and presumably taking members of the program with him, Blacksburg faces a tall task ahead in keeping the Hokies at the level they achieved under Brooks.

It took time for Brooks, who arrived ahead of the 2016-17 season, to turn Virginia Tech into an ACC and national contender, and to build a fan base that became one of the nation’s most electric. Athletic director Whit Babcock must find a leader who can maintain a strong sense of culture within the program and keep it from slipping back into its days of irrelevance (the Hokies achieved their first winning record in ACC play under Brooks and went 15 years without a NCAA tournament appearance before first making it under him in 2021).

Shawn Poppie, who worked under Brooks for years at Virginia Tech, would have made a lot of sense as Brooks’ successor, but as of Tuesday morning reportedly was taking the head coaching job at Clemson. It’ll be fascinating to see what sorts of candidates Blacksburg can attract in this college sports landscape and with uncertainty escalating within the ACC. — Alexa Philippou

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