They’re not the ones taking the shots, grabbing the rebounds or guarding on the perimeter. But when those things don’t happen effectively on the court, they’re the ones who most often get blamed off the court.
Being a college basketball coach may be financially lucrative but it’s also quite thankless. Tasked with trying to motivate and manage a dozen or so 18- to 22-year-olds, many of whom look at college as only a brief stop on their basketball journey. When those players struggle it’s usually the coach who is held accountable yet when the same players excel their mentors don’t get nearly the praise they deserve.
National and conference player of the year awards get the bulk of the attention but similar coaching honors are arguably more important to a team’s success. Below are the top 10 candidates for the 2017-18.
NOTE: Records and statistics through games of Wednesday, Feb. 21.
Rick Barnes, Tennessee: Barnes has had the Volunteers ranked every week since early December, its longest Top 25 streak since 2010-11. Tennessee is second in the SEC, which would be its best finish in nine years.
Brad Brownell, Clemson: Brownell has the Tigers in line for their first NCAA tourney bid since 2011, his first year at the school. Three straight losses might keep Clemson from a first-round ACC tournament bye, however.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: The Shockers moved up in competition, from the Missouri Valley to the American, yet Marshall had them just as ready to play as ever. Wichita claims the league title in its first season it if wins out.
Matt Painter, Purdue: February hasn’t been good but before that the Boilermakers were arguably the best team in the country. Painter has a veteran team that’s playing with youthful exuberance.
Jay Wright, Villanova: Wright continues to own the Big East, leading the Wildcats to two wins over Xavier while remaining the best-dressed coach in college basketball.
10. Joe Pasternack, UC-Santa Barbara
2017-18 record: 20-6, 9-3 Big West
An assistant under Sean Miller at Arizona from 2011-17, Joe Pasternack helped recruit and then coach some of the top college prospects in the country. It’s been a different story at UC-Santa Barbara, which doesn’t get many big-name players, yet Pasternack has been able to win right away.
The Gauchos were 6-22 last season, finishing in last place in the Big West, but with two weeks left in the regular season they’re a half-game ahead of UC-Davis and UC-Irvine for first. Pasternack is doing it with a roster mostly of holdovers but bolstered by grad transfers from Nevada (forward Leland King) and Rice (guard Marcus Jackson).
9. David Padgett, Louisville
2017-18 record: 18-10, 8-7 ACC
Thrown into the fire after Louisville fired Rick Pitino in late September, David Padgett went from a guy with only a few years of experience as an assistant (and never the top one) to overseeing a program at the center of yet another scandal. The ongoing FBI bribery investigation also robbed the Cardinals of a top prospect in Brian Bowen.
And to make matters worse, the NCAA just stripped the school of its 2013 NCAA title because of an escort scandal under Pitino.
All of those distractions could have made it very easy for Louisville to go into the tank for 2017-18 yet Padgett has managed to keep it in the middle of the pack in the ultra-tough ACC. Only an interim coach, Louisville will very likely look outside for a permanent guy but what Padgett has done on short notice is still quite admirable.
8. Chris Mack, Xavier
2017-18 record: 25-4, 13-3 Big East
Last year’s run to the Elite Eight was a major surprise, as Xavier entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed and then got hot. This season the Musketeers have been scorching all along, except maybe when playing Big East foe Villanova.
Chris Mack, the winningest coach in school history, has bucked the trend of previous Xavier coaches by sticking around and building off each season. That’s resulted in its highest ranking in school history at No. 4 and a strong chance to be a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed for the first time ever.
The Musketeers can run with anyone thanks to three senior starters, guys that Mack has allowed to play freely but still within a system.
7. Cuonzo Martin, Missouri
2017-18 record: 18-10, 8-7 SEC
A home loss to Ole Miss on Tuesday night, Missouri’s second in a row, shouldn’t take away what a tremendous job Cuonzo Martin has done in his first season. The former Tennessee and California coach was expected to vastly improve the Tigers this year simply because of the talent he brought in, particularly top NBA draft prospect Michael Porter Jr., yet what he’s accomplished has come despite only two minutes of participation from Porter because of back surgery.
Instead it’s been program holdovers like senior wing Jordan Barnett and junior guard Kevin Puryear and Canisius graduate transfer guard Kassius Robertson that have been the most consistent players. The freshman class, particularly big men Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon, have also chipped in nicely.
Missouri could finish as high as second in the SEC, a remarkable achievement for a program that under previous coach Kim Anderson won only eight conference games in three seasons.
6. Mike Hopkins, Washington
2017-18 record: 18-9, 8-6 Pac-12
Mike Hopkins was supposed to be succeeding longtime Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim after this season, named the program’s “ head coach designate” more than two years ago. But Boeheim still isn’t ready to retire, which prompted Hopkins to venture out on his own when he was hired by Washington last March.
So far that’s turned out to be a really smart decision for Hopkins, who has doubled the Huskies’ win total from 2016-17 and quadrupled their Pac-12 victory tally from what they had in Lorenzo Romar’s final season.
Using a more aggressive version of the zone defense that Boeheim has run at Syracuse forever, Washington is second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and tops in 3-point defense. The Huskies are in the hunt for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2011.
5. Tony Bennett, Virginia
2017-18 record: 25-2, 14-1 ACC
It’s not visually pleasing to the average college football fan, but then again Tony Bennett isn’t paid the big bucks to please that demographic. His job is to inspire his players to forgo the theatrics and focus on fundamentals, waiting for the best possible shot on offense and forcing the worst possible one by the opponent.
And it keeps on working. The 54 points Georgia Tech managed against the Cavaliers on Wednesday actually raised their scoring defense, to 52.7 per game. Possessions are at a premium in games against Virginia, particularly when it manages to average more than 1.1 points each trip down the court while giving up less than 0.9.
Bennett is an overtime home loss against Virginia Tech away from heading into the final 10 days of the regular season with a shot at ACC perfection, which has never happened. The chance to go 17-1 is just as impressive considering how many good teams Virginia has had to play this season.
4. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
2017-18 record: 23-4, 12-2 American
Half of Cincinnati’s losses this season have come in their last two games, to Houston and Wichita State, putting in doubt an American Athletic Conference regular season title that had looked like a lock just a week ago. The Bearcats are still in first place, though, buoyed by a 16-game win streak.
That run was paced by a lockdown defense that has become the standard from Mick Cronin, who has Cincinnati headed to a eighth straight NCAA tournament bid and likely its highest seed since at least 2004. The Bearcats allow just 57.1 points per game, second only to Virginia.
But Cincinnati can score, too, not interested in massively reducing the number of possessions in a game. Their scoring margin of 18.7 points leads the nation and it was over 20 per game before the recent losses.
3. Chris Beard, Texas Tech
2017-18 record: 22-6, 10-5 Big 12
Two straight losses, including Wednesday at Oklahoma State, has dropped Texas Tech out of first place in the Big 12 ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Kansas. The fact the Red Raiders are even in the hunt to end the Jayhawks’ run of conference titles is a testament to what Chris Beard has accomplished at his alma mater.
From seventh place in the league in his first season to a top-10 overall seed in the NCAA’s early tournament projections two weeks ago, Texas Tech has thrived under Beard. He’s almost a lock for Big 12 coach of the year and should get strong consideration for national honors.
The Big 12 has been a gauntlet all year yet Tech is the only team in the league not to lose at home, while at the same time it has wins at Kansas and Kansas State. All that’s holding the Red Raiders back from being a serious national title contender is the health of star Keenan Evans, whose toe injury has hobbled him the last two games.
2. Bruce Pearl, Auburn
2017-18 record: 24-4, 12-3 SEC
Auburn was one of the four schools who had assistant coaches arrested by the FBI as part of a bribery investigation last fall, but not only that two of its best players—forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley—have been out of action because of their alleged connections to the scandal. And yet the Tigers are running away with the SEC, holding a two-game lead on the field with three to go.
While Bruce Pearl’s future at the school beyond this season may be in question, depending on how the school’s internal investigation goes, there’s no denying he’s gotten the absolute most of his depleted roster. Strong recruiting in his first few seasons, which didn’t come with corresponding results, is now paying off.
Auburn’s last NCAA tourney bid was in 2003, when it was a No. 10 seed. Right now a No. 1 seed is looking very doable, which last happened for the Tigers in 1999 in the same year they most recently won the SEC regular-season title.
1. Chris Holtmann, Ohio State
2017-18 record: 23-7, 14-3 Big Ten
Chris Holtmann has a knack for taking over a program with little notice, having already done it at Butler in 2014 when Brandon Miller had to step away because of a medical issue a month before the season. But at least then Holtmann was familiar with the players he suddenly was in charge of, having been an assistant there for a season.
With Ohio State he came on in June, just days after the school parted ways with 13 seasons and more than 330 wins. The Buckeyes were picked by Big Ten media members to finish in 11 th place, one spot lower than in 2016-17.
Yet OSU started out 9-0 in league play and with one game left is in second place. A win Friday at Indiana and a Michigan State loss at Wisconsin on Sunday would give the Buckeyes a tie for the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tourney next week in New York City.
Holtmann is working with basically the same roster that Matta had, but his approach to them has finally gotten guys like forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate to play at their full potential.
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