It is the one award that is most often discussed yet seldom defined: The national coach of the year.
What exactly should the criteria be? I've voted on this award for numerous organizations over the years, yet no one has ever instructed me on what to prioritize. Often times the award goes to the coach whose team most defies expectations, but that never made much sense to me. Is that really what makes for a great coach? Proving preseason poll voters wrong? Seems to me it's far more difficult to win when expectations are high.
The way I see it, there are four central elements to coaching: recruiting, developing, managing a team and managing games. Too often, we think of coaching as the ability to draw up good plays, but that is the least important part of the job. I also don't like it when people criticize someone by saying, "He's a good recruiter, but he can't coach." Give me the guy with the better players, and you can have the better "coach." My guy will win most of the time.
So I tend to take a global perspective when assessing who will get my vote. I also like to evaluate a coach's performance over the course of several seasons, because that reflects whether he has built a winning culture. We still have a long way to go before this season's race gets decided, but I figured this would be a good time to lay out how I see things as they stand today. Here, then, are my top 10 candidates for coach of the year, presented from the bottom up:
10. Steve Fisher, San Diego State
The Aztecs dropped home games to Little Rock, San Diego and Grand Canyon in the first two months of the season, yet SDSU is right where it has been for the last few years—atop the Mountain West Standings with a three-game lead. That is a reflection of the team's ageless coach. As usual, San Diego State is offensively challenged, but it is grinding out victories by slowing the tempo and committing on the defensive end. If the Aztecs get into the NCAA tournament, they will be a very uncomfortable matchup. After all, this is not Fisher's first rodeo.
9. Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M
The Aggies are not real flashy, but their overtime win over Kentucky Saturday night left them just one game out of first place in the SEC standings. Now in his fifth year in College Station, Kennedy has built this program brick by brick, player by player. He has recruited top in-state players like senior guard Alex Caruso (who's from College Station) and freshman center Tyler Davis (Plano) while also adding quality transfers like Jalen Jones (SMU), Danuel House (Houston) and Anthony Collins (South Florida). Now he has Texas A&M on its way back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in his tenure. Most remarkably, Kennedy has done this after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease during his first season on the job. He is an excellent coach and an inspiration to boot.
8. Sean Miller, Arizona
It would have been challenging enough for Miller to lose four starters from last season's Elite Eight squad (and five underclassman starters to the NBA draft the last two years). He also lost one of his top recruits, forward Ray Smith, to a knee injury in the preseason; backup guard Elliott Pitts to a personal issue (he hasn't played since early December); and his best perimeter scorer, freshman Allonzo Trier, who recently returned after missing seven games with a broken hand. Despite all that, the Wildcats are tied for first place in the Pac-12 (22–5, 10–4 in conference) and are gaining steam at exactly the right time. Wouldn't it be ironic if this became the team that finally got Miller to the Final Four?
7. Shaka Smart, Texas
The cupboard wasn't exactly bare when Smart took over for the deposed Rick Barnes 10 months ago. The roster was full of veterans who had played in two NCAA tournaments. Still, it is not easy to parachute in, work with another coach's players, bring in your own recruits and establish a new way of doing things. Those challenges got steeper in mid-December when Texas's starting center, 6'9" senior Cameron Ridley, went out with a broken foot. After a spotty start, Texas has steadily improved and now owns an 8–6 record in the Big 12 (17–10 overall). What's most impressive about this is that Smart has done it without using the "Havoc" end-to-end pressure that was his trademark at VCU. He has adapted to his personnel, stuck to his principals, infused the program with his youthful vigor and made Texas a winner quicker than anyone anticipated. The future in Austin is bright indeed.
6. Chris Mack, Xavier
This school has reached the Sweet 16 six times in the last 12 years, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by its success. Yet, while the Musketeers returned three starters from last year's Sweet 16 team, they also lost their starting point guard and center. That's why they were unranked in the preseason. Xavier might not have any All-Americans, but they have depth, experience, toughness and guile. Mack deserves a lot of credit for instilling and maintaining that winning culture, both during his five years as an assistant under Sean Miller and his seven years as head coach.
5. Jay Wright, Villanova
Another season, another Villanova team whose whole exceeds the sum of its parts. This season, the Wildcats earned their first No. 1 ranking in school history. It's no surprise that Villanova is teeming with perimeter players, but the steady improvement of senior center Daniel Ochefu shows that Wright can develop big men, too. Many people were also skeptical that he could blend highly touted freshman point guard Jalen Brunson with the incumbent senior, Ryan Arcidiacono, but those two have coexisted beautifully. That is the type of chemistry building that has been a mainstay of Wright's 14-year tenure at the school, and it's why I believe they are well equipped to exorcise their recent NCAA tournament demons.
4. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
He is nobody's idea of a colorful, charismatic coach. He has neither a distinctive system nor a single top-100 recruit on his roster. Yet, this Oklahoma team is arguably his best ever squad because Kruger has maintained a four-man nucleus that has started nearly 100 consecutive games together. His laid-back, gentlemanly style may be a little unusual, but he has masterful at teaching fundamentals and then giving his players the freedom to show what they have learned. Oklahoma has been in the top 10 for every week this season and recently spent three weeks at No. 1. Kruger has won everywhere he has been, taking five different schools to the NCAA tournament and four different schools to the Sweet 16. There are very few coaches who can match his track record or the job he has done this season.
3. Bill Self, Kansas
It's hard to believe, but it was only four weeks ago that the Jayhawks dropped three out of five games and appeared destined to snap their 11-year streak of winning at least a share of the Big 12 title. Now Self's team has won seven straight, including a sweep of Oklahoma, and has a two-game lead atop the standings with four games to play. In an era of massive roster turnover, KU's streak is one of the great achievements in all of sports. We should never have doubted him.
2. Fran McCaffery, Iowa
There was no reason to believe that Iowa would be a dominant team this season. Yes, the Hawkeyes returned four starters from a team that won 22 games, but they lost in the Round of 32 last year, and in 2014 they were in the First Four. Iowa did not enter the AP poll until the ninth week of the season, but it entered the top 10 two weeks later and has been wearing a heavy crown ever since. It has won with a starting lineup that consists of four seniors and a junior who have developed well under McCaffrey. As a program, Iowa cannot match the pedigree that many of its top Big Ten rivals have, yet the Hawkeyes have spent much of the season looking down on their competition.
1. Tony Bennett, Virginia
It is not hard to make a case for Bennett as coach of the year—the Cavaliers are one game out of first in the ACC, but they are in a much stronger position to earn a No. 1 seed than North Carolina—but Bennett must also be recognized for the work he has done in Charlottesville over the past three seasons. This program was in rough shape when he took over seven years ago (Virginia played in one NCAA tournament between 2001 and 2012), but now Bennett has his team on the verge of a possible third consecutive ACC regular season championship. I would submit that he has done his best job this season, considering that he lost his best offensive player (Justin Anderson, whom the Dallas Mavericks selected in the first round of last year's NBA draft) and his best defensive player (Darion Atkins) from last year's team. Bennett is at his best teaching his vaunted pack-line defense, and though his teams are sometimes limited offensively, they are never undisciplined. If a team is going to beat Virginia, it is going to have do it by playing Virginia's way. That is the ultimate compliment to a coach.
Other Hoop Thoughts
Seeing LSU struggle to make the NCAA tournament despite having the top pick in the NBA draft is surprising enough. Seeing Ben Simmons develop an attitude problem is truly shocking. From what I can tell, Simmons is a terrific young man who comes from a great family, but he gave off some very bad vibes during the Tigers' loss at Tennessee. First, his coach, Johnny Jones, pulled him from the starting lineup because of what Jones said was an academic issue. Then Simmons appeared to pout by himself on the bench in the second half as LSU was on its way to a humiliating 16-point loss. (Tennessee was playing without its leading scorer, Kevin Punter.) I'm hoping this is just a minor bump in the road and that Simmons will rejigger his mindset for the final stretch. It would truly be a shame if he did not get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.
• Here is my two-part thought on Pat Adams's technical foul call against Kentucky forward Isaac Humphries with nine seconds left in overtime in the Wildcats' loss at Texas A&M. First, it was a close call, but I don't think Adams deserved a T. The rulebook allows for a technical foul to be called if a player slams the ball, but officials have some discretion. They are supposed to take into account the intent, the context, and the player's prior behavior during the game. Second, what is not in dispute is that Humphries should not have slammed the ball. Period. Full stop. He got excited and lost his head, so this is no major crime, but he knew the moment it happened he had screwed up. I feel bad for the kid because he played a heck of a game (six points and 12 rebounds in 20 minutes). Which means, by the way, that Skal Labissiere is now Kentucky's fourth-best big man.
• Also, that was an incorrect goaltend call on Purdue center A.J. Hammons on the final possession of the Boilermakers' loss at Indiana. Hammons blocked Yogi Ferrell's shot before it hit the backboard, and even though Hammons's hand hit the rim, the ball was not in the cylinder so it should not have qualified as basket interference. Still, as I've often said, there's a big difference between a bad call and an incorrect call. That's a tough play to officiate in real time.
• Getting back to Kentucky, I am getting increasingly concerned that Alex Poythress is still not back in the lineup because of his knee injury. Even if Poythress came back this week, it would be three or four weeks before he got his conditioning up to speed. Kentucky is good, but it needs Poythress to advance deep in the NCAA tournament. Consider that the Wildcats allowed Texas A&M to have 20 offensive rebounds on Saturday, which gave the Aggies 18 more field goal attempts. That would never have happened if Poythress had been in the game and fully healthy.
• I'm somewhat surprised that Kansas's two freshman studs, Carlton Bragg and Cheick Diallo, are not playing meaningful minutes. But I am truly shocked that sophomore swingman Svi Mykhailiuk remains a non-factor. Last season he was a young freshman with no American experience, so it made sense that he rode the pine. Now, however, he is at the end of his sophomore season. Mykhailiuk came to Kansas with a huge reputation, so it will be interesting to see if he decides to stick it out at KU or transfer elsewhere in the spring.
• Oklahoma's Ryan Spangler has not made a three-point shot since Jan. 30. Just making sure you knew.
• Doesn't this whole hating Grayson Allen thing feel forced? The guy is a great player and an absolute warrior. He crashes to the floor more than any player in the country, and yet he always comes back for more. If you really do hate Allen, it's only because you weren't hugged as a child.
• Yes, Alabama losing at home to Mississippi State hurts (although keep in mind the Bulldogs have now won three of their last four), but the Tide have a much stronger tourney résumé than people realize. They own road wins over Florida, LSU and Clemson as well as neutral court wins over Notre Dame and Wichita State. Bama can't afford a total collapse, but I do expect them to be in the tournament, which is pretty amazing considering they were picked to finish 13th out of 14 SEC teams in the preseason.
• I am convinced that Maryland's Melo Trimble is not totally healthy. He had a hamstring issue a few weeks ago and has never been the same. During the Terps' last five games, Trimble has shot 10 for 48 from the floor and committed 20 turnovers. He's too good to be playing this poorly for this long unless something were physically wrong with him.
• Remember when Arizona coach Sean Miller tore into senior center Kaleb Tarczewski during that home loss to Oregon on Jan. 28? Well, Big Zeus has been a rebounding fool since then, averaging 11 boards per game while scaling back his scoring for the sake of the team. It's no coincidence that Arizona has not lost a game since.
• UConn could still get to the tournament (especially now that Amida Brimah is back), but it is obvious that Sterling Gibbs has been miscast in his role as point guard. When he was at Seton Hall, Gibbs could do whatever he wanted with the ball, but now that good players surround him, his deficiencies at running a team have been exposed. It's just hard making those kinds of decisions on the fly if you don't have a ton of experience. The Huskies' best hope is for freshman Jalen Adams, who had a season-high 19 points but zero assists in the loss at Cincinnati, to continue to improve and takes over.
• Please, please, please do yourself a favor and watch St. Bonaventure's sophomore guard Jaylen Adams in action. Adams went for 30 points (5 for 9 from three, 10 for 10 from the foul line) in the Bonnies' pivotal win at Dayton on Saturday.
• I am still not a big believer in North Carolina because I don't believe the Heels have championship-level guards, but I do think last week was a big one mentally for this club. The Heels' have had a very soft ACC schedule to this point, and I believe that gave them a false sense of confidence. They are so talented that they haven't had to compete real hard to win. They lost to Duke because the Blue Devils were much more mentally tough. North Carolina bounced back and embarrassed a very good, veteran Miami team at home on Saturday. If UNC ends up in the Final Four, it will point to the loss at Duke as a critical learning experience.
• It's a shame to see Caris LeVert's career end this way, but it seems increasingly likely that he is going to have to shut it down for the remainder of the season. LeVert, who is suffering from a mysterious "lower leg injury" (John Beilein should work for the CIA), tried to come back and play last weekend against Purdue, but he could only manage 11 minutes and didn't play in the next two games. You have to remember this is a young man with a bright future as a professional, and at some point it is not worth risking that future to play in a few games where he will be far from full strength anyway.
• The same can be said for Duke's Amile Jefferson, by the way, except for the NBA part. Jefferson still has the option to redshirt because of the time he has missed with a broken foot. Why would he burn an entire season just so he can play a small handful of games when he is at less than full strength?
• This situation with Jameel McKay at Iowa State is very, very troublesome. Two weeks ago, coach Steve Prohm suspended the 6'9" senior center for two games because of something that happened in practice. McKay returned for two games, but he did not play during Saturday's win at home over TCU, even though he was dressed and on the bench. Prohm said McKay was not technically suspended and will be available for tonight's game at West Virginia, but clearly those two guys are still very much at odds. This team already has a very thin bench even with McKay available to play, so it is not good, to say the least, that the Cyclones are dealing with this issue this late in the season.
• Cal is coming, people. Young dudes are growing up, Tyrone Wallace is regaining his form after missing five games due to a broken bone in his right (non-shooting) hand, and everyone is really buying in on the defensive end.
• I cannot get enough of listening to Bill Walton call games. I literally LOL at least three times per half.
• I gotta tell ya, Georgetown is a real head-scratcher for me. Just about every player on that roster has had a great game this season, but they never seem to play well together. The Hoyas are lacking overall team speed, and that's a problem in today's game.
• Of course Stephen F. Austin is undefeated in the Southland again. Of course it is.
• Give Saint Mary's credit for completing the season sweep of Gonzaga, but once again Randy Bennett has put his team in a tough spot because of a weak nonconference schedule. The Gaels are 21–4 but they have zero top-50 wins because their nonconference schedule is ranked 221st in the country in the RPI. I see no reason why Saint Mary's can't be consistently at the level of a Gonzaga or Wichita State, but for some reason Bennett has never had the same ambitious scheduling philosophy as those two coaches.
• Last officiating thought: As I indicated last week, Maryland did the right thing by suspending Diamond Stone for a game, but that does not change the fact that Stone would not have had to be suspended if the referees did their job and ejected him in the first place. What's most perplexing is that the refs reviewed the play on a monitor, saw what Stone did and only gave him a dead-ball technical. Yet, we have not heard a peep from anyone at the Big Ten as to whether the referees were incorrect and if so, whether they have been disciplined or reprimanded. I understand the zebras have a tough job, but they have to be held publicly accountable just like coaches and players. Fans (not to mention coaches and players at other schools) deserve to know the league's official position on this.
• O.K., I lied, one last, last officiating thought: Whatever happens during the game, happens. Coaches screw up, players screw up, refs screw up, timekeepers screw up. I am 100% against reversing outcomes after the fact. What's done is done.
• You have to be really, really impressed that Villanova freshman guard Jalen Brunson scored 25 points in last week's win at Temple—his dad's alma mater. He did it even though everyone was watching to see how he would play and the fans were on his case from the opening tip. That shows me the kid is a gamer, which is one of many reasons why I think Villanova will be a legit threat to win the title.
• BYU and San Diego played each other twice last week, two days apart. Of all the weird scheduling quirks I've seen over the years, that is the weirdest.
• How's this for a stat line from Wyoming guard Josh Adams in a win at Colorado State: 37 points, 9 for 16 three-point shooting, eight rebounds, seven assists, four steals and two blocks. Is that any good?
• Hope you all will pay attention to the clips from all the Senior Night celebrations these next two weeks. It's one of the really, really special things about college basketball.
Five Games I'm Psyched to See This Week
Virginia at Miami, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Hurricanes were thoroughly embarrassed at North Carolina on Saturday. You'd expect them to rebound and play better at home, but Miami does not usually generate a tough environment for road teams. And Virginia is one of the few teams in the country that can match the Hurricanes' perimeter in efficiency and maturity.
Virginia 65, Miami 61
LSU at Arkansas, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPNU
The vibes are bad at LSU and getting worse, but I have a feeling that the adversity will bring the players closer together. Bud Walton Arena is usually a tough place to win, but the Razorbacks are two games under .500 in a pretty weak SEC, and their fullcourt pressure should help unleash LSU's athletes.
LSU 84, Arkansas 81
Kansas at Baylor, Tuesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Baylor can come pretty close to matching Kansas's talent, but not its toughness. That's why the Jayhawks throttled the Bears by 28 points in Lawrence on Jan. 2. Normally I might try to anticipate the swinging pendulum and go with the home team, but Kansas has proven it can win in tough road environments. I also believe Jayhawks are really, really determined to win another conference title.
Kansas 78, Baylor 70
Villanova at Xavier, Wednesday, 7 p.m., FS1
We've been looking forward to this game since New Years Eve, when Villanova throttled Xavier by 31 points in Philly. That was the game where the Musketeers lost their point guard, freshman Edmund Sumner, to a scary head injury in the early minutes. Sumner has long since returned and is playing his best ball of the season. Now Xavier gets to host the rematch, and its fans will no doubt be primed to watch their squad knock off the nation's No. 1 team. And that's what they will see.
Xavier 72, Villanova 69
Wisconsin at Iowa, Wednesday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network
By the time this game tips off, the Hawkeyes will have had seven long days to stew over their loss at Penn State. That, plus the incentive of Jarrod Uthoff to perform well against his former school, should be more than enough.
Iowa 75, Wisconsin 65
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Villanova (1)
2. Kansas (2)
3. Michigan State (3)
4. Xavier (6)
5. Virginia (9)
6. Oklahoma (4)
7. Duke (20)
8. North Carolina (8)
9. Iowa (5)
10. Arizona (12)
11. Louisville (21)
12. Maryland (10)
13. Oregon (13)
14. West Virginia (7)
15. Iowa State (14)
16. Miami (11)
17. Indiana (16)
18. Kentucky (17)
19. Notre Dame (15)
20. Baylor (NR)
21. Texas (19)
22. Purdue (24)
23. Wisconsin (23)
24. Texas A&M (NR)
25. Valparaiso (NR)
Dropped out: SMU (18), Dayton (22), Saint Joseph's (25)
We are down to our last few ballots, which is evidenced by the lack of volatility despite all the wacky results.
You should know that I don't put a ton of stock in seeing a highly ranked team lose on the road to an unranked one. We are in the dogs days of February. The good teams know they are in the tournament, so the less-good teams are more desperate to win. For example, I still consider Iowa a really good team even though it got tripped up at Penn State (which also beat Indiana, by the way). Ditto for Notre Dame, which got clipped at the buzzer at Georgia Tech; Oklahoma, which fell at surging Texas Tech; and Maryland, which lost at Minnesota without Diamond Stone. I was actually more negatively swayed by watching Maryland struggle to beat Michigan at home on Sunday afternoon.
Many of my trolls on Twitter were shocked on Sunday night when I revealed that I ranked Duke No. 7. Remember now, I dropped the Blue Devils out of my top 25 two weeks before they officially fell out of the AP poll. I was ahead of the curve then, and I believe I am ahead now, especially since it looks like Matt Jones will be back this week. You have to be very, very impressed with the way Duke was able to hang in there and win at North Carolina last week. When two teams seem relatively even and one beats the other on the road, the winning team should be ranked ahead. That's also why I ranked Baylor ahead of Texas after the Bears dominated the Longhorns in Austin on Saturday.
It is surprising that I do not have a single team from the Atlantic 10 on my ballot. There are a few rank-worthy teams in the league, but the results have not fallen into place well for them recently. Dayton lost twice last week, albeit without its third-leading scorer, Kendall Pollard; Saint Joseph's lost at Davidson, and I might have excused the Hawks a road loss in the conference, but since I had them at No. 25 they had no room to drop; and although St. Bonaventure scored an impressive win at Dayton (and also has a road win over Saint Joe's), the Bonnies also lost on Wednesday at La Salle, the last-place team in the conference.
SMU, meanwhile, has clearly lost its mental edge after the dream of an undefeated regular season slipped away. The Mustangs have lost four of their last eight games, including Thursday at UConn. Dropping SMU allowed me reward my favorite midmajor team, Valparaiso, for clinching the Horizon League title with a pair of home wins over Oakland and Detroit.
I don't know if this is a reflection of the calendar, but it felt like this was the best crop of teams I've had on my almost famous list. Among the teams I considered ranking were Texas Tech, which has won five of its last six games to draw to .500 in the Big 12; Temple, which is alone in first place atop the American after winning at Houston on Sunday; Cal, which finally won away from home in the conference by sweeping Washington and Washington State; UConn, which is playing better since Amida Brimah returned but could not pull out a win at Cincinnati on Saturday; Cincinnati, which likewise fell in overtime at Tulsa on Thursday; Utah, which swept UCLA and USC in Los Angeles last week; and that old standy Little Rock, which is 24–3 overall and has a three-game lead atop the Sun Belt.
The end is nigh, boys, but it's not too late to get a number next to your name. You know the rule: You have to win to get in.
See ya next Monday, Hoopheads.