The award is richly discussed yet poorly defined. With medal season just around the corner, I figured it was time to apply my hoop thinking to the race for national coach of the year.
Unlike the other honorifics, the criteria to decide coach of the year has always been hazy. Most of the time, it goes to the coach whose team exceeded its preseason rankings by the widest margin. But is that really the best way? Proving how dumb the pollsters are (cough cough)? Or should we go a little deeper?
When I’m making my list, I look at the three areas that are vital when it comes to coaching winning basketball. They are, in order of importance: recruiting, player development and game strategy. As a result, I tend to think of this more like the “coach of the last few years” award, because it takes more than six months to assess a man's work.
Here, then, are my top 10 candidates, starting from the bottom up. We have a month to go so this is probably going to change, but here’s I see the race at the moment:
There are no superstars on this Wildcats team. Just smart, tough, hard-nosed kids who love to share the ball, play defense and win. That’s the type of culture Wright has built during his 14 seasons on the Main Line. It is also noteworthy that, although Wright’s best teams have traditionally been spurred by stellar guard play, a big reason for this year’s success has been the dramatic improvement of 6’11” junior center Daniel Ochefu. When it comes to player development, Wright has again proven he that he is one of the best in the business.
9. Archie Miller, Dayton
Dayton’s season appeared to be all over but the shouting back on Dec. 17, when the school dismissed the team’s starting center, Devon Scott, and his primary backup, Jalen Robinson, because of a dorm room theft incident. The Flyers were left with just six scholarship players, none of whom is taller than 6’6”. It should be no surprise, however, that Miller has his team in a tie for first place in the Atlantic 10. This is the same guy who took an 11th-seeded team to within one game of the Final Four last year. And of course, he comes from pretty good bloodlines. When the coaching carousel starts turning in the spring, expect Miller’s name to come up early and often.
8. Mike Brey, Notre Dame
Notre Dame was tucked away in “others receiving votes” when the first polls were published in the preseason. That’s because no one quite knew what to expect from Jerian Grant, the 6’5” senior point guard who was suspended from school for the second half of his junior season because of an academic issue. Many players with Grant’s talent would have landed somewhere else, or possibly turned pro, but Brey stayed in contact with Grant, coaxed him back into the program, and promised a fresh start. All Grant has done is play like a first team All-America and keep the Irish near the top of the ACC standings all season.
7. Ben Jacobsen, Northern Iowa
There was no reason to expect anything from the Panthers this season. Sure, they returned all their starters from last year, but that team went 10-8 in the Missouri Valley Conference and 16-15 overall. UNI began the season unranked and did not get a single vote for either national poll. Northern Iowa lost in double overtime at VCU in December, but it defeated Iowa by 12 points a week later, entered the rankings in late December and throttled Wichita State by 16 points on Jan. 31 and is now 24-2 overall and 13-1 in league play.
6. Chris Holtmann, Butler
No doubt Holtmann would rather not have this job. He was tapped to be Butler’s interim head coach last fall after his boss and friend, Brandon Miller, had to step aside to take a personal leave of absence. Miller convinced Holtmann to leave his position as the head coach at Gardner-Webb to come to Butler in 2013. Holtmann was given the permanent job in January, and he has done excellent work under difficult circumstances. Butler, which suffered through a disastrous 14-17 season last year following Brad Stevens’ departure for the Celtics, is 18-4 and back in the rankings at No. 19 while sitting second behind Villanova in the Big East. This unit has the signature blend of smarts and toughness that characterized many of Stevens’ teams.
5. Larry Krystowiak, Utah
This program had been lost in the wilderness ever since Rick Majerus stepped down in 2004. Between 2006 and '11, when Krystowiak was hired, Utah appeared in just one NCAA tournament. It took Krystowiak five years, but now he has the Utes not just headed for March Madness, but also among the nation’s elite teams again. It was a model rebuilding job, done not with quick-fix transfers but by recruiting good classes year by year and then implementing a winning culture.
4. Mark Turgeon, Maryland
Maryland had a disappointing season last year, so when five players transferred out and a plum recruit didn’t arrive, a lot of people assumed Turgeon was a dead man walking. It was not an ideal way to begin his first year in the Big Ten, but Turgeon felt it was important to have the type of players in his program that made him want to come to practice every day. Turgeon had to endure some uncomfortable headlines, but he remained firm in his philosophy. The results have been very impressive. The Terps are 21-5 and tied for second in the Big Ten.
3. Bill Self, Kansas
No coach does a better job replenishing his program. Kansas lost two freshmen last year who were among the top three picks in the NBA draft. It also lost its starting point guard. In the wake of blowout losses to Kentucky, by 32 points in November, and Temple, by 25 points in December, there was talk that this was finally going to be the year when the Jayhawks would be dethroned in the Big 12 by the likes of Texas, Oklahoma or Iowa State. Yet, with a two-game lead and six games remaining, Kansas appears to be on its way to its 11th consecutive conference regular season title. It is truly one of the most remarkable streaks in all of sports.
2. John Calipari, Kentucky
I’ve never understood people who disqualify a coach from consideration for this award because a) he has the best players and b) his team was expected to be great. Besides ignoring the fact that the ability to recruit good players is the most important part of the job, this argument drastically under-appreciates how hard it is to hold highly-rated teenagers accountable and to get them to buy into a team ethos. Not to mention the challenge of having them ready to play each game knowing they are going to get the opponent’s best shot. Say what you want about Calipari, but we are in mid-February, and his Wildcats are still undefeated. He could be on the brink of history.
1. Tony Bennett, Virginia
One week ago, the Cavaliers lost their best player, Justin Anderson, to an injury, so if they fall apart, this ranking could change. Barring that, I have a hard time imagining anyone else winning this award. It’s amazing enough that Bennett has brought this program to a level of success it has not seen since Ralph Sampson was in Charlottesville more than 30 years ago. But this is now the second season in a row the Cavs are doing it. Last year, they won the ACC regular season and tournament titles and were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Yet, after losing two senior starters, they returned even better this season, despite not having a single former McDonald’s All-American on the roster. That’s the difference between having a great team and a great program. And it’s what happens when you have a great coach.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• I want to thank two of my favorite commissioners, the Big 12's Bob Bowlsby and the Pac 12’s Larry Scott, for giving me a good chuckle this week by suggesting that the NCAA should go back to the days where freshmen were ineligible. This is a nakedly transparent effort to prod the NBA to boost its draft age minimum to 20 instead of the current 19. Well guess what: That’s na ga happen. The idea that the so-called one-and-done rule is hurting the integrity of college athletics when it only applies to a dozen or so players a year is preposterous. And let’s recognize the obvious fact that college basketball’s most marketable stars are the freshmen. Making them ineligible would be bad for business.
• You know why I don’t think North Carolina is getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament? Because the Tar Heels don’t know how to play well when they’re not playing well.
• Remember back on Jan. 3 when South Carolina beat Iowa State in Brooklyn and everyone said the Gamecocks were back? Good times.
• Ironically, Jan. 3 was also the day that Seton Hall beat Villanova in overtime to propel itself back into the top 25. Now, the Pirates have lost seven out of nine, they are three games under .500 in the Big East and they hit the road play at Villanova and St. John’s this week. Check, please.
• Speaking of late-season pratfalls, Iowa has also lost five of its last seven games to fall back to .500 in the Big Ten. Last week’s losses were pretty bad—at home against Minnesota and on the road to Northwestern. I’m sure Hawkeye fans are having a feeling of déjà vu all over again. This is the same program that dropped six out of seven down the stretch last year, barely made the NCAA tournament, and then lost in the First Four to Tennessee.
• I know Virginia has only played two games without Justin Anderson, but it appears the team is going to miss him even more than I thought. Yes, Anderson, who has a broken finger, is by far the Cavalier’s best three-point shooter, but he is also their best defender, toughest player and strongest leader. Last week, Virginia beat two mediocre teams (N.C. State and Wake Forest) by a combined five points. In fact, if Wake Forest wasn’t such a horrible free throw shooting team (12-for-22 in the game), then the Deacs would have beaten Virginia in Charlottesville. Anderson’s injury really puts a damper on their Final Four prospects.
• Butler also suffered a tough injury, though one not quite the magnitude of Virginia’s. Sophomore forward Andrew Chrabascz, who was starting to evolve into a tough offensive matchup, broke a bone in his right hand during Saturday’s loss to Villanova. He’ll be out two to four weeks.
• If Kansas State is on the bubble in four weeks, it is going to be an interesting case for the selection committee. The Wildcats have lost seven games in the Big 12, but in three of those losses they played without their leading scorer, 6’2” sophomore guard Marcus Foster, who was being disciplined by coach Bruce Weber. With Foster in the lineup, Kansas State was able to sweep Oklahoma and beat Baylor and Oklahoma State at home. Then again, because this was a behavior issue and not an injury, the committee might be less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
• In 12 ACC games, Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney has played 479 out of a possible 485 minutes. I spy tired legs.
• That said, fatigue isn’t the biggest problem a team has when it lacks depth. The biggest problem is the way a short bench limits a coach’s ability to adjust. Kansas is a great example of a team that has made it work. Bill Self has re-inserted freshman forward Cliff Alexander into the starting lineup, but when Alexander was proving ineffectual against Baylor on Saturday, Self subbed him for Landen Lucas, a 6’10” sophomore forward. Lucas made a few nice plays, Self left him in, and Kansas was able to complete its comeback and win.
• John Updike once wrote of the “tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.” I thought about that phrase while watching Maryland scrap and claw its way to a win at Penn State on Saturday night. Like a lot of teams that know they are going to the NCAA tournament, Maryland has been grinding through the dog days of February. Last week, the Terps edged Indiana at home by two points and beat the Nittany Lions by three on the road. Had those two games gone the other way, Maryland would be looking at a three-game losing streak and losses in five of its last seven. Tissue-thin, indeed.
• For what it’s worth, Pittsburgh has scored at least 72 points in four of its last five games, and it topped the 80-point mark twice—including in Saturday’s 89-76 whooping of North Carolina. According to kenpom.com, Pittsburgh is ranked 21st in the country in offensive efficiency, and it is 325th in tempo. I’m no math expert, but I’ll bet if Jamie Dixon played faster, his team would score more points. Just a thought.
• Every time a defender flops and doesn’t draw a charge call, an angel gets his wings.
• Gotta count West Virginia among the more disappointing teams. The Mountaineers are a one-note song with that fullcourt press. If you can solve it—and most good teams with decent guards can—then West Virginia can’t score or defend well in the halfcourt. Plus, the Mountaineers’ Big 12 schedule was front-loaded. Now that they’re in the gauntlet (Kansas at home and Oklahoma State in Stillwater are up next), they are being exposed.
• VCU was a much different team on Saturday with its best player, 6’6” senior guard Treveon Graham, back in the lineup after a two-game absence with a high ankle sprain. Even though Graham was clearly rusty (10 points on 1-for-5 three-point shooting), it’s doubtful the Rams would have won at George Washington by 13 without him. The problem going forward is that Graham is still dealing with that injury. High ankle sprains are a very serious injury that only get better through extended rest, which at this point is not an option. Remember, VCU also lost its best defender, Briante Graham, to a torn ACL, so it needs all hands on deck right now.
• From what I’m hearing, Wisconsin is still hoping to get point guard Traevon Jackson, who fractured his foot in a loss at Rutgers on Jan. 11, back in time for the Big Ten tournament, if not sooner. At worst, he should be back by the start of the NCAA tournament. Still, I have a hard time imagining him wresting the starting spot back from sophomore Bronson Koenig, who has been terrific since assuming control of the offense. Unlike Jackson, who had to learn to play the position when Josh Gasser got hurt two years ago, Koenig is a natural point guard. He’s not quite as dynamic a playmaker as Jackson, but he also doesn’t make as many mistakes. And Wisconsin is winning, so why mess with success?
• Marc Loving didn’t do much for Ohio State during Saturday’s loss at Michigan State (zero points in five minutes), but at least he was back in the lineup after sitting out three games for disciplinary reasons. Loving, a 6’7’ sophomore swingman, ranks second in the country in three-point shooting (52.5 percent), so he is able to keep defenses from being able to focus solely on sensational freshman D’Angelo Russell.
• Did you know Bill Murray’s son is an assistant coach at Rhode Island? Just checking.
• Tell you what, I don’t think anyone is going to want to play Arkansas in the NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks have lost just once in their last eight games, and that was a one-point nailbiter at Florida. Of course, two of their wins also came by one point, but the narrative that this team can’t win on the road is officially dead. Last week, Arkansas won twice outside of Fayetteville, at Auburn and Ole Miss. As I’ve often said, Bobby Portis is the nation’s best-kept secret. Not only is the 6’11” sophomore a monster scorer (17.7 ppg) and rebounder (8.6), but he has also made nine three-pointers, which is as many as he made all of last season.
• People bemoan the rise in the number of transfers, but Dayton guard Jordan Sibert is a great example of someone who benefited from a change of scenery. Sibert, a native of Cincinnati, started his career at Ohio State, but after one year he could see that it would be hard to earn a lot of minutes there. So he transferred to Dayton, where he played in an Elite Eight and is now the team’s leading scorer at 16.5 ppg. I mean, this is supposed to be the land of opportunity, right?
• I love reading about all these games between student manager staffs. That is so college.
• A year ago, people were talking about Travis Ford being fired at Oklahoma State. Now they’re saying he is in contention for Big 12 coach of the year. Just goes to show that you should never pay attention to those silly “hot seat” lists. That’s why I never make ’em.
• UCLA guard Norman Powell has been tearing it up the last month. He’s the biggest reason the Bruins went from losing five in a row to winning eight out of their last 11. Powell has scored 20 or more points six times during that stretch, including a 23-point performance in a win at home over Utah on Jan. 29. That was the game that turned around UCLA’s season.
• Texas has stanched the bleeding, at least temporarily. Nice to see much-heralded freshman forward Myles Turner break out for 25 points in Saturday’s win over Texas Tech. That was just his second double-digit performance in the last month. The Longhorns also got senior forward Jonathan Holmes back after he missed the last two games with a concussion. Let’s hope this is the start of something good because the Longhorns are about to hit the tough part of their Big 12 schedule.
• Tip o’ the cap to Stephen F. Austin, which had its 32-game Southland Conference win streak snapped on Saturday with a 71-63 loss at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Lumberjacks had also won 19 straight games this season, which was the third-longest active streak in Division I. This is much the same team that beat VCU in the NCAA tournament last year, so don’t be surprised if you hear from them again.
• Temple has not lost this season when it has had complete games from Jesse Morgan, the 6’5” transfer from UMass who became eligible in mid-December, and Will Cummings, who missed two-and-a-half games because of a lower leg injury. Just making sure you knew.
• I realize Delon Wright gets most of the love on Utah (and deservedly so), but point guard Brandon Taylor did a terrific job locking down Stanford’s high-scoring guard Chasson Randle last Thursday. Randle averages about 20 points per game but with Taylor on him, he shot 2-for-11 from the floor and scored just 10 points.
• Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice looked predictably rusty in his two games last week after he missed the previous nine games due to an injury and a suspension. Aaron Cosby, a 6’3” junior guard who was also injured and is now suspended, is expected back soon. Three of the Illini's last five regular season games are at home, and the two road games are at Purdue and Iowa, so this team has a chance to make a strong final push.
• Another reason why the West Coast Conference serves as poor preparation for Gonzaga when it comes to the NCAA tournament: The league’s conference tournament ends on March 10th. The first round of the NCAA tournament begins on the 19th. A team could lose a lot of rhythm and competitive edge during a long layoff like that.
• Finally, I was incredibly sad to learn that Nancy Belisle, whose husband, Dave, was my nominee for SI’s 2014 Sportsman of the Year, passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. You’ll recall Dave from the inspirational speech he gave to his players after they were eliminated from the Little League World Series last summer. Dave has spent his life mentoring young boys and teaching them about character, and I know the seeds he has planted over the years will bring him strength and comfort in the difficult days ahead. Please keep Dave and his family in your thoughts and prayers.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Pittsburgh at Virginia, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Panthers have played themselves back into bubble consideration with wins at home over Notre Dame and North Carolina. The only thing they’re missing is a signature road win. This is a great opportunity against a Virginia team that is struggling to recover its form in the wake of the injury to Anderson.
Pittsburgh 66, Virginia 65
St. John’s at Georgetown, Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
It’s not exactly Mullen vs. Ewing, but the Red Storm have risen from the dead to climb back to .500 in the Big East. The Hoyas, meanwhile, got a terrific performance last weekend from freshman forward Isaac Copeland, who scored a season-high 20 points in a win at Seton Hall. Georgetown should take round one at home, but these teams will meet again in New York 11 days later.
Georgetown 72, St. John’s 67
Kentucky at Tennessee, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Nothing is coming easily for the Wildcats on the road in SEC play, but they are still undefeated, and I imagine they are starting to see that finish line.
Kentucky 70, Tennessee 63
North Carolina at Duke, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The sport’s best rivalry will feel a little somber as this is their first meeting since the passing of Dean Smith. The Tar Heels will surely come to play, but they don’t have the muscle or toughness inside to deal with Duke’s stout frontcourt.
Duke 74, North Carolina 66
Temple at SMU, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
This is a huge game for Temple, because a win would go a long way toward solidifying its NCAA tournament hopes. But SMU is really rolling right now, and Moody Coliseum will be hopping.
SMU 69, Temple 64
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Wisconsin (2)
3. Duke (3)
4. Virginia (4)
5. Gonzaga (5)
6. Villanova (6)
7. Kansas (7)
8. Notre Dame (9)
9. Arizona (12)
10. Oklahoma (18)
11. Iowa State (10)
12. Utah (14)
13. Louisville (8)
14. Northern Iowa (15)
15. Wichita State (17)
16. Baylor (13)
17. Butler (20)
18. North Carolina (11)
19. Ohio State (16)
20. SMU (NR)
21. Arkansas (NR)
22. Murray State (24)
23. San Diego State (NR)
24. Oklahoma State (19)
25. Valparaiso (NR)
Dropped out: Cincinnati (21), Iowa (22), Stephen F. Austin (23), West Virginia (25)
The first thing you’ll notice is that I am still not ranking Gonzaga higher than No. 5. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe it’s fair for Gonzaga to move all the way up my ballot just because its competitors are losing to better teams. The question of whether Gonzaga is worthy of a No. 1 seed in the tournament is a different story. I happen to think that if they go into Selection Sunday with just one loss, they will probably deserve a top seed. That aside, they have reached their ceiling on my ballot.
Normally, when a team splits its two games, I will not move it too far up or down, but the Oklahoma Sooners were so impressive in their win over Iowa State that I felt the need to reward them. I don’t think a close loss to a good Kansas State team on the road (especially one that was decided on a controversial call at the end) should count that much against a team this time of year.
The other thing working in Oklahoma’s favor is the fact that there were so many other good teams that lost. Louisville, for example, fell at home to N.C. State. I would have dropped the Cardinals even further if I had somewhere to put them. But Baylor lost twice, Butler lost to Villanova at home, North Carolina got blown out at Pitt, and Ohio State lost a squeaker at Michigan State.
I probably could have kept Stephen F. Austin on my ballot, but I’m glad I shoehorned in another midmajor darling in Valparaiso. Bryce Drew’s Crusaders won a big game last week over Green Bay to secure sole possession of first place in the Horizon League. This team has lost just four games all season, and only one since Jan. 2. It deserves a number next to its name.
When I released my ballot over Twitter on Sunday night, I got a lot of objections from Maryland fans because their Terrapins were not included. But as you can see, I didn’t rank Maryland last week, either, and a two-point win at home over Indiana followed by a three-point win at Penn State wasn’t cause to reinstate them. Prior to that, the Terrapins had lost three out of five, and all three losses were by big margins. They have a great opportunity to prove they belong a week from Tuesday, when Wisconcin comes to College Park.
Elsewhere, Georgetown and Providence continue to suffer because there is no way to separate them. Either you have to rank both or neither. I also considered Dayton and VCU, who are part of a four-way tie for first place in the Atlantic 10; Temple, which has a huge game at SMU on Thursday night; Purdue, which is tied with Maryland and Michigan State in the loss column in the Big Ten standings; Iona, which has a two-game lead in the MAAC; and Louisiana Tech, which has finally broken away from the logjam to secure first place alone in Conference USA.