Ranking the Top College Basketball Coach of the Year Candidates for 2015-16
When your sport ends its season with a 68-team, single-elimination tournament, it's probably fair to say the issue is never settled until the thing's played out.
Working around that caveat, the 2015-16 college basketball campaign is coming into focus. We know who's good, who's not, who's meeting expectations and who's exceeding or failing them.
Much more so than in the pros, a college team's capacity for any of the above is driven by its coach.
Here is our list of top candidates for college coach of the year. Coaches were evaluated and ranked based on their teams' performances, particularly relative to preseason expectations.
Another big factor: Since the first Naismith College Coach of the Year award in 1987, only two men—Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari, now of Kentucky—have won it multiple times. The shortest amount of time between awards is seven years.
So a repeat awardee, while not impossible, is unlikely, and that fact played into these deliberations as well.
Here are a few honorable mentions, listed in no particular order. Previous Naismith College Coach of the Year award recipients are noted with an asterisk.
- Tony Bennett, Virginia*
- Bill Self, Kansas*
- Mark Few, Gonzaga
- Gregg Marshall, Wichita State*
- Shaka Smart, Texas
- Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's
- Jim Larranaga, Miami*
- Tom Izzo, Michigan State
- Jay Wright, Villanova*
- Mark Turgeon, Maryland
- Larry Brown, SMU*
- Mike White, Florida
10. Bryce Drew, Valparaiso
Record: 17-4 (7-1 Horizon League), T-First in Horizon League
If this keeps up, Bryce Drew's fifth season as head Crusader will be his best.
A recent loss to conference co-leader Wright State was tough on Valparaiso, but they'll have an opportunity to avenge that later in this regular season. They have a good chance to do so, too.
Perhaps counterintuitively for those who remember Drew for his sharpshooting player days, the Crusaders' calling card is defense. Statistically speaking, they are the nation's best team in that regard, topping the country in adjusted defensive efficiency with 88.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to KenPom.com, and fourth in the nation in opponent scoring with 60 points per game allowed, per NCAA stats.
With that in their pocket, Drew's Crusaders are probably the favorite to emerge from the Horizon League this season.
9. Rick Pitino, Louisville
Record: 16-3 (5-1 ACC), second in ACC
This offseason, Pitino made masterful use of the graduate transfer rule to bring in fifth-year guards Damion Lee and Trey Lewis—a tandem that sits one-two on the team in scoring with a combined 28.8 points per game.
Pitino also has done well guiding a crowded front court. Despite losing center Mangok Mathiang to a broken foot, the Cardinals still top the ACC with 41.9 rebounds and rank third with 5.16 blocks per contest.
The linchpin uniting all Pitino teams is defense, and it's no different this season. KenPom.com has Louisville third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they are second nationally with 58.8 points allowed on average per game, per NCAA statistics.
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said this of Louisville after their Jan. 14 domination of Pittsburgh, according to Jeff Greer of the Courier-Journal:
I was really impressed by their defense. They did a great job defending the ball, rotating early, extending their defense and being physical without fouling. ...They're very much on the same page. The best part of their press is denying the ball inbounds. That makes a big difference.
It's hard to believe Pitino has never taken home a national Coach of the Year award. Could this be that year?
8. Chris Mack, Xavier
Record: 17-2 (5-2 Big East), T-Second in Big East
Chris Mack is probably the most anonymous entrant on this list.
Hopefully that doesn't overshadow what he's done at Xavier, because it's pretty good and deserves to be noticed.
Musketeers fans are getting used to success, and that's a testament to the work Mack has done since he took over as head coach in 2009. Before that, working on the Xavier campus with the late Skip Prosser and then serving as assistant to Sean Miller (now at Arizona) certainly gave him the experience and expertise for the job. That manifested itself again just this month, when Mack passed Prosser for second all time on the school's all-time wins list.
Hoping to build on last season's Sweet 16 berth, Mack and the Musketeers are for real and worthy of the hype.
7. Roy Williams, North Carolina
Record: 18-2 (7-0 ACC), first in ACC
Yes, Roy Williams could be higher on the list. He is, after all, leading arguably the nation's best team and has done so through injuries to top players Marcus Paige and Kennedy Meeks.
And, yes, Williams is a previous Coach of the Year award winner. But that was 1996-97. Now, at the helm of a team many think is the favorite to cut down the nets here in 2015-16, he could be poised to become just the third multi-time awardee.
Williams is unquestionably an elite coach, and it's certainly not easy to be that, even when you have this depth of talent. But this depth of talent certainly helps, even if Williams has had to make do with a little less at times this season.
6. Ed Cooley, Providence
Record: 17-3 (5-2 Big East), second in Big East
Ed Cooley had the deck stacked against him.
Just a few months before the season tipped off, penciled-in starting center Paschal Chukwu announced he was transferring to Syracuse.
If that wasn't enough, talented two guard Brandon Austin, an integral part of the Providence plan when he joined up in 2013 and an anticipated major contributor at around this point in time, left the program amid sexual-assault allegations.
When pundits tabbed the Friars for a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big East, it sounded about right.
It was wrong.
The tallest player on this season's Providence roster is Ben Bentil at 6'9". That hasn't stopped Cooley from doing more with kind of literally less. The team is balanced and has, to further my awesome metaphor, stood tall in big games thus far. Against teams that were ranked at the time they played, Providence is 4-1, most recently knocking off Villanova—the only team above them in the conference standings.
Of course, Cooley is helped along by Kris Dunn—his All-American lock at point guard. But even so, Cooley clearly knows how to fire the Friars up and to deliver once they're there.
5. Bob Huggins, West Virginia
Record: 16-3 (5-2 Big 12), T-First Big 12
The Big 12 preseason poll had Kansas winning the conference. Oklahoma was in second place. With these two teams tied atop the league right now, neither selection feels surprising.
Oh, but then there's the small matter of the third team involved in that three-way tie for the Big 12 lead.
That would be your West Virginia Mountaineers. Their preseason conference ranking? Sixth.
Bob Huggins has been doing this forever. And in 2015-16, he's just doing it again.
To capitalize on his team's athleticism (and, perhaps, to help an offensively challenged team create offense), Huggins instituted a press defense that has proven a perfect fit. The results are a swarming, frenetic style of play that has the Mounties first in the nation with an astounding 20 turnovers forced per game, per NCAA stats, and a second overall ranking in KenPom.com's defensive efficiency ratings.
It also shows a dog, or at least the Huggins dog, is never too old to learn new tricks. It looks like Huggy Bear will keep adapting, and winning, in Morgantown.
4. Tom Crean, Indiana
Record: 17-3 (7-0 Big Ten), first in Big Ten
It hasn't always been easy sledding for Tom Crean and Indiana. As is the case in many markets where college basketball is a big deal and success is familiar, Crean has received a lot of criticism over the years when times were tough.
Now that times are good, it's probably time to give Crean his due.
It's not just this veteran-laden Hoosier squad's offense that's turning heads. Behind star guard and team leader Yogi Ferrell, the offense was expected to be good.
The defense is the more impressive aspect. During their current 12-game win streak, the Hoosiers have allowed 64.7 points per game. They're not world-beaters in this regard, but that's certainly much better and good enough to win.
That's also not to say the offense is a given. Concerns arose when James Blackmon went down with injury and took his 15.8 points a game with him. But Crean has kept the team on an even keel, and it continues to lead the Big Ten with 86.1 points each contest.
The secret? Crean has apparently relaxed his previously frenetic and exhausting style. According to columnist Greg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, the change came from part serendipity and part personal revelation, and the results have been clear:
Since Blackmon’s knee surgery Jan. 5 left IU so short-handed that Crean elevated manager Jackson Tharp of Zionsville to the active roster, the Hoosiers spend less time on the practice court, more time in the film room. Players still get their shots up, most of that on their own ...shooting as much as their body can handle but not as much as their previously relentless coach was demanding. Practice time is not just less frequent, but less intense. It’s not the unforgiving workout it used to be, not the exercise in physical and mental warfare Crean used to create.
Indiana's schedule has not been strong, but it's about to get stronger. Two games with Iowa and a game apiece with Michigan State, Maryland, Purdue and Michigan all remain. The Hoosiers' ability to negotiate those rapids will tell a lot about their—and Crean's—ultimate place in postseason conversations.
3. Fran McCaffery, Iowa
Record: 16-3 (7-0 Big Ten), T-First Big Ten
Fran McCaffery has found his stride at Iowa.
With star Jarrod Uthoff—suddenly a National Player of the Year candidate—doing a little bit of everything on the court, McCaffery is handling a little bit of everything off it.
The Hawkeyes are balanced, and they are strong on both ends of the floor. No other team, not even top-ranked Oklahoma, has higher average KenPom.com offensive and defensive ratings than Iowa, which sits sixth in adjusted offense and 14th in adjusted defense. They also rank second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, per NCAA stats.
They have achieved all this despite a tough strength of schedule that has seem them meet and beat Michigan State (twice), Purdue (twice), Wichita State and Florida State, despite not having the kind of deep blue-chip talent you regularly see in the sport's blue bloods.
This Thursday presents a huge test, when Iowa travels to Maryland. If the Hawkeyes can win that, they'll be a bona fide national powerhouse and probably in a pole position for a top seed in the tournament.
2. Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M
Record: 17-2 (7-0 SEC), first in SEC
It was unclear how things would work out in College Station after Mark Turgeon left for Maryland.
Billy Kennedy has helped clarify things.
This is not only looking like Kennedy's best season at Texas A&M, it's on pace to be one of the Aggies' best ever. Picked to finish third in the SEC by a media voting panel and lower elsewhere, Texas A&M has blown past those expectations to open up a two-game lead on the conference and earn a No. 5 spot on the current AP national poll.
An ace recruiting class that includes big man Tyler Davis and guard Admon Gilder has helped propel the Aggies to this spot, as has a commitment to defense that has the team seventh overall in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive rankings.
It's also an efficient group offensively: The Aggies are 11th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio and fifth with 19 combined assists each game, which NCAA statistics show.
“It’s about the team. We’ve said that from last year on,” Kennedy recently told Steve Walentik of the Columbia Daily Tribune. “It’s about the team, and these freshmen came in here and bought into it, and the culture of winning and sharing the ball and playing hard defensively has taken shape.”
Keep in mind also that Kennedy is doing all of this as he works to cope with Parkinson's disease. That may not have much to do with X's and O's, but it's certainly another serious challenge Kennedy has to overcome in order to be successful.
Assuming the Aggies can keep this up and stay healthy—an especially large specter in College Station, where an injury to star Danuel House scuttled their chances last season—they should improve on last season's 21-12 record.
They also appear to be in a strong position to make their first Big Dance appearance since 2010-11. Who knows? They could even make it to the tournament's second weekend, something they haven't done since 1980.
If they can, it's pretty clear who they have to thank for that.
1. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
Record: 16-2 (5-2 Big 12), T-First in Big 12
A lot of the Oklahoma Sooners' success this season—and given that they top the current AP poll, they've had their share—has quite a bit to do with Buddy Hield, the team's star guard and Player of the Year candidate.
You also cannot discount the team's overall performance: The Sooners lead the nation in team three-point shooting and are 36th in overall FG percentage, per NCAA stats.
Lon Kruger comes in when you consider this: None of these players were heavily recruited on a national scale. For all his players' talents, Kruger is winning with them just like he has won everywhere he has ever been, top players or no.
The thread, in other words, is Kruger.
He doesn't wear $2,000 suits. He doesn't give good quotes. He just runs good programs and wins. With a 577-355 record over 30 years of coaching, per Basketball-Reference.com, his track record is unassailable.
Still, this is the first time since his Illinois teams of the late 1990s that a Kruger team has broken out on a national level. There could be several different pieces of hardware in his future, and one of them could have James Naismith's picture on it.
All statistics and rankings are accurate as of January 25 and are courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted. Although the Associated Press also has a national Coach of the Year Award, for the sake of simplicity, all Coach of the Year data relate to the Naismith version.