Top 20 College Basketball Coach of the Year Candidates

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2012

Top 20 College Basketball Coach of the Year Candidates

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    It takes an unbelievable amount of wisdom, craftiness and motivational skills to be an elite college basketball coach. Only the best of the best get consideration for the Coach of the Year award.

    Basketball winters are long, and it takes perseverance and poise to lead teams to late-season success.

    The 2011-2012 season features some remarkable displays of coaching brilliance, but it is tough to decide who exactly are the front runners for Coach of the Year honors.

    Let's take a look at the top candidates for the award.

Honorable Mention

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    Tony Bennett, Virginia Cavaliers

    Ron Hunter, Georgia State Panthers

    Thad Matta, Ohio State Buckeyes

    Bruiser Flint, Drexel Dragons

    Gary Waters, Cleveland State Vikings

    Bryce Drew, Valparaiso Crusaders

    David Carter, Nevada Wolf Pack

    Randy Rahe, Weber State Wildcats

    Bob Hoffman, Mercer Bears

    Tim Cluess, Iona Gaels

20. Larry Eustachy, Southern Miss Golden Eagles

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    Larry Eustachy's Southern Miss outfit hasn't played many elite teams this season, but they've done as much damage as possible with the opponents they have faced.

    Eustachy has prepared his Golden Eagles to grind out every win by winning every possession. His club can get out and run if need be, but they love to clamp down and slow the opposition.

    Can this Conference USA juggernaut succeed in the postseason? We'll get our chance to find out, as Southern Miss is cruising toward a C-USA title and NCAA berth.

19. Rick Majerus, St. Louis Billikens

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    Rick Majerus is having his best season since taking over as St. Louis Billikens head coach.

    His deep, balanced club is contending for the Atlantic 10 title and will probably be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years.

    They haven't played any ranked clubs this year, but they have taken down several reputable programs, including Washington, Villanova and Xavier.

    If Majerus can mount an A-10 tourney surge for the Billikens, he'll get plenty of attention for the COY award.

18. Dan Hurley, Wagner Seahawks

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    After going 13-17 in his first season with the Wagner Seahawks, Dan Hurley and his brother Bobby have transformed the program into a winner.

    Hurley's Seahawks are in the hunt for the Northeast Conference title on the strength of their consistent defense.

    Wagner also has a knack for stretching out the lead and maintaining a comfortable cushion during the final leg of games. They have amassed a whopping 14 double-digit victories this season.

17. Tommy Amaker, Harvard Crimson

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    Tommy Amaker has revamped the Harvard Crimson program from an 8-22 Ivy League laughingstock in 2007 to clear-cut conference leaders.

    The 2011-2012 campaign is his best one yet, and Crimson fans can't wait to see Amaker and company do some damage in the national tournament.

    The Crimson are 7-1 in the Ivy League and are holding opponents to just 51 points per contest. Amaker's squad will need every ounce of that defensive prowess in order to make noise in March.

16. John Calipari, Kentucky Wildcats

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    It's amazing to see how John Calipari lands 5-star recruits every year to stack his Kentucky lineup with elite talent.

    It's even more impressive to see how he consistently takes a group of All-American recruits and gets them to play as a unit in his system.

    This year is no different. Calipari has put the right pieces in place for the WIldcats, and he has every player buying in to his dribble-drive offense and overall strategy.

    They are a lock for the SEC title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

15. Dan Monson, Long Beach State 49ers

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    Long Beach State's brutal early schedule paid off in the long run.

    49ers head coach Dan Monson fed his team to the wolves during November and December; his squad faced five ranked schools before Christmas, and they even won a couple of those games.

    He used those challenges to help his team grow and become a beast in the Big West. The 49ers are undefeated in conference play and are running most opponents out of the gym.

    Can anyone say, "bracket buster"?

14. Scott Sutton, Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

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    Scott Sutton has molded the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles into an unselfish group of athletes who adapt to any situation to win ball games.

    The Summit League still doesn't know what hit them; Sutton's crew missed the NIT tournament (yes, the NIT) last season, and this year they're a lock to make the NCAA bracket.

    Oral Roberts suffered four of its five losses within the first month of the season. Since then, the Golden Eagles are 16-1 and Sutton is looking like a genius.

13. Tom Izzo, Michigan State Spartans

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    After losing Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers this offseason, it didn't look like Michigan State would be a Big Ten power.

    But a Big Ten power is exactly what Tom Izzo has built in East Lansing this season.

    The Spartans are 20-5 and powered by good ball movement, rebounding and scrappy defense.

    Izzo has instilled those three values in his team. As a result, they are knocking off the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.

12. Leonard Hamilton, Florida State Seminoles

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    After starting the season 9-5, Leonard Hamilton's Florida State Seminoles have gone 8-2 in conference play and are now tied for first in the ACC.

    Hamilton has gradually improved the Florida State program every year, and this year continues that ascension.

    His Seminoles squad features a strong defensive front and a balanced scoring attack. It's a group that's well-prepared to go into any environment and compete. That team persona can be attributed to Hamilton's guidance.

11. Dave Rice, UNLV Rebels

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    In his first year at the helm of the Runnin' Rebels, Dave Rice has UNLV playing its best basketball since the early 1990's.

    The Rebels are 22-5 and thriving in a strong Mountain West Conference. Rice has them excelling in all the important phases of the game: They're moving the ball well, crashing the boards and taking high-quality shots.

    After UNLV's coming-out party against UNC in November, Rice seemed confident that it wasn't a fluke; he was right.

10. Tom Crean, Indiana Hoosiers

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    His "Coach of the Year" stock has cooled off a bit in recent weeks, but Tom Crean should still get some consideration because he's worked wonders for the Indiana program.

    Thanks to Crean, Hoosier hoops is back to respectability and is one of the better squads in the Big Ten. Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are shooting the lights out and torching opponents across the country.

    Crean's made the program believe it can bring back the championship glory it enjoyed decades ago.

9. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Cincinnati lost the game (and maybe the brawl, too) against Xavier, but Mick Cronin used the incident as an opportunity to galvanize the team and make them winners.

    Cronin's Bearcats didn't lose while several key players were suspended, and the team has turned out to be one of the better squads in the Big East.

    His four-guard, one-post system has worked out pretty well and Cincinnati is 17-8, including three wins against ranked opponents.

8. Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

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    The 2003 Sun Belt Coach of the Year is the odds-on favorite to win the award again—nine years later. Kermit Davis has his Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders firing on all cylinders and angling for a spot in the Big Dance.

    Middle Tennessee plays some stingy defense, regularly holding its competitors to 50-60 points per game. The Blue Raiders have had some impressive wins against major-conference programs such as UCLA and Ole Miss.

    Even their losses are impressive. For example, they lost a close game to SEC challenger Vanderbilt and dropped a grueling double-overtime game to a solid Belmont team.

7. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse Orange

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    Jim Boeheim has guided the Syracuse Orange to an imposing 26-1 record and a stranglehold on the Big East Conference.

    Sure, he's blessed with a boatload of talent. But it's impressive to see him push all the right buttons, find the right rotation of players on the roster and orchestrate the best zone in Syracuse history.

    Also, he kept his team focused amid the Bernie Fine distraction, which was a controversy that many feared would derail the Orange.

6. Randy Bennett, St. Mary's Gaels

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    Randy Bennett has enjoyed an extremely successful tenure at St. Mary's. This season is one of his finest works.

    He's directed his St. Mary's Gaels to the top of the West Coast Conference. The Gaels run one of the most efficient systems I've seen this season. They move the ball well and execute a potent high-screen spread offense.

    Bennett will ultimately be judged on whether he topples Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament, but either way, he's been brilliant this year.

5. Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State Cyclones

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    The fact that Iowa State might make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years warrants Fred Hoiberg's placement on this list.

    Back-to-back wins against Kansas and Kansas State at the end of January served notice that the Cyclones are a formidable bunch. Hoiberg has his group playing sound basketball in all phases of the game.

    In his second year coaching at his alma mater, he's proven what he can do when he has a decent amount of talent at his disposal.

4. Steve Fisher, San Diego State Aztecs

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    San Diego State lost four major players to graduation and the NBA draft last offseason, so nobody expected the kind of success they've generated this season.

    Steve Fisher has led the Aztecs to the top of the Mountain West Conference, as they're currently ranked 15th in the country.

    So much for San Diego State having a down year. Unfortunately for the rest of the NCAA, Steve Fisher and company are ready to make some waves in the Big Dance again this season.

3. Mike Brey, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    When Notre Dame's top performer Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL, I thought the Fighting Irish would be a lock for the NIT. I thought they had an extremely slim chance to stay afloat in the Big East.

    Mike Brey and his squad have exceeded expectations and have worked their way to third place in the conference and into the top-25 rankings. The team has meshed well and is picking up steam as the season progresses.

    What exactly have they done in conference play? The Irish have five wins against ranked foes, including the blockbuster win over Syracuse.

2. Steve Prohm, Murray State Racers

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    When the Murray State Racers took down Southern Mississippi, Dayton and Memphis back in December, everyone started to realize this was more than just a decent mid-major team.

    Steve Prohm has led the Racers to a 24-1 record; his hot-shooting squad is miles ahead of any other Ohio Valley Conference team.

    He's orchestrated an offense that works to get high-percentage looks from long range. Murray State is eighth in the country in three-point percentage, and the result is a healthy 75 points per game.

    Prohm will face some tough tests to wrap up the regular season and even tougher tests in March.

1. Frank Haith, Missouri Tigers

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    Frank Haith just started his tenure with Missouri, but he's already making a colossal impact on the Big 12.

    His Tigers have won three games against top-10 competition: a home-and-home sweep of Baylor and a prime-time win over rival Kansas.

    Missouri's phenomenal guard play and interior presence of Ricardo Ratliffe will keep them in the hunt for the conference tournament title and a potential No. 1 seed come March.

    Not too shabby considering it's Haith's first rodeo in the Big 12.