Virginia's Tony Bennett is our pick for top coach in the ACC
With a little more than two weeks to Selection Sunday, the college basketball season almost certainly has a few more surprises even before the NCAA Tournament.
Some of those, though, won’t be many of the best coaching jobs in each league. By now, we know the teams that have overachieved, teams that have faced some of the most adversity and teams that have thrived despite of limitations.
For the most part, we know who is in contention for coach of the year in every major conference even before the invitations to the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe other programs not listed here will catch a hot streak in the postseason. Maybe others will falter. But for many of these, we need little more information to declare the following coaches frontrunners for their league’s coach of the year honors.
Tony Bennett, Virginia
Saturday seemed to be the day the light bulb went off everywhere but Charlottesville: Virginia can win the ACC regular season title. The Cavaliers took up first place with Syracuse’s loss to Duke. Despite Syracuse’s undefeated start to the season, Jim Boeheim’s costly outburst against Duke may cost him coach of the year hardware. Bennett’s doing this on his own merits, though. The build, like Virginia’s playing style, has been methodical. The Cavs have increased their ACC win total each season under Bennett. The difference this season has been the emergence of Malcolm Brogdon as a scorer to complement Joe Harris. While the traditional metrics indicate a modest improvement in the offensive end to 65.9 points per game, Virginia is a top-50 team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating for the first time under Bennett.
Other challengers? North Carolina’s Roy Williams
Larry Brown, SMU
The hire of Brown at SMU was questionable two seasons ago as the then-72-year-old coach ventured back into college basketball for the first time since 1988. And beyond that, SMU was more than a decade removed from its last season with a winning record in conference play. To put that in further perspective, that was three coaches and two conferences ago. This didn't seem to be a job for a veteran coach nearing retirement. But after overhauling the roster in his first season, Brown has SMU on the brink of its first NCAA Tournament since 1993. The Mustangs aren’t totally feasting on the bottom half of the American, either. SMU has swept the season series against Connecticut and defeated Cincinnati and Memphis at home.
Other challengers? UConn’s Kevin Ollie
Jim Crews, Saint Louis
The tempting pick is Mark Lonergan of George Washington. Athlon picked the Colonials 10th in the conference, but they’re pushing for an NCAA bid. Sometimes, though, it helps not to overthink these selections. Crews, who was not named the permanent head coach until April, has Saint Louis undefeated in a surprisingly deep league. The Billikens are one of the top defensive teams in the country and count only two losses by single digits to Wisconsin and Wichita State.
Other challengers? George Washington’s Mark Lonergan, UMass’ Derek Kellogg, St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli
Bill Self, Kansas
It seems too easy to pick the team that has already clinched at least a share of the conference title, but there’s more to this season for Self. The Jayhawks lost their entire starting five from last year, and although they added the best freshman class in the country, they played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation. Andrew Wiggins started his career inconsistently, and point guard play was suspect early as well. Kansas indeed has the best roster in the league, but give Self credit for winning his 10th consecutive league title with more than week to go.
Other challengers? Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg
Jay Wright, Villanova
It would be a disservice to Villanova to boil its season down to the two lopsided losses to Creighton, the Wildcats’ only two losses in Big East play. This is still a team that defeated Kansas and Iowa early in the year. After an uneven 2012-13 and a losing season in 2011-12, Villanova is on its way to its best win total in four seasons.
Other contenders? Creighton’s Greg McDermott
John Beilein, Michigan
Just think of the adjustments Michigan has made this season: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left school early. Mitch McGary has played eight games all season. And then go-to scoring threat Nik Stauskas went into a midseason slump. The Wolverines have developed Caris LeVert into an impact player and freshman Derrick Walton into a Big Ten-caliber point guard. Michigan leads for the Big Ten title with arguably a better offensive team than a year ago.
Other contenders? Nebraska’s Tim Miles
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
The Shockers are making a bid to be the first team to enter the conference tournaments undefeated since St. Joseph’s in 2004 and first to be undefeated on Selection Sunday since UNLV in 1991. Case closed.
Steve Fisher, San Diego State
By the time New Mexico defeated San Diego State on Saturday, it was easy to forget that the Lobos were a near-unanimous pick to win the Mountain West. Meanwhile, San Diego State was picked fourth by Athlon and by the media in the preseason poll. The Aztecs had to replace Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, but the development of Xavier Thames enabled San Diego State to climb as high as No. 5 in the AP poll.
Other contenders? New Mexico’s Craig Neal
Tad Boyle, Colorado
Colorado has managed to keep its head above water despite the season-ending injury for Spencer Dinwiddie on Jan. 12. The Buffaloes are 5-5 since then, but haven’t lost to a team outside of the RPI top 50 without Dinwiddie starting. If Colorado can navigate these last three road games against Utah, Stanford and Cal, Boyle should have his team in the NCAA Tournament, a remarkable feat.
Other contenders? Arizona’s Sean Miller, Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak
Billy Donovan, Florida
For the most part, the SEC has been lackluster this season. Not Florida, though. The Gators are doing things they haven’t done since winning back-to-back national titles, including reaching the No. 1 spot in the polls and defeating Kentucky and Tennessee on the road in the same season. Now, Donovan has his eyes set on Florida’s first perfect SEC record in school history.
Other contenders? Georgia’s Mark Fox