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Sizing up 20 top Coach of the Year candidates, more Hoop Thoughts

Of all the major awards, the Coach of the Year is by definition the least, well, defined. Often times, it goes to the coach whose team has exceeded preseason expectations, but why should someone be rewarded just for proving a bunch of media people wrong? The guys with the most talented players usually don't warrant consideration, even though we all agree that recruiting is the most important part of the job.

I like to find a combination of those two criteria, but I also tend to take a larger view. It takes several years for a coach to build up a program. Sometimes my Coach of the Year vote really goes to someone who is the best Coach of the Last Several Years. It's my ballot and I'll define it how I want to.

DAVIS: Fresh Takes

Here, then, is my take on the top 20 candidates to this point. I'm sure opinions will fluctuate over the next few weeks, but the choice for the top spot should be obvious: Miami's Jim Larranaga. I'm sure that if the balloting would be held today, he would be a runaway choice. Still, there are five weeks until the start of the NCAA tournament, and as we've all seen this season, anything can happen -- and usually does.

As Casey Kasem would say ... on with the countdown:

20. Tony Bennett, Virginia. Anyone else notice that the Cavaliers are alone in third place in the ACC? They won at Wisconsin and beat Tennessee in Charlottesville during nonconference play. Yes, the Cavs also lost to Old Dominion in Richmond, but they were playing that game without injured point guard Jontel Evans.

19. Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss. It's a good thing Kennedy has already lost his hair, because he would be pulling it out while coaching with the volatile, talented guard Marshall Henderson. The Rebels have been dealing with injuries and hit a bad stretch recently, losing three out of four games, but they are still in excellent position to nab the school's first NCAA tournament bid since 2002.

18. Bill Coen, Northeastern. My colleague Pete Thamel did a terrific job explaining how Coen has transformed a ragtag bunch of under-recruited overachievers and put them on the brink of their first NCAA tournament since 1991 -- despite losing his best player to injury for two months. The Huskies may be benefiting mostly from a diminished CAA, but give them credit for climbing to first place with a two-game lead.

17. Steve Alford, New Mexico. The Lobos don't overwhelm teams with their talent, but few coaches have done a better job of getting players to stay within their roles. From the start, New Mexico has been the class of a very good Mountain West Conference.

16. Mark Few, Gonzaga. A lot of people take Gonzaga's success for granted, but they shouldn't. This team is always a factor because Few recruits solid players who buy into the program's gym-rat culture. Few was also responsible for persuading 7-foot junior center Kelly Olynyk to redshirt last year so he could develop his body and his post game.

15. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State. Yes, the Shockers have stumbled of late, but keep in mind that this is a team that lost five seniors, including two all-conference players, from last season. It has also been rocked by injuries. Yet, Wichita State is alone in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference and looks to be in excellent shape to reach the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

14. Brad Stevens, Butler. There are not many coaches who do more with less than Coach Cool. His teams are smart and tough, especially at the defensive end. The Bulldogs have been tripped up in conference play (they lost at home to Charlotte Wednesday night but were playing without injured center Andrew Smith), but they do a great job rising to the occasion against elite teams. Just ask Indiana and Gonzaga.

13. Sean Miller, Arizona. This is a program vote as well as an endorsement of what Miller has done with this team. Few coaches are as good at loading up players -- and then coaching them up -- as Miller. The relationship he forged as Xavier's coach while recruiting Mark Lyons proved invaluable when Lyons transferred to Tucson last spring. Miller's teams defend hard, and when they can get out on the break and score, they're as dangerous as any team in America.

12. Billy Donovan, Florida. This is Donovan's best defensive team since his back-to-back championship teams of 2006-07. Like a lot of teams, the Gators have had a few moments to forget, such as their blown lead late at Arizona and last week's drubbing at Arkansas, but for the most part they've been remarkably consistent.

11. Dana Altman, Oregon. Having to play with an all-freshman backcourt is usually the kiss of death, but Altman, who has always done a great job teaching fullcourt pressure, has the Ducks in a three-way tie for first place in the Pac-12. All of their losses inside the league came after they lost freshman point guard Dominic Artis to a foot injury, but he will hopefully be back soon.

10. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin. No one does a better job of recruiting players who suit his style and then develop them from year to year. That's why the Badgers always seem to have players nobody has heard of and still finish in the top tier of the Big Ten. It looked like this year's team was going to break that string after its starting point guard, Josh Gasser, tore his ACL in the preseason. No problem: Next man up. Traevon Jackson has stepped in nicely, and now the Badgers are once again alone in third place in the toughest conference in America. How does he do it? Only Bo knows.

9. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma. In just his second year in Norman, Kruger has taken the Sooners from a Big 12 doormat who won just five league games last season to an NCAA tournament team that is currently alone in fourth place.

8. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse. In case you think it's automatic that a program should be in the top 10 every season, let me assure you it's not. Boeheim did a masterful job managing his team through the suspension of James Southerland, and despite Wednesday night's setback against UConn it remains the favorite to win the Big East. Nobody in the country plays a higher percentage of defensive possessions in a zone, yet no opponent has figured out how to solve it, and very few coaches have tried to copy it. That remains one of the game's great mysteries.

7. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke. Again, people just assumed that Duke should be a top-five team every year, but this is not a vintage Blue Devils team by any stretch. Seth Curry basically doesn't practice because of leg injury, and Ryan Kelly hasn't played since Jan. 8 because of his foot injury. Yet Duke keeps right on rolling, and you can see it getting better in Kelly's absence. Krzyzewski and his coaching staff have also done a great job developing senior center Mason Plumlee into a national player of the year candidate. If Kelly does return in time for the ACC tournament as hoped, it would give the Blue Devils a big boost at just the right time.

6. Tim O'Shea, Bryant. O'Shea has the Bulldogs alone in first place in the NEC with a 9-2 record (16-6 overall). Big deal, you say? Well, consider that last year, Bryant finished with a 1-17 record in the conference (2-28 overall). That has to be one of the great one-year turnarounds in recent history. The Bulldogs were not eligible to play in the conference tournament the last four years, because they had limited status in the wake of their move to Division I. Now, not only are they eligible, but they are poised to host the tournament as the No. 1 seed and potentially reach the NCAA tournament.

5. Tom Izzo, Michigan State. You could pick any year, and Izzo would likely be in the top five on everybody's COY list. He is doing a particularly good job with this group, considering that the Spartans do not start a true point guard (Keith Appling is a converted two guard), and the fact that it has had to deal with many injuries. As usual, Izzo put together a ridiculously tough nonconference schedule, but that steeled his team for Big Ten play. Also, note how much the Spartans' much-maligned big men, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, have come along in recent weeks. Things like that don't just happen.

4. John Beilein, Michigan. You could make a case for Beilein as COY based solely on what he has done with this team, but when you consider what he has done with this program, his case gets even stronger. The only player on this roster that was considered a high-level recruit is freshman forward Mitch McGary. Trey Burke lived in Columbus and wasn't even pursued by Ohio State. When Beilein took over Michigan in 2007, the program hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in nine years, but now it is headed for its fourth tourney in the last five years and has a very real chance to win the whole thing.

3. Bruce Weber, Kansas State. I mentioned last week in Hoop Thoughts that I was impressed with Weber's ability to coach players that someone else recruited. This is a very difficult thing to do, and it speaks well of Weber's ability to manage personalities. He did the same solid work at Illinois, when he took over for Bill Self and brought the Illini to the 2005 national championship game. Now he is doing the same with Frank Martin's guys. In both cases, Weber took over programs where the coach left by choice for a new job, as opposed to a place where the coach got fired for losing. He is living proof that that is the best way to go.

2. Tom Crean, Indiana. Crean has done a terrific job managing a challenging situation. The fan base has been so hungry to see the program return to elite status that it would have been easy for his players to get caught up in their preseason No. 1 ranking. People forget how young this team is, but Crean has kept his players focused and playing unselfish basketball. And you can't say enough about what he has done considering that during his first season in 2008-09, he had just one player on scholarship, and that player was a former walk-on. Crean took his time and rebuilt this program with high school players of high character. The results speak for themselves.

1. Jim Larranaga, Miami. Count me among the many who snickered when Larranaga left George Mason to take this job. We derided it as an obvious attempt to buttress his 401(k) before sliding into retirement with the rest of the old Betties in South Florida. Look who's getting the last laugh. Larranaga was fortunate that sophomore guard Shane Larkin, whom Larranaga had recruited to George Mason but chose to go to DePaul, changed his mind and decided he wanted to follow Larranaga to Coral Gables. That aside, Larranaga has also done a great job appealing to the desperation of his seniors. These players have not been to the NCAA tournament, but Larranaga has them so focused that they did not suffer any kind of lull after the big win over Duke.

Other Hoop Thoughts

? Anybody else noticing that Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams seems to be regressing?

? I was very sad to hear about the passing of Steve Lavin's father, Cap. He was a great player, teacher, and basketball enthusiast, and he was very close with Steve. I remember covering Lavin's UCLA teams at the NCAA tournament and watching Cap stand at halfcourt in his sweatsuit while the Bruins went through their pregame warmups. My condolences to Steve and his family.

? UConn's backcourt duo of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier get a lot of well-deserved praise, but 6-5 freshman Omar Calhoun has been playing as well as either of those guys the last few weeks. I love guards who can rebound.

? I've been saying that Oklahoma State freshman point guard Marcus Smart could be, pound for pound, the best player in America (especially when you factor in his intangibles). But his backcourtmate, 6-3 junior Markel Brown, has been terrific as well. Brown had a team-high 28 points in the big win at Kansas, and he added 25 (on 7-for-8 three-point shooting) in a win at Texas Tech Wednesday night. If the Cowboys had better frontcourt scoring, they would be Final Four good.

? According to my favorite RPI guru, Jerry Palm, the Mountain West Conference is ranked No. 1 in the conference rankings, ahead of the Big Ten. I don't doubt the numbers, but that does not make any sense to me.

? I've been one of those who have argued that when a team is up three with under 10 seconds to play, the smart play is to commit a foul so the opponent can not attempt a three-point shot. Several studies have confirmed this strategy, but Ken Pomeroy recently did his own that casts doubt on the certainty of previous findings. You can read Ken's conclusions here. I still think fouling when you're up three is the right play, but you can see why a coach should give himself leeway depending on personnel and the specifics of the situation.

? Notre Dame only needed one overtime to beat DePaul Wednesday night. Must have felt like a vacation.

? From the consistently inconsistent department (otherwise known as every-situation-is-different-department): I think the WCC's overall weakness is giving Gonzaga a false sense of security and robbing the Zags of toughness they will need for the NCAA tournament. But I think the Conference USA's overall weakness is giving Memphis some badly-needed confidence that will make the Tigers harder to beat in the NCAA tournament.

? I'm normally very much against schools firing coaches during the season, but I see how USC has played since getting rid of Kevin O'Neill (won four out of six, including three in a row) and how Old Dominion has played since getting rid of Blaine Taylor (won first conference game at Drexel, then the next two by seven points combined), and I kinda get it.

? I'm digging the no-tie look from John Calipari. Shoot, if he can do it, everybody can. Bet he's a lot more comfortable on that sideline.

? Have you seen LaSalle senior guard Ramon Galloway yet? You should. The dude's a jet.

? Texas sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo finally took the floor for the Longhorns after sitting out all season because of an NCAA suspension. The results: 13 points, seven assists, four rebounds and four turnovers in a double-overtime win over Iowa State. It's still a longshot for this team to get an at-large bid, but the Longhorns at least have a chance to prove to the selection committee that they are a much better team with Kabongo on the court.

? Arizona State has now lost three of its last four games, including at Utah on Wednesday night. That's not the look of a team headed for an at-large bid.

? Baylor freshman forward Isaiah Austin has reached double figures in scoring once in his last four games. Just making sure you knew.

? Don't count out Air Force for an at-large. The Falcons have home games remaining against Colorado State, Wyoming and New Mexico. They have road dates at Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. If they can win those home games and take two out of the three road games, they'll be 11-5 in the No. 1-rated conference in the RPI. That's a tournament resume.

? Billy Donovan didn't like the effort he saw in practice from his point guard, Scottie Wilbekin, so he didn't start Wilbekin against Mississippi State. Wilbekin responded with seven assists to just two turnovers in 33 minutes. As the saying goes, a coach's best motivator is the bench.

? Last Saturday I was skeptical when my CBS colleague Doug Gottlieb told me that Cal guard Allen Crabbe would be a first-round draft pick. I've always thought Crabbe was too one-dimensional, but later that night, Crabbe proved his mettle by scoring 31 points in a big win at Arizona. I'm still not ready to say Crabbe will get drafted in the first ronnd, but at 6-6 with a nice outside shooting touch (he's shooting 35.8 percent from three), he is an intriguing prospect. Kinda reminds me of Allan Houston.

? The word is out around the Atlantic 10: You gotta get physical with Butler's guards. They don't like it.

? Love seeing Buzz Williams rock the 1970s plaid blazer in honor of the late Al McGuire. Buzz is a proud clotheshorse, so for him to don something so hideous, you know it had to be heartfelt.

? It's nice to see Pittsburgh freshman center Steven Adams getting more comfortable, but I really think he would do himself a disservice if he went to the NBA. What's the hurry, young fella? Get stronger, work on your game, come back to school, and go to the league when you're ready to have an impact.

? Another guy who absolutely, positively needs to come back to school is Kentucky freshman guard Archie Goodwin. In the Wildcats' 11 SEC games, Goodwin has has more turnovers (33) than assists (25), and he has made just 1-for -9 from three-point range. Just a hunch, Archie, but I think the NBA is a little bit tougher than the SEC.

? Yo, Villanova: Do you want to be in this tournament or don't you?

? I am a big fan of Bill Walton, both personally and as a broadcaster. But what he is doing to Ben Howland is patently unfair. I don't believe broadcasters should be advocating for coaches to get fired, especially considering Howland has been to three Final Fours and has the Bruins in good shape to be a factor in the NCAA tournament this year. Hate to break it to you, Bill, but John Wooden is not walking through that door.

? If Belmont fails to win the OVC tourney, it will set off one of the most interesting bubble debates in years. The Bruins are ranked 21st overall in the RPI, but they have only one win over a team in the top 50 (home vs. Middle Tennessee State). Since no power conference coach in his right mind would schedule a true road game at Belmont, I would bend over backwards to find a spot for this team in the field of 68.

? I never knew what a "tifo" was until last week. It's a huge banner put together by a group of fans, and it usually comes from the world of soccer. But some Georgetown fans put together an amazing tifo last week promoting the so-called Catholic 7 schools. The title read: "Basketball is our religion." Well played, people.

Weekend Pickoff

Wisconsin at Minnesota, Thursday, 7 p.m.

The Gophers have been hard to watch because they are so careless with the ball, but stylistically Wisconsin should be a comfortable matchup. Plus, Minnesota needs to start building a stronger at-large case. Minnesota 66, Wisconsin 60

Arizona at Colorado, Thursday, 10 p.m.

The Buffaloes will have revenge on their minds after their controversial loss in Tucson last month. More important, this is a must-win for Colorado to make the NCAA tournament. Colorado 76, Arizona 72

Gonzaga at Saint Mary's, Thursday, 11 p.m.

Here's another desperate home team. Saint Mary's does not have any wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. You probably know about Matthew Dellavedova, but the Gaels have a trio of good three-point shooters that includes 6-4 junior guard Stephen Holt and 6-6 junior forward Beau Levesque. Saint Mary's 75, Gonzaga 73

Georgetown at Cincinnati, Friday, 9 p.m.

The Hoyas have a shorter bench without Greg Whittington, but they have managed because Otto Porter Jr. has been arguably the best player in the Big East. That should bode well against a Bearcats team that struggles to score. Georgetown 61, Cincinnati 57

Kentucky at Tennessee, Saturday, 1 p.m.

Let the post-Nerlens Noel era begin. When that kind of an injury strikes, the short-term response is often that the rest of the players band together and play their guts out. I don't know if Kentucky can sustain that long-term, but I think it will be enough to get by a Tennessee squad that is barely treading water in a mediocre SEC. Kentucky 68, Tennessee 62

Baylor at Kansas State, Saturday, 7 p.m.

Kansas State has had all week to lick its wounds following that beatdown at Kansas on Monday. That's bad news for a Baylor team that is long on skill but short on toughness. Kansas State 74, Baylor 64

Virginia at North Carolina, Saturday, Noon

The Tar Heels had a good showing before losing at Duke on Wednesday night. This game is pivotal to their NCAA chances, and while it will be no fun trying to grind it out against Virginia, I think they'll rise to the occasion. North Carolina 64, Virginia 60

San Diego State at UNLV, Saturday, 9 p.m.

The Runnin' Rebels have been horrendous on the road this season, including on Wednesday night when they got drilled at Air Force. But they've been pretty good at home, which should put them in position to knock out a San Diego State team that has had its own problems away from home, especially with respect to outside shooting. UNLV 74, San Diego State 68

Ohio State at Wisconsin, Sunday, 1 p.m.

I like the way the Buckeyes are improving, but they are still limited offensively, and Wisconsin is just too tough at home. Wisconsin 70, Ohio State 65

Wichita State at Illinois State, Sunday, 8 p.m.

The Redbirds have been quietly playing some very good basketball since 6-4 senior guard Tyler Brown returned from his one-game suspension for violating team rules. They have now won seven of their last eight, including on the road at Creighton. I don't think they can get an at-large bid, but a win here would at least put them back in the conversation. Illinois State 71, Wichita State 65

Last week: 6-4

Season total: 88-42

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