We are about half-way through the season and, as usual, there is a lot of intrigue in the world of coaching. Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland have resurrected themselves and pushed their respective programs back into the spotlight. Mark Few continues to build a powerhouse. Penny Hardaway became the most entertaining coach in college basketball. There is Tony Bennett, who has turned Virginia into the NCIS of college basketball: it may be boring, it may be predictable, but people can’t stop watching. Bill Self has managed to piece together a contender despite Kansas’s clear lack of cohesion. Not to mention, there is the bizarre storyline of Self and Lagerald Vick who appear to have a tumultuous relationship that can only be rivaled by that of Cardi B and Offset. Down in Tallahassee, another of our favorite March Madness personalities, Leonard Hamilton, has Florida State poised for another tourney run… But can he beat last year’s painfully awkward post game interview? Only time will tell!
Overall, there are many storylines to follow. But now that New Year’s has passed, it’s time to take a closer look at this year’s coaching hierarchy. Let’s take a big picture view of the best-of-the-best and evaluate this season’s crop of Coach of The Year candidates:
Steve Alford – UCLA
… Too soon??
Mike Krzyzewski – Duke
If you’re going to have a ranking of Coach of the Year candidates, I suppose you have to include the coach of the best overall team. But, let’s be real, if you have the top 3 recruits in the nation coming to play for you alongside other previously heralded recruits, shouldn’t you be the best team in the nation?
John Beilein – Michigan
Beilein might just be the best overall coach in the country. Beilein is the ideal prototype of a college coach. He is a players coach, always beloved by his team. Yet, he also fits your grandfather’s view of coaching by “doing things the right way” and being a molder of men. He can win with offense or defense. He can be successful with four-year players or one-and-dones. He has shown that he can adapt to different styles of play and manage all types of personality. No matter what your criterion is for a great coach, Beilein will check all of the boxes.
The Wolverines were projected to be a Top 10 team prior to this season, but there is no question Michigan has even exceeded those lofty expectations. It is rare that a team that reaches the national championship game can actually become better the next season, but that is the case with this year’s Michigan squad. Beilein has done a phenomenal job developing players and drastically improving the team’s defense. Furthermore, he has been the beneficiary of substantial growth from Charles Matthews and the surprising play of Ignas Brazdeikis.
Despite his stellar coaching job, the fact that the team was already held in such high regard likely will preclude him from obtaining coach of the year.
Bob Richey – Furman
Without question, the Furman Paladins have been the biggest surprise so far this year in college basketball. In his second full season as coach, Bob Richey pulled off what seemed like the impossible by slaying Loyola-Chicago (fresh off of their final four run last season) and #8 Villanova all within the first month of the season. Today, these victories feel less impressive as we now know that both teams are nowhere near as good as they were last year.
Still, for Furman, these Ws were monumental and even resulted in the squad being briefly ranked in the Top 25, a feat no one could have anticipated in October. The team currently sits at 14-2 after recent losses to LSU and East Tennessee State. Heading into conference play, Furman won’t have another opportunity to snag another signature win until the NCAA Tournament, so his odds for getting coach of the year are slim.
Nonetheless, Richey has made Furman relevant and has everyone around the country googling what “Paladins” are… And, for that reason alone, he is worthy of being on the short list. (oh and I’ll save you a trip to Wikipedia, Paladins were the warriors of Charlemagne’s court).
Chris Mullin – St. John’s
This is certainly the biggest turnaround of the year. Over the summer, Mullin was at the top of the list of coaches on the hot seat. Now, just a few months later, Mullin has resurrected a dying blue blood. The Red Storm are 14-1 and are one of the most enjoyable watches in college basketball. Sure, their entire non-conference schedule was filled with cupcakes, but they proved with a victory over #19 Marquette that they can hang with anyone. Mullin has perhaps the best backcourt in all of the nation with Ponds and Heron. The team also has five players averaging double digit points per game and the 9th overall scoring offense in college basketball. St. John’s is back. And, this is the most relevant Chris Mullin has been since he was name dropped in that Wale song.
Chris Beard – Texas Tech
Texas Tech is off to a great start with their only loss of the year coming against Duke. However, their quality of competition hasn’t been the best (Nebraska, USC, Memphis, and West Virginia are probably their biggest victories). Yes, Jerrett Culver has propelled himself into a sure-fire first-round pick and, yes, TTU should be a formidable opponent the rest of the year. But, let’s not get too carried away; it’s still very early. Let’s wait until we get deeper into conference play before we anoint the Red Raiders as potential contenders. As for Beard, no matter what happens the rest of the season, his meteoric rise is not likely to slow down anytime soon.
Nate Oats – Buffalo
Oats has turned Buffalo into one of the most exciting teams in the nation. Building off of a successful stint from Bobby Hurley, Oats has taken the program to new heights. He has put together several impressive recruiting classes. Moreover, he has developed a definitive brand of basketball, which appeals to players and viewers alike. Buffalo plays with extreme pace and a controlled recklessness that throws opponents off guard. They shoot early and often, averaging only 14.6 seconds per possession. Yet, their run-and-gun offense is no gimmick. Buffalo averages 83.1 points per game, which is 17th in college basketball, and have an average scoring margin of +13. They are ranked 21st in assists and 30th in rebounds. According to KenPom, Buffalo has the 21st most efficient offense in college basketball.
As all of these statistics indicate, Buffalo is the real deal and is sure to be a feared team come March. Oats now has Buffalo ranked #20 in the polls. It’s been a tremendous first half of the season for Buffalo and if they can continue to roll the rest of the season, expect Oats to be at the forefront of the coach of the year race.
Rick Barnes – Tennessee
If you were to compile a list of the best teams in college basketball, Tennessee would most definitely land in your top four. They have all the makings of a team that could go deep in the postseason. Barnes’ reinvention in Knoxville has been one for the ages. After departing Texas, there seemed to be a stale aftertaste in the mouths of both parties. It appeared that each was ready for a change. But, if you look back on his career with the Longhorns, the numbers are quite staggering. Between 1998 and 2015, there were only 2 seasons where Texas had fewer than 20 victories. Moreover, in 16 of his 17 seasons in Austin, Texas made the NCAA Tournament. He was so successful during his tenure that he was omnipresent in the college sports landscape. I mean, who could forget his acting performance as a college coach in Friday Night Lights?
Now, as the Shaka Smart experiment seems to be drawing to a disappointing end, it seems ridiculous that Texas would ever part ways with Barnes. Even more ridiculous is the fact that many in the media questioned whether Barnes was washed up. Today, it’s clear that he is still amongst the very best in college basketball. Currently, Tennessee is ranked in the top 10 in both points per game and shooting percentage. The team is extremely unselfish, as they lead the nation in assists. Their only loss of the season came in overtime to then-#2 Kansas. Plus, let’s not forget Tennessee also took down Gonzaga when they were the #1 team in the nation.
The SEC is a powerhouse conference this season, but the Volunteers have already been tested amongst the nation’s best. With several intriguing games ahead, Tennessee will have ample opportunity to boost their already impressive resume. If the Coach of the Year award were to be given out at this very moment in time, it would go to Barnes.
There is still a lot of basketball to be played but, if you’re looking for names on coach of the year, look no further than this squad.