College Basketball: Ranking the Top 15 Mid-Major Coaches
It’s tough to get any attention as a college hoops coach outside the power conferences. Just because they’re working in comparative obscurity, though, doesn’t mean that the ranks of the mid-major coaches don’t include some outstanding basketball minds.
The fastest-rising star among that group is Virginia Commonwealth wunderkind Shaka Smart. After taking the Rams to their first-ever Final Four in his second season at the helm, Smart has overcome heavy graduation losses to keep his team in the thick of the conference race in 2011-12.
Herein, a closer look at Smart and the rest of the 15 most accomplished coaches guiding mid-major programs this season.
15. Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa
After five years as an assistant at Northern Iowa (mostly under current conference rival Greg McDermott of Creighton), Ben Jacobson took over the head job in 2006.
He’s taken them to two NCAA tournaments in the years since—or one-third of the school’s all-time trips, not to mention its only Sweet 16 bid two years ago.
Jacobson’s worst season to date was an 18-14 campaign in 2007-08, and his fast start as a head coach doesn't appear to be losing momentum.
Fresh off a win over McDermott’s Blue Jays, UNI is 16-9 on the season (though they’re unlikely to make the Big Dance thanks to a 6-7 conference mark).
14. Tim Floyd, UTEP
Well-traveled Tim Floyd returned last season to UTEP, where he had served as an assistant under the revered Don Haskins three decades ago.
Although Floyd has faced his share of controversy (one of his best years at USC was vacated as a result of recruiting improprieties involving O.J. Mayo), he’s been a consistent winner in his 17 collegiate seasons.
In addition to taking the Trojans to three straight NCAA tournaments, Floyd—who boasts an enviable 347-155 career record—made three trips to the Big Dance in five seasons at Iowa State and two more before that with New Orleans.
His Miners are scuffling in 2011-12, but his debut with them featured 25 wins and an NIT trip last spring.
13. Blaine Taylor, Old Dominion
A former point guard at Montana, Blaine Taylor began his coaching career at his alma mater in 1998. He spent seven seasons at the Grizzlies' helm, winning 20 games in four of them and making a pair of NCAA tournaments.
Taylor’s performance out west earned him his current job at Old Dominion, where he’s enjoyed even more success.
Under Taylor, the Monarchs have enjoyed six 20-win campaigns in the last seven years, playing in four NCAA tournaments and an NIT in that time.
12. Shaka Smart, VCU
Already established as a dangerous postseason foe during Eric Maynor’s career, Virginia Commonwealth soared to new heights last season under Shaka Smart.
The then-second year head coach led the Rams to the first Final Four in school history (and second for any CAA team) before falling to Butler in the national semis.
Smart’s scrambling, pressing defenses depend heavily on depth, and the Rams lost quite a bit of that with the graduation of much of their starting lineup.
That being the case, Smart deserves almost as much applause for his team’s 2011-12 performance, as VCU is 20-5 and tied for the CAA lead once again heading into the season’s final month.
11. Steve Alford, New Mexico
Although he's never come close to matching the national title he won as a player, Steve Alford has seen his share of the postseason as a coach.
In stops at Southwest Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico, Alford has averaged 20 wins a year and earned a combined five trips to March Madness, earning one Sweet 16 berth with the Bears.
Now in his fifth season at New Mexico, Alford has made two NITs and two NCAA appearances so far. With the Lobos at 19-4 on the year, that postseason run is almost certain to continue in 2012.
10. Paul Hewitt, George Mason
Newly installed at George Mason, Paul Hewitt is returning to the mid-major ranks after a decade in the ACC. Hewitt began his coaching career at Siena, where he recorded a pair of 20-win seasons and made the second NCAA tournament in school history.
For the last 11 years, Hewitt has enjoyed a largely successful stint at Georgia Tech that featured five NCAA tournament berths (including a trip to the 2004 national title game).
Given the rising reputation of the CAA, he has a fair chance to keep up his outstanding rate of postseason appearances as the head man for the Patriots, who hold a share of the CAA lead heading into this season's home stretch.
9. Phil Martelli, St. Joseph's
In 17 seasons at St. Joseph’s, Phil Martelli has become synonymous with the Hawks program. Earlier this year, he set the all-time wins record at the school, a total that now stands at 315 and counting.
Martelli’s teams have made five trips to the NCAA tournament, most recently in 2008. He’s never made a Final Four, but he came within inches when Jameer Nelson’s last-second jumper went begging against Oklahoma State in 2004.
8. Ben Braun, Rice
Although Ben Braun has struggled mightily in four seasons with Rice—the Owls’ 13-11 mark this year gives him a shot at his first winning record with the school—he’s more than proven his coaching chops elsewhere.
Braun got his Division I start with Eastern Michigan, where he took 11 years to set the school record for coaching victories with 185.
Braun led the Eagles to three NCAA tournaments, but he received far more national attention for his stay at Cal. Under Braun, the Golden Bears made five NCAA tournament appearances in 12 seasons (including a Sweet 16 trip) and won an NIT title.
7. Stew Morrill, Utah State
It’s been a very rare down year for Stew Morrill’s Aggies, who sit at 12-12 overall and under .500 in WAC play. The last time Utah State failed to win 20 games in a season was 1998-99, the year Morrill took over the program.
After unremarkable stints at Montana and Colorado State, Morrill has found his niche with the Aggies, whom he’s led to a school-record 324 victories in his coaching career.
That remarkable run includes a combined 10 conference championship seasons (regular-season and tournament) and eight of the program’s 20 appearances all-time in the NCAA tournament.
6. Dave Rose, BYU
Dave Rose is a relative newcomer to the head coaching scene, but he’s made an instant impact at BYU.
After serving as an assistant under lackluster predecessor Steve Cleveland, Rose took the Cougars program to a new level upon taking over the head coaching job.
In Rose’s six seasons at the helm, the Cougars have made five NCAA tournaments (including last year’s Sweet 16 run) and averaged better than 26 wins a year.
They haven’t missed a beat after moving to the WCC, as they’ve played their way into the at-large discussion with a 20-6 record so far this season.
5. Rick Majerus, St. Louis
Rick Majerus didn’t have a huge amount of success in his first coaching stop at alma mater Marquette, but he’s put up impressive performances everywhere else he’s been.
Majerus has been to 11 NCAA tournaments, mostly with Utah (which he guided to the Sweet 16 or better four times, including a national runner-up finish in 1998).
Majerus has been up-and-down in five seasons at the Billikens’ helm, but he’s decidedly back up in 2011-12.
St. Louis is 6-3 in Atlantic 10 play, just a half-game out of first, and at 18-5 overall the team is in a great position to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000.
4. Steve Fisher, San Diego State
After losing a host of key players—including NBA first-rounder Kawhi Leonard—San Diego State had every excuse to return to anonymity this season.
Instead, Steve Fisher’s squad has followed up the best year in school history with a 20-3 start that has them a game up on UNLV for the lead in the Mountain West.
Of course, Fisher had a pretty impressive career before he ever got to SDSU, as he recruited and coached Michigan’s legendary Fab Five.
Between the two schools, Fisher has made 11 NCAA tournament appearances and two trips to the national title game (although some of his Michigan records were later vacated in the Chris Webber booster scandal).
3. Fran Dunphy, Temple
The first coach ever to lead two of Philadelphia’s storied Big Five programs, Fran Dunphy holds the school record at Penn with 310 coaching victories.
That total is second in Ivy League history only to Pete Carril of Princeton, and it set up Dunphy’s Quakers to play in nine NCAA tournaments in his 16 seasons with the school.
Since moving across town to Temple, Dunphy has started a string of four consecutive tournament bids, earning his first postseason win with the school last March.
He’s a good bet to get another chance this year, with the Owls 17-5 overall and leading the Atlantic 10.
2. Brad Stevens, Butler
Brad Stevens is suffering through his first down year since taking over at Butler in 2007, but this season’s 13-12 Bulldogs can’t eclipse the extraordinary performance of the last four campaigns.
Stevens already has two 30-win seasons in his young career as a head coach, and he’s made four consecutive NCAA tournaments.
Of course, it’s what he’s done after reaching the Big Dance that sets Stevens apart.
Butler’s back-to-back title game trips were unprecedented for a mid-major school, and if Gordon Hayward’s last-second shot had been a few inches to the left, Stevens would have won the most improbable national championship in history.
1. Mark Few, Gonzaga
An assistant under Dan Monson during Gonzaga’s magical Elite Eight run in 1999, Mark Few took over the head coaching reins the next season.
Heading a program that had made just two NCAA tournament appearances in its previous history, Few has led the Bulldogs to March Madness every season of his 13-year career.
Few’s success, which has also included a remarkable four Sweet 16 visits, isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.
The Zags trail St. Mary’s in the WCC this season, but at 18-4 overall and with their usual strong non-conference schedule (including wins over Notre Dame, Arizona and Xavier), they’ve got an excellent chance at an at-large berth come Selection Sunday.
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