Ten coach of the year candidates, readers' top NBA prospects, more
Jeff Capel's recruiting, sideline demeanor puts him on top of the COY candidates
More NBA prospects include Sherron Collins, Jerel McNeal, Patrick Patterson
More on Renardo Sidney, North Carolina and NCAA committee rules
We lead off this week's mailbag with a question that addresses a topic about which I have been thinking increasingly of late. It comes from George from Wichita, Kan.:
I'm curious as to why Bill Self hasn't gotten more consideration for Coach of the Year. I realize that he is coming off a national championship, but look at what he lost: all five starters, five NBA players, as well as six of his top seven scorers. Add in the fact that he only has one player from last year that had any significant playing time, and over 75 percent of his scoring this year comes from freshmen and sophomores.
The same thought occurred to me as I watched Kansas win at Oklahoma on Monday night to boost the Jayhawks' record to 23-5 (12-1 Big 12). It is truly amazing what Self has done with this team, but is he the national Coach of the Year? It's hard to say, because this is shaping up to be one of the most wide-open COY races in recent memory.
This is due partly to the fact that the criteria for COY is always the hardest to define. Usually, the award goes to the coach whose team exceeds expectations, but this isn't always fair. For example, North Carolina and Connecticut are having fabulous seasons, but I doubt Roy Williams or Jim Calhoun have a shot because everyone assumes their teams will be fabulous every year. Personally, I have always believed the award should recognize excellence as much as overachievement. I also tend to taking into account big-picture factors like recruiting and player development. Those things matter far more than how well a coach diagrams plays during a time out.
So I will take up George's question and give you my top 10 list for COY as it stands today, listed from the bottom up. But keep checking back with me, because this fascinating little race is going to have a lot more twists and turns before we're through. Drum roll, please:
10. Jim Boylen, Utah. The Utes had a couple of bad early losses to Southwest Baptist and Idaho State, and since they play in a mid-major league and get limited exposure, it's doubtful Boylen will garner much attention for COY. Still, the Mountain West is arguably stronger than it has ever been, and Utah has been a model of consistency as it has built a two-game lead atop the standings and ascended to No. 11 in the RPI. The Utes also have two impressive nonconference wins (albeit both at home) over Gonzaga and LSU (which Utah walloped by 30 points). Boylen's NBA background (he spent 13 years as an assistant with the Rockets and Bucks) and Michigan State bloodlines (five years as an assistant under Jud Heathcote and two under Tom Izzo) have proved to be a potent combination in both recruiting and coaching.
9. Jay Wright, Villanova. The Wildcats' guard-heavy personality results more from necessity than design. (Wright swears he tries to recruit big men, but Nova's reputation as Guard U scares them off.) But once again Wright has his team playing smart, tough, scrappy basketball. Villanova looked a little shaky at the start of the season as it blew through a weak nonconference schedule and then lost to Texas at Madison Square Garden, but the steady improvement of Wright's players (most notably Corey Fisher) has paid off. And there is arguably no player in the country who has improved more over the course of his career than senior forward Dante Cunningham.
8. Brad Stevens, Butler. When a team loses four starters and boasts a starting lineup that includes three freshmen and a sophomore, it's logical to assume it will take a step back. Even the Horizon League's writers picked Butler to finish fifth in the preseason. Well, nobody told the Bulldogs they were supposed to step back. They have been in the Top 25 all season and are poised to win the conference yet again. Stevens would be the first to admit that he is a reflection of the long-term winning culture at this program as much as he is its steward, but give Stevens credit for helping this team greatly exceeded expectations. The Bulldogs recently endured a two-game losing streak, but in Butler-esque fashion they rose to the occasion by beating Davidson on the road by 12 last weekend.
7. Russ Pennell, Arizona. I generally don't like to nominate first-year coaches, because they are coaching players who were recruited and developed by their predecessors. (That's why Cal's Mike Montgomery, LSU's Trent Johnson, Oregon State's Craig Robinson, South Carolina's Darrin Horn and Marquette's Buzz Williams aren't on this list, even though you could make strong cases for each.) But given the odd circumstances in which Pennell got this gig -- not just Lute Olson's sudden retirement, but Mike Dunlap's weird refusal to accept the interim job -- it is amazing that the Wildcats are on the brink of an NCAA bid. I highly doubt that Pennell will be named permanent coach at Arizona, but he has certainly helped his cause for a future in this profession.
6. Mike Anderson, Missouri. Anderson came to Columbia in the wake of the Quin Snyder debacle, and it has only taken him three years to put the Tigers back in the hunt for a Big 12 crown. During his first two years Anderson laid the foundation for a program where players are accountable on the court, in the classroom and in the community. Though Missouri has seven new players this year, Anderson has beautifully mixed the old with the new, and his team reflects his discipline, tenacity and intellect. There may not be a single NBA player on this roster, but you can be sure the Tigers will be a tough out in the tournament.
5. John Calipari, Memphis. If you're going to tout Bill Self for COY, then you have to also recognize the coach whom he vanquished in last year's title game. Like Kansas, Memphis lost all of its core players, but unlike Self, Calipari has had to break in a rookie point guard in Tyreke Evans. Moving Evans to the point in January has proved to be a master stroke, and the Tigers are playing with supreme confidence. Of course, that success is once again partly a reflection of the weakness of Conference USA, but the fact is, there's a great chance Memphis will end up as a number one seed. How many of you predicted that back on October 15th?
4. Dino Gaudio, Wake Forest. It's hard to imagine a more difficult set of circumstances that led Gaudio to become head coach at Wake Forest. Not only did he suffer an immense personal hardship when his best friend and boss, Skip Prosser, died suddenly of a heart attack, but he had to convince Prosser's highly-touted freshman class to come to Winston-Salem anyway. Now in his second year at the helm, Gaudio has revamped Prosser's defensive scheme and kept a team that relies heavily on freshmen and sophomores in the top 15 of the national rankings for most of the season. The young Deacs have hit a bit of a wall here late in the season, but if they can get their second wind and finish strong, they definitely have Final Four mettle.
3. Bill Self, Kansas. I've got to believe a lot of people are going to agree with George's choice of Self as COY. If the Jayhawks win the Big 12, he'll probably be a slam dunk, but I'd add one small caveat: In Kansas's two biggest conference games, the Jayhawks blew a big lead at Missouri, and they beat Oklahoma without Blake Griffin. Still, the progression of this young and inexperienced team this season has been steady and impressive. I've seen Self address his team before a big game -- Knute Rockne, he's not -- but there are lots of ways to motivate players. Self does it by earning their trust, paying close attention to details and holding them accountable each and every day. Its no coincidence that he has won everywhere he has been, but this year may be his best coaching job ever.
2. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh. Dixon is in his sixth year at Pitt, and during that time the Panthers have been as dominant a program as any in the country. We'll see if they can finally get past the Sweet 16 (which they haven't done since 1974), but it's worth remembering that Dixon, who was an assistant at Pitt under Ben Howland, probably would not have gotten the head job if Skip Prosser hadn't turned it down. I'd say he's done very well for himself.
1. Jeff Capel, Oklahoma. It's a little counterintuitive to hand the top spot to a man whose team is on a two-game losing streak, but we all know things would be different if Blake Griffin were healthy. Capel has done a phenomenal job at the most important thing a coach does: recruit. By convincing highly coveted players like Griffin and Willie Warren to come to Norman, and by convincing Griffin to return for his sophomore season when he could have been a lottery pick, Capel has proved that he is a coach that kids want to play for. (He also just landed two recruits named to the McDonald's All-American game.) This season, Capel, who just turned 34 this month, has also demonstrated that he is a gifted game manager whose sideline demeanor remains unruffled. That he has the Sooners in the hunt for a No. 1 seed, a No. 1 ranking and a realistic shot at a national championship is something that no one could have predicted when he took this job three years ago. Things can change since there is still a lot of basketball to be played, but as of right now, Jeff Capel is my choice for national coach of the year.