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Handicapping the national coach of the year race

Posted: Thursday February 2, 2006 1:35PM; Updated: Thursday February 2, 2006 5:45PM
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Ohio State coach Thad Matta has led the Buckeyes to a 15-3 mark this season.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta has led the Buckeyes to a 15-3 mark this season.
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Because this is the time of year when every college hoops "expert" is unveiling one list or another, I figured I would provide my take on the national coach of the year race. Suffice it to say, much could and will happen between now and the end of the season to rejigger this ranking. So consider this, like all other midseason lists, a snapshot of a rapidly moving picture. Herewith, then, my top 10 candidates, presented from the bottom up:

10. Karl Hobbs, George Washington. Now in his fifth year in Foggy Bottom, Hobbs has the Colonials ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll for the first time in 50 years. He really knows how to use his up-tempo system. If he hadn't played such a wimpy non-conference schedule, he'd be higher on my list.

9. Thad Matta, Ohio State. I realize everyone in Columbus is more excited about next year's recruiting class, but let's be sure we take time to appreciate the job Matta is doing with this group. The Buckeyes are limited in talent but long on experience, and they play with the smarts and toughness that is reflective of the man on the bench.

8. Ben Howland, UCLA. No highly ranked team has been more decimated by injuries than the Bruins, yet Howland has done more than just keep this team together. He has it in first place in the Pac-10 and has a legit chance to make the Sweet 16. If you saw the Bruins erase that huge deficit against West Virginia a couple weeks ago before falling short, you know that few coaches teach mental toughness better than Howland does.

7. Greg McDermott, Northern Iowa. UNI's primary competitors in the Missouri Valley Conference have dealt with more attrition and injuries, but I chose McDermott as a nod to how he has brought this program along over the last three years. The Panthers will be a tough out in the tourney because they know how to slow down a game and limit their turnovers, which will prevent big-name schools from pressing their athletic advantage.

6. John Beilein, West Virginia. It takes a couple of years to master Beilein's Princetonesque offense, which is why the senior-dominated Mountaineers are so difficult to defend. But with so much attention given to the way this team scores, it's easy to overlook its defense, which is predicated on Beilein's decisions to switch formations according to feel.

5. Jay Wright, Villanova. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Wright has done a masterful job shaping his four-guard offense in the wake of Curtis Sumpter's knee injury. The Wildcats' uniqueness and their ability to hide their flaws make them the most enjoyable team to watch in the country.

4. Billy Donovan, Florida. Donovan would have been higher were it not for the Gators' recent stumbles, but there's no question he has done a marvelous job fomenting chemistry on a team that lost its top three scorers from last season. Now we'll see if Donovan can instill a blue-collar toughness that's missing from this squad.

3. Bruce Weber, Illinois. Even those wacky Illini fans couldn't have imagined their team would be tied for first place in the Big Ten when the calendar turned to February. Everyone talks about how Illinois lost Deron Williams and Luther Head off last year's NCAA runner-up, but the Illini also lost their heart-and-soul glue guy Roger Powell up front. Dee Brown has made a good adjustment to running the point fulltime, but Illinois' effort and execution on defense is the main reason it is sitting where it is. That's a tribute primarily to Weber.

2. Bruce Pearl, Tennessee. It's hard to recall an instance where a coach came into a moribund program and did a better job applying the defibrillator. The pressing, running style Pearl coaches used to define the SEC, but now it stands out as creative and anomalous. Even more impressive is the way Pearl has sparked the fans to fill up UT's massive arena, even before the Vols rose to 13th in the rankings.

1. John Calipari, Memphis. Everyone talks about how talented this team is, but there's a difference between being athletic and having talent. The reality is, most of Memphis' players have limited basketball skills, but Calipari is masking those flaws by getting them to play tenaciously on defense and unselfishly on offense. Most of all, Memphis has five freshmen and three sophomores in its nine-man rotation, yet it is ranked No. 3 and likely headed for a No. 1 seed. I also admire the brutal (yet inspired) non-conference schedule Calipari put together in anticipation of the weak competition his team would get from Conference USA.