My top 10 candidates for coach of the year; plus nationwide musings
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Of all the major season-ending awards, coach of the year is the hardest to define. Most people seem to believe the coach of the year should be based on a one-year evaluation period where the main criterion is exceeding preseason expectations. But to me, there should be a lot more to it than making a bunch of poll voters look dumb. If that's the most important measurement, half the coaches in Division I should get a trophy.
Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I view the COY as more than a one-year deal. Many elements that go into being a great coach take more than a year to unfold -- recruiting and player development, for starters. And just because a coach's team was ranked highly in the preseason doesn't mean he isn't doing a COY-worthy job.
So bear all of this in mind as you read through my top 10 candidates for coach of the year. I considered about two dozen coaches for this list, but I have to say my selection for the top spot was extremely easy. Here, then, in reverse order, I give you my current pecking order:
10) Mike Anderson, Missouri. Yes, the Tigers are ranked now (11) around where they were ranked in the preseason (15), but it's worth remembering the state of this program when Anderson took over four years ago. The Tigers had missed the NCAA tournament for three consecutive seasons and were coming off Quin Snyder's stormy, seven-year tenure. Since Anderson's roots were in the South, his hiring at Mizzou was a bit unconventional, but it only took him two years to stock the program with players uniquely suited for his high-octane attack. Anderson has some really good players on this team (Marcus Denmon chief among them), but the Tigers are feared as much for the way they play as much as for who their players are. Best of all, Anderson oozes class. That makes him a major asset.
9) Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's. I wasn't convinced the Gaels deserved to be ranked last week (they fell out of this week's poll), but there is no doubt that Bennett has done a remarkable job both this season and throughout his nine-year tenure. It's not uncommon for a mid-major program to make waves with a hot player every now and again, but Bennett has lost high-caliber players in each of the last two years (Patty Mills in 2009, Omar Samhan in 2010), and yet the Gaels have not lost a step. The best thing Bennett has done is to set up a recruiting pipeline from Australia to Moraga, Calif. And as he is proving once again this season, Bennett knows what to do with good players once he has them.
8) Dave Rose, BYU. I thought of sticking Jim Boeheim in this spot, but he gets penalized for failing to recruit The Jimmer, even though he was right in Boeheim's backyard. Rose, however, does more than just roll the ball out to Fredette and point him toward the basket. The Cougars are ranked 10th overall in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency ratings. They are the 19th-fastest team in the country, they're ranked sixth nationally in points per game -- and yet they only commit 11.1 turnovers per game, which ranks 14th nationally. That is truly remarkable. Rose has taken BYU to the last four NCAA tournaments. I like his chances to make a lot more noise this time around.
7) Mark Turgeon, Texas A&M. The Aggies weren't just unranked in the preseason. They weren't even mentioned in "others receiving votes." This week they're 13th with a 17-2 record, and with this roster, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Beyond sophomore swingman Khris Middleton, whom Turgeon offered a scholarship without having even seem him play, this team has no dynamic offensive players. The Aggies are getting it done by managing tempo, digging down on defense and knocking down free throws then it counts. Turgeon's work is even more impressive when you look at the big picture. It was not easy following Billy Gillispie after he took Texas A&M to the Sweet 16 of the 2007 NCAA tournament, but Turgeon has taken the Aggies back to the tourney in each of the last three years, and every time they have won their first-round game. I have a feeling they're going to win more than that this year.
6) Rick Barnes, Texas. I might not have ranked Barnes in my top 10 if the Longhorns had gotten blown out in the second half at Kansas like they did in the first. Barnes made phenomenal halftime adjustments to win that game, but I'm even more impressed with the way he has taken such a young team to a 16-3 record despite a very difficult schedule -- and all this in the wake of last season's epic collapse. Texas' three-man nucleus consists of two freshmen and a sophomore, so the 'Horns wouldn't be doing this well if they weren't well-coached.
5) Thad Matta, Ohio State. If your team enters the third week of January undefeated and ranked No. 1, you deserve to be on this list. I also give Matta extra props for pulling off the remarkable feat of losing the consensus national player of the year in Evan Turner and still getting better. True, it doesn't take a genius to recruit Jared Sullinger when he grew up in Columbus and his older brother played for Ohio State, but if Sullinger wasn't surrounded by older players who have both talent and character, then the Buckeyes wouldn't be where they are. This team also does not have a true point guard in its starting lineup. Matta has done a great job bringing freshman Aaron Craft off the bench and managing his rotation.
4) Matt Painter, Purdue. When Robbie Hummel was lost to a season-ending ACL, a lot of people, myself included, were quick to write off Purdue's chances of getting to the Final Four. That they are 17-3 and ranked 12th is testament not just to the job Painter has done with this group but also the talent and character of the players that he recruits. No single player can replace what Hummel does, but every game a different Boilermakers seems to step up where you least expect it. That's teamwork -- and great coaching.
3) Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh. It will require a breakthrough to the Final Four for Dixon to be recognized among the game's greats, but that could very well be coming. His team doesn't have any household names, but the Panthers play tough, smart, efficient basketball. Dixon's Pitt teams have always been solid defensively, but this squad shares the ball better than any that he has had. That's a reflection of the team-first ethos he has imbued during his eight years running this program.
2) Steve Fisher, San Diego State. The Aztecs are bound to lose a game or two (perhaps on Wednesday when they play at BYU), but they won't drop far in the rankings. Putting Fisher at the two spot is recognition for more than what he has just done this season. Since coming to San Diego State 12 years ago, Fisher had steadily built up an unlikely powerhouse. He went hard after Kawhi Leonard when a lot of big-time schools were passing him over, and year by year Fisher has built a program with little tradition to speak of into a bona fide Final Four contender. Remember, San Diego State had never been ranked before this season. This week they're No. 4.
1) Jim Calhoun, UConn. There will be some bumpy patches in the days ahead once the NCAA's committee on infractions hands down its ruling on UConn's case. (Nobody knows when that decision is coming down, but it could literally be any day now.) In the meantime, let us all behold the job Calhoun has done with this young team. Yes, much of the credit goes to the long hours Kemba Walker put in over the summer, but Calhoun has masterfully guided a team that features four freshmen and two sophomores among its top seven scorers to be one of the best teams in the country. UConn began the season unranked. If the NCAA tournament began today, it would be a No. 1 seed (as evidenced in Andy Glockner's Bracket Watch). That makes Calhoun the easiest choice for coach of the year we've seen in a long, long time.
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