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  • Choosing the best player in the country is a challenge, but selecting the best coach is even tougher. Here are four candidates who deserve to be part of the conversation.
By Chris Johnson
February 15, 2018

There is no simple way to determine the coach who’s done the best job over the course of a given season in a sport with 351 teams divided into 32 conferences. Choosing the best player in the country is challenging in itself. The criteria for coaches are even murkier. Good luck dividing credit for a team’s wins and losses between an HC, his staff and the guys he’s barking orders at from the sidelines. The coach leading the nation’s No. 1-ranked squad may seem like a strong candidate, but it’s never that simple. The presence of top-end talent, as determined by recruiting rankings, can work to an HC’s detriment. Preseason expectations created by media members often play an outsize role. In any case, enough of the 2017-18 campaign has passed to render a judgment on which coaches deserve praise for what they’ve accomplished. Below are four who stick out, listed in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that this is not a complete list. The four HCs below are not the only ones who belong in the national coach of the year discussion.

This is the 12th version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops topics bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

Rick Barnes, Tennessee

Not much was expected of Barnes’s third team at Tennessee, and it’s easy to figure out why. The Volunteers were coming off a 16-16 season and their leading scorer, guard Robert Hubbs III, had expired his eligibility. Their only roster addition of major import, Howard guard transfer James Daniel III, faced questions over how well the scoring arsenal he honed in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (one of the worst leagues in the country) would translate to the SEC. In a poll conducted by the conference in October, media members picked Tennessee to finish 13th, ahead of only LSU. At the time, it didn’t feel as if that placement vastly undersold how good the Volunteers were.

Well, it’s the middle of February, and Barnes might have his best team since seventh-year NBA veterans Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph were suiting up for him as Texas freshmen. Barnes has led a rotation with zero former top-140 recruits, according to the 247Sports Composite, to a 9-4 record in the SEC, and Tuesday’s win over South Carolina was the Volunteers’ seventh victory in their last eight games. During league play, Barnes has his guys playing efficient—albeit slow—offensive basketball. Tennessee is scoring more points per possession than all but one other team in the conference. Although threes constitute a relatively small portion of the Volunteers’ total shot attempts, in junior Admiral Shofield and sophomore Jordan Bowden, they have two players who’ve made 40.7% and 44.2%, respectively, of their tries from deep. Tennessee’s most valuable player, sophomore big man Grant Williams, isn’t a threat from distance, but he’s a solid shot-blocker, a force on the offensive glass and he lives at the free-throw line, drawing more fouls per 40 minutes against SEC competition than all but one other player in the league. Tennessee is a lock to make the NCAA tournament, and the statistics website FiveThirtyEight recently posited that it could “easily” claim a No. 1 seed.

Tony Bennett, Virginia

There was little doubt before the season that Virginia would rate out as one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Bennett’s track record on that end of the floor is unimpeachable: Only once since 2011 have the Cavaliers finished worse than seventh in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and they finished second last season. Bennett’s pack-line scheme shackles opponents no matter the players he deploys in it. All of which helps explains why, in October, Sports Illustrated projected Virginia to have the top D in the country. But there was skepticism over its ability to score following the departure of second-team All-ACC guard London Perrantes from a group that placed 11th in the conference during conference play in points per possession. That skepticism was not without justification, but the Cavaliers have managed just fine without Perrantes. Virginia has lost only once since a Dec. 5 trip to West Virginia (in overtime to Virginia Tech on Saturday), and at 13-1 in the ACC, it has blown past, Duke, North Carolina, Miami and every other purported ACC contender to establish a vice grip on its third conference regular-season championship in five years. The Cavaliers have already made it through the most difficult part of their league slate, and they were the No. 1 overall seed in the top 16 released by the tourney Selection Committee on Sunday.

Virginia’s D isn’t just the best in DI. It could be one of the best since the turn of the century. Though the Cavaliers aren’t nearly as formidable on offense, they take really good care of the ball, checking in the top 10 nationally in turnover percentage, and they have several dangerous perimeter shooters, including sophomores Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and senior Devon Hall. This season should wipe away any remaining doubt over where Virginia stands in relation to its blueblood peers in the ACC. As long as Bennett is stalking the sidelines in Charlottesville, it’s a good bet he’s going to have a team that’ll be heard from in the conference title chase.

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Brad Brownell, Clemson

Clemson’s success in 2017–18 is a testament to the wisdom of patience. Last March, after a home loss to Horizon League foe Oakland in the first round of the NIT concluded the Tigers’ third consecutive season with 17 wins or fewer and sixth straight without a tourney appearance, athletic director Dan Radakovich released a statement announcing Brownell would be retained for an eighth year. Brownell predictably showed up on preseason hot seat lists, and in October, media members picked Clemson to finish 13th in the ACC, which felt low, but not but out of the realm of possibility considering the Tigers’ leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, forward Jaron Blossomgame, had wrapped up his college career in 2016-17. Yet with only five games remaining in the regular season, Clemson has already notched more wins (20) than in each of the three previous years of Brownell’s tenure, and the Tigers are projected to finish with more victories in the ACC than all but two other teams in the conference, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Brownell has Clemson in position to compete for a top-three seed in the NCAAs (it was a No. 3 in the committee’s reveal on Sunday) and stake a claim as the ACC’s top team not named Virginia even though senior Donte Grantham—a 6’8” forward whose Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares per 40 minutes over 19 games leads those of all of his teammates—has been sidelined the last six games and will sit out the rest of the season because of a torn ACL. Junior Elijah Thomas is a credible rim-protecting presence inside, having swatted a higher percentage of ACC opponents’ two-point attempts than any other player in the league during league play, according to kenpom.com, and a trio of seasoned guards (senior Gabe Devoe and juniors Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell) stretch defenses by sinking shots from beyond the arc. Brownell may not have been able to convince Spartanburg (S.C.) Day star Zion Williamson to stay home, but the Tigers’ progress on the court this season should mitigate the disappointment over his decision to leave the Palmetto State and play for Duke.

Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Chris Holtmann, Ohio State

The flurry of firings and hirings that follow the end of every college basketball season had petered out by the time Ohio State announced it was making a head coaching change last year. In early June, in the wake of speculation about big names like Xavier’s Chris Mack and Arizona’s Sean Miller, the Buckeyes decided to bring in Holtmann from Butler to replace Thad Matta, who had led the Buckeyes for 13 seasons, the last two of which ended without bids to the NCAAs. It seemed unlikely that Holtmann could achieve much in year one at a program that signed a recruiting class ranked eighth in the Big Ten and 42nd nationally in 2016, according to the 247Sports Composite, and had no players remaining from its 2015 class.

He’s achieved quite a bit.

Entering Thursday night’s game at Penn State, the Buckeyes are sitting in first place in the Big Ten with a 13-1 record, their only conference loss coming on a buzzer-beating three from Nittany Lions sophomore Tony Carr in Columbus on Jan. 25. Last Wednesday, Ohio State picked up one of the most impressive wins any squad will carry into Selection Sunday. It went into West Lafayette, Ind., to hand Purdue its first defeat since the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in late November. The Buckeyes are improved offensively, and miles better defensively, than they were last season, and a lot of that owes to redshirt junior Keita Bates-Diop’s progression into an All-America candidate after missing all but nine games of last season with a stress fracture in his left leg. That shouldn’t diminish the job Holtmann’s done molding a mix of holdovers from Matta’s tenure; sub-top-70 freshmen (center Kaleb Wesson, wing Musa Jallow); and a graduate transfer who was headed to Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference school Quinnipiac (guard Andrew Dakich) into, at worst, a co-favorite for the championship of the No. 5 conference in the country, according to Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System, which accounts for average point differential and strength of schedule.

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