Handicapping the field
Picks for coach of the year, early seed report, more
Posted: Tuesday February 12, 2008 12:22PM; Updated: Tuesday February 12, 2008 12:54PM
Of all the various end-of-the-year awards handed out each spring, the toughest criteria to define is the one that decides coach of the year. Do you go with the guy holding the reins of the studly, sturdy thoroughbred? Or do you go with someone who saddled up Seabiscuit and burst out of the pack?
The answer, as Forrest Gump would say, is both. Picking a coach of the year is highly subjective and extremely fluid, especially with four weeks still remaining in the regular season. That said, I figured this would be a good time for your favorite Hoop Thinker to provide you with a mid-February snapshot of this fast-moving picture. Herewith my top 10:
10. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh
When the Panthers lost two starters, including invaluable point guard Levance Fields, in back-to-back games in late December, it was reasonable to expect them to fold. Instead, they've gone a respectable 6-4 since, including a nine-point win over Big East favorite Georgetown. That Pitt remains ranked in the Top 25 is a tribute to Dixon's insistence that his players not make excuses. When Fields comes back in the next week or two, he'll be joining a team that has been steeled by adversity.
9. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
You can count me among those who doubted the Badgers could be competitive in the Big Ten after losing Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor following last season. It's not surprising Brian Butch is having a solid senior year, but Ryan has done a great job developing his perimeter group of Trevon Hughes, Michael Flowers and Jason Bohannon. Wisconsin doesn't overwhelm you with talent, but it's a team that, once again, doesn't make many mistakes. That's a tribute to the man on the sideline.
8. Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's
It's not easy to challenge Gonzaga's supremacy in the West Coast Conference, but that's what Bennett's Gaels have done this season. Bennett got lucky that Patty Mills was better than expected, but Bennett has done a great job mixing in his young prodigy with upperclassmen like Diamon Simpson, the vastly improved Omar Samhan and Ian O'Leary. Even if they don't win the WCC tournament, the Gaels, barring a collapse, should be a shoo-in for the NCAAs.
7. Trent Johnson, Stanford
Yes, the Cardinal has a lottery-type talent in Brook Lopez, but there's no other sure-fire NBA player on the roster. Yet there they are, riding a seven-game winning streak to second place in the nation's toughest conference while being ranked No. 7. A coach can have his biggest impact at the defensive end, and that is where Stanford has excelled. The Cardinal are ranked fourth in the country in defensive efficiency and they lead the Pac-10 in both blocks and field goal percentage defense.
6. Sean Miller, Xavier
The Musketeers lost their top three rebounders from last season, yet this year's team is even better than the group that almost knocked off Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Xavier has three seniors and two juniors amongst its top six scorers, and they all have been developed by the fiery Miller. Everybody plays hard on defense, they stay within themselves on offense and they know what their roles are and stick to them. I'd be surprised if Xavier does not make it to the tourney's second week this year.
5. Matt Painter, Purdue
When your top four players are three freshmen and a sophomore, usually the best you can hope for is to reach the postseason. That the Boilermakers are alone atop the Big Ten standings (including a sweep of Wisconsin) with that kind of lineup is one of the season's biggest shocks. Give credit to Painter for giving his youngsters the freedom to develop roles, and for bucking up their confidence after embarrassing losses in December to Wofford and Iowa State. Eight different players have led Purdue in scoring this season -- that's the hallmark of a veteran team, not a bunch of greenhorns.
4. Jim Calhoun, UConn
When Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins were suspended two weeks ago from a team that was already suffering from a thin bench, it could have derailed the Huskies' season. Instead, it galvanized them, thanks to the intensity and toughness instilled by their coach. Calhoun would probably be the first to admit he didn't do a good job last season. (Well, maybe not quite the first.) He lacked patience, and his repeated quick hooks drained his young players of badly-needed confidence. But this year when UConn became short-handed, the Huskies found a cause around which to rally, beginning with a stunning win at Indiana. The Huskies won five straight since the suspensions to improve to 7-3 in the Big East (18-5 overall). I'm not quite ready to say they're the best team in the Big East, but I do think they have the most potential to go deep into the NCAA tournament.
3. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
When it comes to devising a system that accentuates his players' strengths while masking their weaknesses, nobody does it better than Coach K. That's why the Blue Devils are 21-1 and ranked No. 2 despite not having a single serviceable post player. Much has been made of how Coach K bogarted the Phoenix Suns' offense (sans Shaq) from Mike D'Antoni, his assistant with USA Basketball last summer, but the biggest reason Duke has been so hard to beat has been this season is its relentless, man-to-man defense. That has been Krzyzewski's trademark his entire career, and in the end it could be Duke's ticket to San Antonio.
2. Keno Davis, Drake
You can talk all you want about how this is a down year for the Missouri Valley Conference. But Davis is a rookie head coach who took over a team that starts two former walk-ons and was picked to finish ninth in the league. All he has done is lead the Bulldogs to a 20-1 record, an 18-game winning streak and a No. 14 ranking. After inheriting the program from his father, Tom, last March, Keno Davis has built a squad that epitomizes efficiency and balance. Three different Bulldogs (Josh Young, Klayton Korver and Adam Emmenecker) have been named Missouri Valley Player of the Week in the last month. Drake may not have much size inside, but when your guards don't turn it over and make a high percentage from three-point range, you're going to win most of the games you play.
1. John Calipari, Memphis
With the Tigers still undefeated and ranked No. 1, you could make a case for Calipari to be coach of the year based solely on what his team has done this season. But he deserves special recognition for assembling this kind of powerhouse while competing a conference that is several cuts below the Big Six. When Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati and DePaul abandoned Conference USA for the Big East, that should have been the death knell for Memphis. Instead, Calipari has followed the template he put in place at UMass by taking on all comers during nonconference play. Calipari has recruited superbly under challenging circumstances, and he has done a masterful job molding those pieces into a cohesive unit. Until further notice, he gets my vote for national coach of the year.