College basketball brings surprises every year. There are always a few teams that spring up out of nowhere and challenge the traditional powers.
This has been another great season full of unexpected teams, games and coaches.
There are top-tier coaches like Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski who have done a good job. But their teams were supposed to succeed.
The real story is the teams that had low expectations but have somehow managed to outperform even the highest ceiling set for them.
And of course, this appears to be the year of the mid-majors, with none other than the Murray State Racers leading the way.
College coaches have to blend star freshman, senior leaders and a plethora of different personalities and playing styles into one cohesive team.
It’s no easy task, and only a select few are truly successful.
This year, certain coaches have proven to be the best of the best. Their teams are going above and beyond what was initially expected of them, much of which is thanks to great coaching.
Here are the best 13 coaching jobs of the 2011-12 college basketball season.
When Mike Anderson left the Missouri Tigers to take a head coaching job with the Arkansas Razorbacks, many wondered if new coach Frank Haith would be up to the task.
Yes, the team was returning seven seniors and two juniors.
Yes, the team had enjoyed success with the players it had.
But when Laurence Bowers tore his ACL before the season even started, leaving the Tigers with no player taller than 6’8”, the skeptics came out in droves.
Turns out, Haith was more than up to the task. He has led Missouri to a 25-4 record, including 14 straight wins to begin the season and a Top 10 national ranking.
Haith worked with the roster he was given, turning the Tigers offense into an up-tempo shooting and passing clinic.
Missouri has beaten the Kansas Jayhawks once and the Baylor Bears twice, cementing their place among the Big 12 and national elite.
Sure, he benefited from having great seniors and great team chemistry, but few expected Missouri to even be ranked at this point in the season, let alone contending for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Kansas Jayhawks were supposed to be in semi-rebuilding mode this season after the loss of the Morris twins to the NBA.
But Coach Bill Self had other things in mind.
Self turned little-used Thomas Robinson into the front-runner for Player of the Year and is doing his very best at trimming down Tyshawn Taylor’s turnovers while keeping him aggressive on offense.
Self has even transformed unknown center Jeff Withey into a rebounding machine and defensive anchor.
Thanks to Self’s coaching, the Jayhawks are now 25-5, sitting in their rightful place at the top of the Big 12 and ranked fourth in the nation.
Very few expected that from this Kansas team.
Top 25? Maybe. But Top 5? Final Four favorite? Very unlikely.
Fortunately for Self, he learned to do a lot with a little. His ability to motivate his players and get them up for big games has been no more apparent than this season.
When Tim Abromaitis, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s best player, tore his ACL early in the season, many expected the team to simply roll over and limp through the rest of the year.
Yes, Notre Dame had its struggles.
The team lost to the Georgia Bulldogs and Maryland Terrapins, hardly elite squads, and at times looked out of sync and unsure what to do with the basketball.
However, give head coach Mike Brey credit.
He did not let the loss of Abromaitis doom the team. Instead, he has Notre Dame right in the thick of the Big East race at 20-10 overall and 12-5 in conference play.
The Fighting Irish knocked off the top-ranked Syracuse Orange in late January, propelling the team on a nine-game win streak that put them back on the national stage.
Brey has transformed junior Jack Cooley into a complete and aggressive player in addition to building the confidence of guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.
The team is thriving without a star and learning how to play together in any environment.
The way Brey completely turned the fortunes of his team basically halfway through the season is nothing short of remarkable.
Yes, the Murray State Racers have had success in the past.
The team is often atop the Ohio Valley Conference standings and even played in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2010.
But nothing could have prepared fans for the way first-year head coach Steve Prohm introduced himself to the basketball world.
Murray State began the season by winning 23 straight games, making it the last remaining unbeaten team in Division I.
Prohm catapulted the Racers into the national spotlight as guard Isaiah Canaan established himself as one of the best players in the country.
Taking over a successful team with good players is much easier than rebuilding a team from scratch, but it is quite another thing to lead a good team to 23 straight wins and only one loss in the regular season.
Prohm benefited from serving as an assistant coach prior to his promotion and clearly had built a rapport with his players. They all appear to buy into the system and are working toward the same thing: a national championship.
The Indiana Hoosiers began the season unranked, and fans were already looking toward the 2012-13 season as the year Indiana basketball would finally be relevant again.
Turns out, they did not have to look that far.
The Hoosiers began the season with 12 straight wins, including an upset of the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
The team also beat the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes and have held their own in a fiercely competitive Big Ten.
Coach Tom Crean has done a great job of getting Indiana’s seniors to buy into his system as well as recruiting and integrating freshman phenom Cody Zeller.
Indiana plays an exciting style of basketball in which they can hit threes or dump the ball inside to Zeller to finish in the paint.
The Hoosiers were not supposed to be on anyone’s radar this late in the season, yet they have beaten four teams ranked in the Top 15 and could certainly make some noise in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The knock on John Calipari’s coaching ability is always the same—he recruits players with amazing talent and then just sits back and watches them play.
The problem is, rarely do people think about what it takes to integrate that talent, not just with returning players but among the freshmen themselves.
When a coach is recruiting 5-star players every year, all of them believe they will be the star of the team.
Calipari must soothe egos while keeping up confidence for every player on his roster.
This season, Calipari got yet another stellar recruiting class. But he also had two standout returning sophomores in Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, as well as senior (a rare commodity) Darius Miller.
Yet, somehow, Calipari has gotten the players to play together and to be successful. The team is 28-1 and ranked first overall, with six players averaging 10 points or more (rounding up) per game.
One of the marks of a great coach is defense, and that is an area in which Calipari excels. Kentucky is ranked first in the nation in opponent shooting percentage and fifth in defensive efficiency.
Convincing coddled, confident players that they need to lock down and play defense is no easy task. Calipari has proven he is up to it, though.
When the San Diego State Aztecs lost star Kawhi Leonard to the NBA at the end of last season, along with four other starters, many guessed the team would be in for a rebuilding year.
Instead, coach Steve Fisher has guided the Aztecs to a 22-6 record, a tie for the Mountain West Conference lead and a No. 23 national ranking.
The team has responded to the loss of Leonard well, with junior Chase Tapley and sophomore Jamaal Franklin picking up the slack.
San Diego State has proven itself among college basketball’s best teams. The Aztecs lost to then-No. 12 Baylor by just 10 points, fell to the Creighton Bluejays by two points and beat ranked foes Arizona, Cal and UNLV.
Fisher has done a great job of pushing his players to perform at a higher level and improve in the offseason.
Franklin played just eight minutes a game last season and averaged less than three points and two rebounds per game. This season, his averages are up to 16.4 points and 7.6 rebounds.
Tapley, similarly, scored just 8.6 points per game last year, but this season is averaging 15.3 along with 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
It is clear that Fisher really coaches his players so that they improve their fundamentals and become well-rounded players.
The Iowa State Cyclones were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 Conference this season.
Looks like someone forgot to tell Iowa State that, because the Cyclones are currently 11-5 in the Big 12, good for fourth overall.
Fred Hoiberg is in his second year of coaching at Iowa State and has made headlines for accepting transfer players who have a somewhat sketchy past.
Cyclones star Royce White began his college basketball career with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
There, however, he was accused of stealing computers and convicted of theft and disorderly conduct.
Guard Chris Allen was infamously kicked off of the Michigan State Spartans basketball team for his bad attitude and repeated violation of team rules. Chris Babb also transferred from Penn State.
Unquestionably, Hoiberg recruited some talented players. The question then became whether or not he could coach them to all play together and eliminate their off-court problems.
So far, so good.
Hoiberg’s Cyclones boast wins over the Kansas Jayhawks as well as twice over the Kansas State Wildcats.
Last season, Iowa State finished last in the Big 12. This year? They are virtually a lock for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Hoiberg has done an incredible job of blending all of the different personalities and styles of his players and has undoubtedly gotten the most out of a team that everyone counted out at the beginning of the season.
It is undoubtedly the year of the mid-majors, and the Wichita State Shockers team is one of the best.
Despite having consistently strong teams, Wichita State was somewhat unheralded at the beginning of the season, being dropped from the national discussion in favor of teams like the Creighton Bluejays and Long Beach State 49ers.
Coach Gregg Marshall made sure the Shockers would not be forgotten for long.
The team made headlines by trouncing the UNLV Rebels, a team that had just knocked off the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels.
Then Wichita State went 16-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference, earning themselves a No. 19 national ranking.
Marshall has done a great job developing players, specifically senior center Garrett Stutz and star Joe Ragland. The two have improved drastically across the board with both doubling their scoring totals and assuming leadership roles.
Wichita State has simply gotten better as the year goes on. The team avenged their only two losses in conference play—to Creighton and the Drake Bulldogs—beating both opponents by an identical 23 points the next time they faced off.
Marshall’s Wichita State team plays great team basketball—rarely turning the ball over, playing sound defense and getting high-percentage shots. The Shockers could definitely make some noise in March.
At the beginning of the season, the Michigan State Spartans were unranked.
The team was rebuilding—despite having most of their starters returning—because of a complete program rehaul during the 2010-11 season.
Coach Tom Izzo kicked players off the team and benched others, ultimately causing the Spartans to spiral down the polls and quickly become irrelevant.
Many thought it would take far more than a year for the program to rebuild itself. And at the beginning of the season, that seemed accurate.
Michigan State dropped its first two games of the season, but those contests were against Top 10 teams in the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils.
After those two games, the Spartans won 15 straight, shooting into the national rankings. The team is now 13-3 in the Big Ten, having beaten the Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines and Wisconsin Badgers in conference play.
Izzo has completely rejuvenated his team, and everyone seems to have put the problems from last year firmly behind them. Senior leader Draymond Green plays like he is on a mission and infects his teammates with his energy and passion.
Rebounding from a 19-15 season last year to be 24-6 and in the running for a Big Ten Championship and possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is nothing short of remarkable.
Izzo has done a great job of molding his players and finally has a group that he can coach.
Dave Rice’s first season as head coach of the UNLV Rebels has been pretty successful thus far.
After inheriting a team that went 24-9 the year before, Rice had his hands full.
The team had been successful but was never mentioned in national rankings.
If the Rebels regressed in Rice’s first season, it would be unacceptable. But it would not be easy to build on UNLV’s past success in just one year.
Turns out, Rice was more than up to the task. In just his seventh game as head coach, Rice’s Rebels knocked off the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.
The team had just two losses before conference play began—to the now-No. 19 Wichita State Shockers and to the then-No. 16 Wisconsin Badgers.
Rice should be credited with the emergence of Mike Moser as one of UNLV’s stars. Moser, a transfer from UCLA, flew completely under the radar—at least before the season began.
Now, the sophomore is leading the team in points and rebounds per game and averaging a double-double.
With the Rebels atop the Mountain West Conference standings and all but assured of a berth in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, it seems safe to say that Rice has exceeded all expectations as a first-year head coach.
The Georgetown Hoyas began the basketball season with the lowest of low expectations.
The team had lost three key seniors and had to switch gears and rely on the 10 sophomores and freshman on its roster.
Then the team was involved in the infamous brawl with the Chinese National Team during a summer trip abroad.
The trip was supposed to encourage team bonding and turning over a new leaf. Instead, Georgetown found itself uncomfortably in the media spotlight.
But then what happened? The team began the season 13-1, with its lone blemish being against the No. 14 Kansas Jayhawks by one point, three games into the season.
The Hoyas are now ranked 12th overall and third in the Big East.
The emergence of three upperclassmen (a rarity on this Georgetown team), Hollis Thompson, Jason Clark and Henry Sims, as leaders both in the locker room and on the court has inspired the Hoyas.
Coach John Thompson III has compiled an unheralded and mixed bag of players and come out with a complete team. His willingness to mix lower and upperclassmen has paid dividends.
Georgetown is one of the biggest surprises of this college basketball season, and Thompson’s coaching job should not go overlooked.
Last season, the Saint Louis Billikens went 12-19 and 6-10 in the Atlantic-10 Conference, finishing 10th overall.
This year, powerhouses like the Xavier Musketeers and Dayton Flyers were expected to comfortably win the conference championship.
The last thing anyone expected was for the Billikens to challenge for that spot.
And yet, somehow coach Rick Majerus has catapulted Saint Louis to a 23-6 overall record and an 11-4 conference record, just a half game out of first place.
The team opened the year by winning 12 of its first 13 games and hardly looked back. Four of the Billikens’ five losses have been by less than 10 points.
Saint Louis has a balanced attack, with seven players averaging 20-plus minutes per game and five scoring more than seven points per game.
Majerus has managed to turn an underachieving team into one of the most interesting squads in the country.
Hopefully, the Billikens will receive an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bid whether or not they win their conference tournament, because it could be a challenging team to face in March.