Defining and deciding the coach of the year race, more Hoop Thoughts
Postseason awards are by definition subjective. Yet, when it comes to the national coach of the year award, there is, by definition, no definition. The criteria are unclear and unexplained. The voter gets to decide not only whom he is voting for, but why.
In this space, I am The Decider as well as The Definer, so I take a different tack. For example, I don't place as much emphasis on exceeding "expectations" as others when it comes to naming my COY. Proving a bunch of writers wrong isn't all that difficult. Plus, if you make this your focus, you disqualify guys whose teams are dominant. I mean, if a coach has the best team from start to finish, does that not make him the best coach in college basketball that season?
Second, I like to take a big-picture view. The two most important parts of a coach's job are recruiting and player development. Those are things that take place over several years, not just one. They must be taken into account.
Finally, I look for intangibles -- effort, teamwork, chemistry, consistency, and most of all, culture. If a team is winning a lot of games because it reflects the personality of the man in charge, then I am more likely to name that man my coach of the year.
We still have a month to go, so things will change. But as of right now, here is how my top 10 looks. Decided and defined, presented from the bottom up:
10. Tony Bennett, Virginia
How many casual fans could tell you that Virginia is alone in second place in the ACC -- two games ahead of Duke, no less? How quietly this has occurred is attributable to Bennett's understated demeanor. His team's style can glaze the eyes, but its effectiveness, especially at the defensive end, cannot be questioned. The Cavs have won six conference road games, including at Pitt, and they darn near came back to beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Virginia has three relatively easy games coming up, which means it could be riding a 12-game winning streak heading into its March 1 home game against Syracuse. By that point, the rest of the country should be aware how good this team -- and its coach -- really is.
9. Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State
I was among the skeptics who doubted Hoiberg's strategy of welcoming transfers with troubled pasts. But he has proven adept at managing personalities and integrating them into his program. Exhibit A, of course, is DeAndre Kane, the 6-foot-4 senior guard who transferred to Iowa State after being dismissed from the basketball program at Marshall. Now, Kane could be Big 12 Player of the Year for the Cyclones, who are in 19-5. Hoiberg has also helped 6-6 senior forward Melvin Ejim morph from a Glue Guy last season into one of the most versatile offensive players in the country. That's what great coaches do.
8. Jay Wright, Villanova
The Wildcats were unranked in both preseason polls. They have just one player taller than 6-8. Yet, until they lost at Creighton on Sunday, they had spent most of the season ranked in the top 10. Few coaches do a better job than Wright when it comes to recruiting talent to fit his culture. Villanova makes up for its lack of size with tenacity and guile. Wright may resemble George Clooney in fancy suits, but don't let the smooth taste fool you. He's a scrapper, and his teams reflect his fighting spirit.
7. John Beilein, Michigan
The Wolverines were a young team that overachieved their way to last year's national championship game. They lost their starting backcourt to the first round of the NBA draft. Then, in early January, they lost their best player, sophomore forward Mitch McGary, who underwent back surgery. Yet here they are, tied with Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten with a 10-3 record (18-7 overall). Beilein has tailored his intricate offense to keep freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr., comfortable, and he has shown that he is a far better defensive coach than many people realized. Even though the Wolverines have lost three of their last five games, they have demonstrated resilience. That's what you do when John Beilein is your coach.
6. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
The Bearcats got a single vote for 25th place in the preseason AP poll, and they were shut out of the coaches' poll. Yet, despite losing their top two scores (including their starting point guard), and despite having just one bona fide scorer in senior guard Sean Kilpatrick, the Bearcats have lost just three games. Besides getting his players to impose their will defensively, Cronin has done a terrific job developing his two senior pillars -- Kilpatrick, who shed his past issues with shot selection and has played like an All-America, and shot-blocking whiz Justin Jackson, who might be the most improved player in the country. Helping players improve from year to year is a hallmark of great coaching, and it goes a long way toward explaining why the diminutive Cronin has stood so tall this season.
5. Billy Donovan, Florida
The only evidence you need for Donovan's candidacy was Florida's win at Kentucky Saturday night. A talented team and its passionate fans gave the Gators their best shot, and Florida still prevailed. The difference was that when crunch time came, Donovan's players knew what to do and John Calipari's didn't. The Gators have four seniors in their starting lineup, all of whom have improved under Donovan's tutelage. This is especially true of forward Casey Prather, who is contributing 16 points per game this season after averaging just 6.2 as a junior. Donovan's teams have always been underrated defensively, but unlike many coaches who try to control their offenses, Donovan gives his guys the freedom to play through mistakes. The Gators made the Elite Eight the past three years, but this is Donovan's best team since he won back-to-back championships in 2006 and '07, and he doesn't have a single surefire pro on his roster.
4. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
Yes, Syracuse seems to be living a charmed life, as last week's great escapes against Pitt and N.C. State demonstrated. But perfect is perfect. And it's not like the Orange have a bunch of future NBA superstars. It hasn't been totally by design, but Boeheim has hit the recruiting sweet spot, signing players who are good enough to win but not quite good enough to leave. Even though he is 69 years old, Boeheim is way ahead of his peers when it comes to designing his zone defense, and he is masterful at tweaking it as the game goes along. Boeheim is the reason this program has set the gold standard for excellence and consistency.
3. Rick Barnes, Texas
Last season, the Longhorns finished seventh in the Big 12 and missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in Barnes' 15 years in Austin. When the season was over, the program lost its top four scorers -- one to the NBA draft, one to an overseas opportunity, and two to transfers. So it was natural to assume Barnes was a dead man walking. As it turns out, he is alive and well, and so are the Longhorns, who are alone in second place in the Big 12 with a 9-3 record (20-5 overall). As it turned out, those personnel losses were addition by subtraction. Barnes promised the program would benefit from the culture change and it has, despite a lineup that Kenpom.com ranks 346th nationally in experience. Those of us who were predicting a Mack Brown-like drama at the end of the season could not have been more wrong.
2. Steve Fisher, San Diego State
You gotta love that the top of my list has a mid-major flavor. There are good reasons the Aztecs were left out of the preseason rankings, or even in the "Others receiving votes" lists. They lost their top two scorers from last season -- point guard Chase Tapley and small forward Jamaal Franklin, who led the team in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals before becoming a second-round NBA draft pick. Yet, this week San Diego State has a 22-2 record that includes a road win at Kansas. That snapped the Jayhawks' 68-game homecourt winning streak against nonconference opponents. Senior guard Xavier Thames is having an All-America-caliber season, but the Aztecs are succeeding because of their intense, smart and efficient team defense. Steve Fisher is 68 years old, but the man is as sharp and wily as ever.
1. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
If there were such a thing as a coach-of-the-last-two-years award, Marshall would be a cinch. As such, he is an easy choice to claim the award for 2014. It's remarkable enough that a team from the Missouri Valley Conference is going into the third week of February without a loss. It's even more remarkable that said team is coming off an appearance in the Final Four, which means from the opening tip of the opening game, the Shockers have had huge targets on their backs. Their ability to handle such intense pressure and continue to play angry is a reflection of their edgy, non-nonsense coach.
Continue Reading: Five game to watch this week ... Seth's Top 25 ballot
Texas at Iowa State, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
These weeknight Big 12 games have become must-watch TV. You can always count on an epic performance or a crazy ending. The Longhorns are coming in hot, having won nine of their last 10, including the last two by a combined 36 points. But it's hard to envision this young team winning in Hilton Coliseum.
Iowa State 85, Texas 74
UCLA at California, Wednesday, 10:30 p.m., Pac 12 Network
For a team that has won 20 games, UCLA is remarkably lacking in notable wins. Aside from their win at Spencer Dinwiddie-less Colorado, the Bruins' best victory came over Cal at home on Jan. 26. The Bears had lost four out of five before sweeping the Washington schools on the road last week, but they still needed overtime to get by Washington State. They need to make a statement, and I think they know it.
UCLA 74, Cal 68
New Mexico at UNLV, Wednesday, 11:05 p.m., ESPN2
Don't look now, but the Runnin' Rebels have won six of their last seven to move into sole possession of third place in the Mountain West. Khem Birch has been a monster on defense lately, but that won't be the case against the Lobos' mammoth inside tandem of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow.
New Mexico 72, UNLV 68
Duke at North Carolina, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Assuming there won't be another epic snowstorm to blanket the triangle, this is going to be a fun game. North Carolina's up-and-down season is on the way up again, as the Heels are riding a six-game win streak. Duke looked sluggish against Maryland, but I think the Blue Devils will bring their A game for this one.
Duke 82, North Carolina 74
Gonzaga at BYU, Thursday, 11 p.m., ESPN2
Both teams have much to prove. The Zags have won just about every game they should have won this season, but they still do not have a signature win. I'm not sure this would qualify, but the Marriott Center is not an easy place to win. The Cougars also know that this could be their last hope at getting into at-large contention. I spy a desperate home team.
BYU 84, Gonzaga 80
*(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Syracuse (1)
2. Florida (3)
3. Wichita State (5)
4. Arizona (2)
5. Duke (8)
6. Kansas (7)
7. San Diego State (6)
8. Cincinnati (10)
9. Creighton (20)
10. Michigan State (4)
11. Louisville (11)
12. Saint Louis (12)
13. Kentucky (14)
14. Villanova (9)
15. Iowa (15)
16. UConn (17)
17. Virginia (18)
18. Texas (21)
19. Wisconsin (NR)
20. Iowa State (13)
21. Memphis (19)
22. Michigan (16)
23. Ohio State (22)
24. North Carolina (NR)
25. Stephen F. Austin (NR)
Dropped out: Oklahoma (23), New Mexico (24), SMU (25)
I cracked. I've been saying for weeks that I would not rank Wichita State above No. 5. I thought I could hold off until March, but too many of the other teams lost last week. Arizona fell at Arizona State, Kansas lost at Kansas State, San Diego State lost at Wyoming and Michigan State lost at home to Nebraska. I was willing to give the Spartans a mulligan when they lost at the buzzer on the road to Wisconsin (down two starters, no less), but I can't do the same for a home loss to a lesser team. I still think Michigan State is the best team in the country when it is at full strength, but I have to rank the Spartans based on how they are playing, and right now they are not playing so great.
Creighton made the biggest jump this week, which I know comes as a grave disappointment to all my trolls in Omaha. This is a good illustration of the difference between ranking and seeding. When it comes to the bracket, margin of victory should be irrelevant. However, you can't discount the fact that Creighton has now manhandled Villanova by a combined 49 points in their two games. Plus, I also considered that St. John's won twice this week, including a 74-58 decision over Georgetown on Sunday. So the Blujays' loss at St. John's last week looks less harsh in the rearview mirror.
The team that has the strongest case for getting a raw deal on my ballot is Saint Louis. A team can only beat the teams it plays, and the Billikens have beaten every team they've played in the Atlantic 10, which is a pretty good league. The problem is that until they beat VCU on Saturday -- at home, by two points -- the Billikens had not defeated a team that will definitely be in the NCAA tournament. (Though Saint Joseph's is working its way onto the bubble.) So it's going to be hard for this team to move up in the next couple of weeks.
Given how bad Wisconsin looked while losing five out of six games in January, I did not want to overreact to that win over Michigan State. I still think my fellow voters jumped the gun by installing the Badgers at No. 21 last week, but I was impressed by the way their win at Michigan on Sunday. Not only did they come out slinging arrows, they withstood the Michigan comeback and maintained their composure. (In this case, "composure" meant giving the ball to Frank Kaminsky.) Whatever was ailing Wisconsin seems to be cured. This was never a top-five team, but it is also not as bad as it looked during that skid.
North Carolina is clearly deserving of being ranked again after beating Pittsburgh for its sixth-straight win. Since my bottom three teams lost last week, that left me an open slot at No. 25. Gonzaga was probably the worthy choice, but as you all know, I tend to get sentimental at that spot. So I went with the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin. Yes, the Southland is a far cry from the Big 12 and Big Ten, but is it really that far a cry from the West Coast Conference? All the Lumberjacks have done is win every game they've played in the league. In fact, Stephen F. Austin hasn't lost since Nov. 23! Plus, it is ranked 14th in the country in scoring margin, so it's not as if the Lumberjacks just squeaking by. People who say that rankings don't matter have no idea what getting ranked would do for a program like Stephen F. Austin's. If I can help make that happen in my own small way, then I'll try.
I also gave another long look to UCLA. The problem is, the Bruins do not play Arizona again, so all they can do is continue to beat unranked teams. That's a hard way to get on my ballot, but a sweep of Cal and Stanford this week could potentially force my hand.
As for the other schools that almost made it, I might have gone with Southern Miss, except it suffered two bad road losses to UAB and Middle Tennessee. Don't be surprised if I rank one of the three first-place teams (Louisiana Tech, UTEP, Middle Tennessee) of Conference USA at some point. Other midmajors that caught my eye include Mercer, which is 12-2 in the Atlantic Sun; Delaware, which is undefeated in the CAA; UW-Green Bay, which is 11-2 in the Horizon; Iona, which has a two-game lead in the MAAC; and Boston University, which is 12-2 in the Patriot League.