Ranking the Top Player-Coach Duos in College Basketball in 2015-16
Some college basketball teams win because of great players, others because of great coaching. The best of the best have a mixture of both, and in a lot of those cases, there's a particular connection between the head coach and his top performer.
The way they're able to sync up on what's most important for the team at all the right times is something that doesn't just happen naturally. It's the result of the pair establishing a great bond, one that is equal parts trust, faith and respect.
We've ranked the 20 best player-coach duos in college basketball heading into the 2015-16 season, with a heavy emphasis on pairs who have worked together in the past. Though coaches believe they are able to form a good bond with newcomers they've recruited out of high school, most of the time these relationships can't fully form until they've been working together for some time.
The duos are ranked based on their history, how they've fared together in the past and what is expected of them in 2015-16. Check it out and then let us know if there are any dynamic player-coach duos that we might have missed.
20. Damion Lee and Rick Pitino, Louisville
We're starting off our ranking with the only duo that's yet to work an official game together, as Damion Lee arrived at Louisville this summer after spending four seasons at Drexel. As a junior in 2014-15, he averaged 21.4 points per game, just the kind of scoring punch the Cardinals need with most of their playmakers from last year's Elite Eight team no longer around.
Rick Pitino likely expects the 6'6" Lee to be his go-to scorer, and he got to see what that was like during Louisville's trip to Puerto Rico in August.
"Lee...was 11 of 18 from the field and caught everyone's attention with his 36 points, including Puerto Rico's players, who raved about him to Pitino," according to Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
19. Gary Payton II and Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State
Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle can't lay claim to being the one who brought Gary Payton II to Corvallis—a bit of a family connection contributed to that. But what Tinkle can proudly boast is that he stayed out of Payton's way last season and let the versatile guard show just how much he could do with his small frame.
The 6'3" guard (and son of ex-Beavers great Gary Payton Sr.) signed with the school in November 2013, six months before Oregon State let go of coach Craig Robinson. The Beavers hired Tinkle hired away from Montana, and faced with a very small roster, he had to hold tryouts just to get walk-ons to join the team to have enough players for practice.
Throughout all of that uncertainty, though, Tinkle knew he had a special one in Payton II. And we got to see it during the season when he averaged 13.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.1 steals per game. The points, rebounds and steals were all team highs, and along the way he recorded just the second triple-double in school history.
Naturally, it was his father who had the first.
18. Demetrius Jackson and Mike Brey, Notre Dame
Mike Brey had himself a great five-man lineup that he rode heavily during the 2014-15 season to get Notre Dame into the Elite Eight. With two-fifths of that group (Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton) no longer in South Bend, the Fighting Irish's thin rotation of reserves will step into the fold.
Look for Brey to turn to one of the returning starters to be his main catalyst, though, much like Grant was last season. That would be Demetrius Jackson, who played alongside Grant and will now slide over to the point guard spot that he was handling on a part-time basis a year ago.
Jackson averaged 12.4 points and 3.1 assists per game on 50.8 percent shooting (including 42.9 percent from three-point range) as a sophomore.
17. Josh Hart and Jay Wright, Villanova
Villanova lost some major pieces from the corps of players who helped the Wildcats win the last two Big East regular-season titles. But coach Jay Wright doesn't seem worried about how the 2015-16 season is going to go, not when he has a rising star in Josh Hart to build this upcoming team around.
Hart, a 6'5" junior guard, averaged 10.1 points per game and shot 51.5 percent from the field last season. He played alongside standouts Dylan Ennis and Darrun Hilliard, and now he'll take over their role as a leader and a go-to performer. Wright has already gotten a lot from Hart to this point, but there's so much more in store for him.
"Hart is the typical power wing that Jay Wright has been so successful with over the years," NBC Sports' Rob Dauster wrote. "He's a better scorer than he gets credit for and is a terrific defender and offensive rebounder."
16. Jarrod Uthoff and Fran McCaffery, Iowa
Jarrod Uthoff began his college career at Wisconsin but never played a game there, sitting out the 2011-12 season and then transferring to Iowa. He had to sit out a second straight year, but once he was able to play, he showed why Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was so eager to land the 6'9" forward.
In two seasons with the Hawkeyes, Uthoff has averaged 10.1 points per game, including 12.4 last season. They made the NCAA tournament both years, with their trip in 2013-14 being the program's first since 2006.
Uthoff figures to be Iowa's driving force this season, especially with the team losing leading scorer Aaron White.
"I think Uthoff is a guy who could be a star, not only in our league but nationally, and that's what I'm expecting of him," McCaffery said, per Rick Brown of HawkCentral.com.
15. Rico Gathers and Scott Drew, Baylor
Rico Gathers is one of the most feared players on the court, a 6'8" block of granite who is dominant on the boards and isn't someone defenders want to get in the way of when he's heading toward the basket. His physical presence is a perfect compliment to his coach, the unassuming Scott Drew, who has quietly managed to turn Baylor into a consistently solid program during his time in Waco.
Drew has won 227 games in 12 seasons with the Bears, but in the past eight years, he's earned 194 of those victories and posted five top-four finishes in the Big 12 Conference. With Gathers banging around on the block the last three years, Baylor has won 73 games with an NIT championship and a trip to the Sweet 16.
Gathers is coming off a monster year in which he averaged 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, fourth best in Division I.
14. Kyle Wiltjer and Mark Few, Gonzaga
When Kyle Wiltjer made the choice to transfer from Kentucky to Gonzaga, it irked a lot of people associated with his old program but thrilled those connected to his new destination. First and foremost on that list was coach Mark Few, who knew he was potentially getting the impact player who could help the Bulldogs finally get over the hump in the NCAA tournament and make a real push for a Final Four.
Wiltjer responded by transforming his game, going from just a tall guy who could shoot from outside to a legitimate all-around threat as a 6'10" forward. Last season, Wiltjer averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 rebound per game while shooting 54 percent from the field.
That included a stellar 46.6 percent from three-point range, but unlike his two seasons at Kentucky, when more than half of his shots were from beyond the perimeter, he became far more of a well-rounded offensive player in 2014-15. That enabled Gonzaga to win 35 games and reach the Sweet 16, its first trip that far in the NCAA tourney since 2008-09.
13. Bryce and Steve Alford, UCLA
This one should be a given, since we're talking about a father and son who just happen to be the coach of a top program and the team's best all-around player. But Bryce and Steve Alford look like they'd work well together even without the blood relation, especially with the way the player has developed under his father/coach's watch at UCLA.
Bryce Alford averaged eight points per game as a freshman, serving as Kyle Anderson's backup at the point, but this past season, he took over the starting job and ran with it. And shot with it. A lot.
He averaged 15.4 points per game and shot 39.1 percent from three-point range but ran very hot and cold. On the surface, it might have looked like Bryce Alford was getting a long leash because he was the coach's son, but he's said otherwise, according to Rodger Sherman of SB Nation:
If the team has a bad first half, and we're coming into halftime, whether I played well in the first half or not, I know I'm going to get the brunt of the yelling at halftime. He knows I respond well to it, but he knows the team responds well. When they see that he's yelling at his son, he's mad. He wants us to do better. If he's yelling at me, it sends that message to the whole team that it's time to get serious, and we have to play better.
The Alfords will again be the focal point of the Bruins this season, and after consecutive trips to the Sweet 16, they'll again face plenty of attention and scrutiny.
12. Grayson Allen and Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
When it comes to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and the kind of players he's brought to Durham over the years, the recent trend of one-and-done stars is what gets most of the attention nowadays. But before this, the Blue Devils were best known for scrappy, fiery and easy-to-dislike players who never stopped fighting.
Kind of like what we saw from Grayson Allen during his limited time in action as a freshman in 2014-15.
Allen was hardly every used until the Final Four, when he erupted for big performances in both games in Indianapolis to help Duke win the national title. And now with four starters from that team moving on, Allen becomes one of the faces of the Blue Devils program as well as the next in what's been a long line of hated players.
Krzyzewski hasn't exactly done anything to downplay such opinions of some of his best players, such as Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and J.J. Redick, knowing instead how much it can throw off opponents and help his team. It's one of many reasons he has more than 1,000 victories.
11. Damon Lynn and Jim Engles, NJIT
There are two reasons NJIT is as well known of a program despite having been an independent the past two years: 1) its shocking upset win at Michigan last December and 2) the great duo of coach Jim Engles and top scorer Damon Lynn.
The Highlanders—who will join the Atlantic Sun Conference for 2015-16—played 15 of their first 22 games on the road last season. During all that time on the road, though, the bond between Engles and Lynn strengthened to the point where they've become one of the best pairs around.
Engles tapped into his experience building the NJIT program up from one that went 0-29 in 2007-08 to a 21-game winner this past season, and he passed this along to Lynn by giving him the green light to do whatever he could on offense.
And Lynn sure tried. He led Division I in three-point field goal attempts with 350, making 126, and that helped the Highlanders get into the CollegeInsider.com tournament semifinals.
10. Caris LeVert and John Beilein, Michigan
John Beilein and Michigan just went through a particularly rough 2014-15 season, one marred by injuries and inconsistency that prevented the Wolverines from overcoming a large player exodus after the previous year. Having Caris LeVert be a part of that injury bug made the results even worse, since without the 6'7" guard Michigan lacked enough offensive punch to be competitive.
LeVert was scoring a team-best 14.9 points per game and shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range when he went down with a season-ending foot injury in January. Michigan was 10-8 at the time and finished 16-16, losing nine of its final 12 games.
With LeVert returning for his senior year, the hope is the work he and Beilein have put in together in the past will lead to a resurgence for the Wolverines. As one of only two players still around from the 2012-13 national runner-up team (along with Spike Albrecht), LeVert is a link to the team's past successes.
9. Yogi Ferrell and Tom Crean, Indiana
It's been a tumultuous few seasons for Indiana and its embattled coach, Tom Crean, who after bringing the Hoosiers back to the big time from 2011-13 has fallen on hard times both on and off the court. He's had players get into trouble and get dismissed from the program, while on the court he's had to deal with up-and-down results that included a first-round NCAA tourney exit last March.
Thankfully, though, he's had a dependable player in Yogi Ferrell to lean on throughout all the chaos, and that should continue in what figures to be a make-or-break 2015-16 season for the coach and the program.
Ferrell has scored 1,379 points in his Indiana career, including 1,107 the past two seasons. He ranks fourth in school history with 193 three-pointers and figures to be the driving force behind the team we've projected as the top three-point shooting squad in college basketball for this season.
If that happens, the wins should likely follow, and Crean's reputation will get a major boost.
8. Melo Trimble and Mark Turgeon, Maryland
Mark Turgeon didn't get off to the greatest start in his tenure at Maryland, failing to make the NCAA tournament in his first three seasons for one of the biggest droughts in program history. Then Turgeon's recruiting picked up, and with the arrival of guard Melo Trimble, the Terrapins have been on a meteoric rise.
Thanks to Trimble—who by playing alongside senior Dez Wells was able to quickly develop into a leader and go-to player—the Terps won 28 games and finished second in the Big Ten as a first-year member.
Now it's Trimble's team, one that has high expectations—including being ranked No. 1 by ESPN.com—and will need even more leadership since a top recruiting class will make for a very young team. Trimble showed he could be trusted by Turgeon last year, when he averaged 16.2 points per game, and he'll be the one his coach turns to in all clutch situations in 2015-16.
7. Buddy Hield and Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
Lon Kruger has managed to take five different schools into the NCAA tournament, and at each of his stops, he's managed to find at least one player who was somewhat of a diamond in the rough and turn him into a superstar. With Oklahoma, that's been Buddy Hield.
A 3-star recruit, per 247Sports, in 2012 from the Bahamas, by way of a private school in Kansas, Hield was the Sooners' "most inspirational player" as a freshman and has been on the rise ever since. He averaged 7.8 points per game that year as a part-time starter, then 16.5 as a sophomore and 17.4 last season en route to being the Big 12 Player of the Year.
Hield is 58 three-pointers away from the school's all-time record, which he should hit no problem since he had 93 in 2014-15. But more than just his scoring, Hield's ability to command and lead on the court is a direct correlation of his connection with Kruger from the bench.
6. Denzel Valentine and Tom Izzo, Michigan State
There are few coaches who operate with as much passion as Tom Izzo, the longtime leader of Michigan State who is as synonymous with his program as any other in the college game. And this zeal has enabled him to land players with a similar drive, and guys such as Denzel Valentine have been able to thrive in such an atmosphere where others could falter under the pressure.
Valentine, a 6'5" senior guard, has followed a path that a lot of MSU's best players under Izzo have followed, with a year-by-year increase in minutes, production and responsibility. Last season, Valentine averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists, and he was a huge part of the Spartans' run to the Final Four by averaging 15.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists in the NCAA tourney.
Now Valentine is the unquestioned leader of MSU for this season, having developed into that player through his time in the system and his work with Izzo.
5. Perry Ellis and Bill Self
Kansas has had five players taken in the NBA draft over the past three seasons, though all but one of them only spent one year with the Jayhawks. Then there's Perry Ellis, a strong talent who is similar to a lot of the great players Bill Self has worked with throughout his career, but because he's still in college, he's not considered as valuable a player.
That's not how Self sees it, however. Rather, he's looked at the 6'8" forward as a source of stability and consistency amid a time in college basketball when the lure of the pros makes for near-constant roster turnover.
Ellis has averaged 10.9 points per game for his career, including averages of 13.5 and 13.8 the past two seasons when he's become the veteran of a program surrounded by plenty of freshmen.
It's been those first-year players who have drawn most of the attention, like Ben McLemore in 2012-13, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid in 2013-14 and Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander last season. Yet as they've come and gone, Ellis has remained as a constant presence that's enabled Kansas to continue its amazing run of 11 straight Big 12 regular-season titles.
4. Kris Dunn and Ed Cooley, Providence
If you're looking for a reason that Providence has emerged as one of the top teams in the country these past few years, you could easily attribute it to the splitting of the Big East Conference into two leagues and thus making it possible for the Friars to have a better shot at winning. Or you could credit the work Ed Cooley has done with the Friars, not the least of which was managing to land Kris Dun a few seasons ago.
"It wasn’t courage as much as a gigantic leap of faith for Dunn when he committed to Providence in the summer of 2011," wrote Kevin Farrahar of FriarBasketball.com. "The program was coming off of one of its lowest points, Cooley had never been a high major head coach, and by that summer Dunn had his choice of virtually any college in the country."
Providence last made the NCAA tourney in 2004, but with Cooley and Dunn together, the Friars have gone 64-39 the past three seasons with a Big East tournament title and two NCAA bids.
Dunn could have been a first-round NBA draft pick had he turned pro this offseason, but instead, the 6'3" guard (who ranked third nationally in assists per game and tied for fourth in steals per game in 2014-15) has returned for another chance to work with Cooley.
3. Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Bennett, Virginia
Certain coaches become known for the style they play as much as the results they produce and the players they work with. In the case of Virginia's Tony Bennett, this has all manifested in a player such as Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon was just the kind of hard-nosed player Bennett needed when he joined the program in 2011-12, which marked the start of Virginia's rise under Bennett. The Cavaliers won 22 games and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, with a scoring defense of 54.2 points per game thanks to a swarming approach that Brogdon and others bought right into.
He missed the 2012-13 season because of a foot injury, but since coming back in 2013-14, Virginia has been arguably the top defensive team in the country. The Cavs allowed 55.7 points and 38.8 percent shooting that year, then 51.5 points per game and 36.7 percent shooting last season.
Virginia won the ACC regular-season title both years, and Brogdon served as both the offensive and defensive spark plug for that run.
"I think his leadership has probably been the thing that has really sets him apart this year even more than last year," Bennett said of Brogdon in March, per Viv Bernstein of the New York Times.
2. Marcus Paige and Roy Williams, North Carolina
Roy Williams has had great connections with plenty of his best players throughout a very long and successful coaching career, which now sits at 750 victories between his stints at Kansas and North Carolina. The relationship between him and UNC senior guard Marcus Paige manages to stand out from the pack, though.
Never was this more evident than during this past season, when Paige was noticeably struggling and performing at a level significantly below how he performed the year before when he pretty much carried the Tar Heels. There were concerns that the 6'1" guard had lost his shot, and his confidence, and it was dragging the team down, but Williams continued to steadfastly defend his team leader.
"I never questioned him," Williams said in January, per Andrew Carter of the Raleigh News & Observer. "I got the same kind of questions his freshman yea, and the same kind of questions at the start of the year last year—'Do you really think he's as good as you say he is?' So that didn't bother me in the least."
Williams was referring to questions about Paige's health and diminished numbers, but then Paige turned it up down the stretch and still finished with a solid year. Now he's set to enter his senior year in which he'll likely be the next 2,000-point scorer in UNC history. He sits at 1,416 points with a career average of 13.2 points per game.
Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/sports/college/acc/unc/unc-now/article10234919.html#storylink=cpy
1. Ron Baker/Fred VanVleet and Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Topping our list is a pairing so symbiotic is extends to three people, and that trio is the main reason why Wichita State has risen from the crowd of mid-major hopefuls to a true elite program.
The Shockers had been trending upward for a while under Marshall, who after coming over from Winthrop in 2007-08 went from 11 wins his first season to 29 in the fourth. But it wasn't until a pair of scrappy guards joined the program in 2012 that Wichita really took off and became a power.
As freshmen, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet were integral to the Wichita team that made a surprise run to the Final Four, combining to average 18.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists during the NCAA tournament. The following season, in 2013-14, the Shockers became their team, as Baker and VanVleet led them to an unbeaten regular season.
Wichita is 95-15 with Baker and VanVleet, and the opportunity to coach that tandem for one more season as seniors had a major impact on Marshall opting not to leave for another job this offseason.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.