College Basketball Coach of the Year: The Final Five Candidates and Reader Poll

It’s a fluid process, as this season seems to present more deserving men for Coach of the Year than past years.

As we motor toward March Madness 2013, here are the leading candidates, listed alphabetically, for the top college basketball coach in 2012-2013.

The Final Five

steve-alford-new-mexico-5-12-upset-picks-ncaa-tournament-march-madnessSteve Alford, New Mexico

Unranked preseason and picked third in arguably the second best conference in America, Steve Alford has done another remarkable job in Albuquerque.

Earning their third NCAA tourney appearance in four years, the Lobos pulled away a few weeks back to take the MWC. Until losing a heartbreaker to pesky Air Force Saturday night, UNM was in contention for a number one seed.

Jim Crews, Saint Louis

The late, great Rick Majerus built a tournament-caliber team, but Crews, on an interim basis, took the Billikens to 24 wins and the top of a very deep Atlantic 10 — which should have six tourney teams  — including wins over New Mexico, VCU, and Butler twice.

St. Louis closed winning 11 of 12 and, with a strong A-10 tourney performance, merits no worse than a 4 seed. (For more, listen to Jon Washburn and me from the 56-59 minute mark here.)

Travis Ford, Oklahoma State

The Cowboys posted their best record since 2005 and first tourney spot in three seasons.

Winning more than 100 games in five seasons, the 43-year-old kept pace with Kansas and Kansas State all season, beating the Wildcats in Saturday’s finale. The Pokes were victors in 11 of their final 13, including topping the Jayhawks in Lawrence last month —  a near-impossible feat the past few years.

Jim Larranaga, Miami

The Hurricanes didn’t have a great road win, had too many close wins versus bad teams the past 25 days (and two bad losses), and play in the weak ACC — but after being unranked and losing to Indiana State on Christmas Day, Miami did not lose for two months and finally won the conference Saturday.

Considering his team was picked a distant fourth preseason, Larranaga is a worthy nominee.

Bruce Weber, Kansas State

Weber was run out of Champaign when he continuously underachieved, then took over a Manhattan team expected to rebuild, picked fifth in the Big 12. All he did in 2012-13 was win the most conference games in four decades, 25 overall, and kept the Wildcats in first place much of the Big 12 season. K-State won six conference road games, beat Florida on a neutral floor, and four of their six losses are to Kansas, Michigan and Gonzaga on road. Weber truly exceeded expectations.

Out of these five, who is your choice for College Basketball Coach of the Year?

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Honorable Mention

(There were so many high quality jobs that I originally had 18 additional individuals on this second list.)

Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

The Panthers couldn’t even make the NIT last year and were picked sixth in 2012-13, but Dixon may have turned in some of his best coaching this season.

Pitt was ranked most of the season, won 11 of their last 14 and finished fourth in the Big East — ahead of underachieving Syracuse, who dropped 7 of their final 12.

Larry Eustachy, Colorado State

Eustachy fortuitously walked into a solid squad in Fort Collins built by current Nebraska coach Tim Miles, but the Rams were still unranked preseason and picked fourth in the rugged MWC.

CSU didn’t lose a home game until late February when first place New Mexico nipped them. The Rams kept pace with the Lobos until last week, finished second and, with a Top 15 RPI, should earn a high seed in just their second tournament appearance the past decade.

Mark Few, Gonzaga

The Zags barely made the preseason Top 25, yet pushed all the way to number one in America. The WCC is suspect, but Few always schedules tough non-conference games, including true road games (beat Oklahoma, K-State, won at Stillwater, and should’ve won at Butler Jan. 19).

Gonzaga has the most wins and fewest losses in America. Enough said.

Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

The Sooners were picked near the bottom of the Big 12, yet Kruger placed them in fourth with 20 wins, including a victory over Kansas, and on their way to a first tourney appearance since 2009.

Greg Lansing, Indiana State

The Sycamores were picked 7th in the MVC, but third year coach Greg Lansing — who, in his rookie head coaching experience two years ago, took ISU to their first tournament in a decade — had The Trees on the bubble most of the season before fading the past few weeks.

ISU won in Wichita and also beat Miami, Mississippi and Creighton, while nearly topping New Mexico and SDSU.

Gregg Marshall, Wichita State

The Shockers went 27-4 in the 2011-2012 regular season, but lost key players and were picked 4th in the always-competitive Missouri Valley.

All WuShock did was win 26 games despite injuries, losing the MVC title to Creighton in the regular season finale when national player of the year candidate Doug McDermott dropped 41 in a near-perfect game and again yesterday at the buzzer in St. Louis.  (Marshall has compiled nearly 110 wins the past four seasons.)

Josh Pastner, Memphis

I’ve never wanted to like this guy — for many reasons — but the to go undefeated in the nation’s 11th best conference (which also involves the most travel) is pretty amazing for a 35-year-old that has more than 100 wins in four seasons and now three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Dave Pilipovich, Air Force

Picked dead last in the Mountain West, Air Force made a strong case for a first NCAA invite since 2006 by edging the conference’s best team in the season finale Saturday.

A .500 record in the nation’s second best league, wins over numerous tournament teams, and close losses to others, means the first year head coach has done a commendable job this season.

Leon Rice, Boise State:

The Broncos were picked eighth of out of nine in the Mountain West but guided by this third-year head man and possibly the best point guard you’ve never heard of, Boise won 21 games, finished tied for fourth with conference preseason favorite San Diego State, and should make just their second NCAA Tournament appearance in two decades.

A sophomore from Chicago, Derrick Marks has come up biggest in the toughest spots — in the second half: at Creighton in November (28 of his 35)  March 2 against Colorado State (33 of his 38) and March 9 against the Aztecs (22 of his 27). Remarkable.

John Thompson III, Georgetown:

Though they’ve underachieved the past five postseasons, the Hoyas were chosen 5th in October, yet won this deep conference and deserve a number one seed in March Madness.

Georgetown demolished erratic Syracuse twice in the final fortnight (holding an Orange team that’s seemingly quit on Jim Boeheim to a paltry 85 total points in those contests) and won many big games on the road, which is the toughest part of college basketball. (Ask Duke, Florida and Miami about winning away from home.)

Buzz Williams, Marquette

He does it every year — with class and humility. Williams’ Golden Eagles were picked a distant 7th but won 23 games, finished tied for first in the brutal Big East and went undefeated at home.

And I suppose I’d be remiss for not mentioning: Dana Altman (Oregon), Keith Dambrot (Akron), Kermit Davis (MTSU), John Giannini (La Salle), Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State), Danny Kaspar (SF Austin St.), Thad Matta (Ohio State), Greg McDermott (Creighton), Kevin Ollie (Connecticut), Shaka Smart (VCU), Brad Stevens (Butler), Wayne Tinkle (Montana), Michael White (Louisiana Tech) and Jay Wright (Villanova).


I ignored some Top 10 teams because, like coaching the Miami Heat, those men did what they should’ve done with such incredibly deep, talented teams. (Imagine Joe Torre managing the Royals or Erik Spoelstra the Bobcats.)

We’ve already seen the likes of Jon Calipari, Roy Williams, Tom Crean and others struggle mightily in past years with lesser talent. I also ignored the coaches of my favorite teams (Butler, Creighton), even though both had very successful seasons totaling 51 wins. There’s no bias here.

And really, only the Big 10, Big East, Mountain West and Big 12 were tough conferences this season. Jim Boeheim, Billy Donovan and Mike Kryzyzewski, in particular, benefited from clever early season scheduling — or in Sean Miller’s Tucson case, four fluke wins in a 2-week stretch —  to allow their teams to perform mediocre the past few months, yet still gain high tournament seeds. Put top ACC, SEC and Pac-12 schools in better conferences and the losses would pile up.

It will be interesting to see how these candidates fare over the next month versus the aforementioned coaches.  Not challenging your team during the season has resulted in early exits for many folks recently — Duke and Missouri choking in round one last March —  while “tested” schools often make deep runs, even to the Final Four.

About AJ Kaufman

A former schoolteacher and military historian, A.J. now works in public relations. As an MSF columnist since 2009, he supports anything baseball-related. Raised in San Diego, A.J. has since resided in numerous parts of America, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington State. After departing the coasts in 2005, he's traveled the back roads of all 50 states and prefers the Heartland. Married to Maria, A.J. is the author of three books and enjoys reading presidential biographies.


  1. All of these coaches did tremendous jobs this year. However, I have a simple question that I would like for you to make sense of for me.

    The Big Ten is renowned this year as the toughest conference in America. I would argue, and I think you would agree, that outside of a school’s history and tradition, no single factor impacts winning on an annual basis more than the head coach. And I would also argue, and I think you would agree, that one of the most important roles of a coach (if not THE most important role), is talent acquisition and roster composition … so a coach’s work cannot be discounted because he is coaching a talent-laded roster. Unlike Erik Spoelstra, it’s a college coach’s JOB, one of his most time-intensive, to recruit players. So you’re examples of pro coaches in this case have zero comparative merit.

    Thus, I’ll ask, how can the Big Ten not even have a single representative on your list?

    I can understand not thinking that Tom Crean or Tom Izzo or Thad Matta or Bo Ryan or John Beilein deserve to be Coach of the Year. You may not even need to put them in your top 5, even though I’d disagree. Reasonable inds can disagree. But to not list ANY of them? At all? It almost feels like intentional trolling. I know it’s not, because I know you are earnest in compiling these lists and do not include any intentional bias. I’m just saying that’s how much trouble I have making sense of it.

    If the Big Ten truly is the best conference in America – an assessment I know you agree with – how can its coaches not be lauded for doing some of the best work in America? It just doesn’t compute.

  2. AJ Kaufman says:

    Matta is on “others,” and could get into the honorable mention with a good Big Ten conference showing. I’d prefer not to get into nuances, but I look at incredibly stacked teams — in a sport like basketball where top talent wins out more than any other team sport — and winning 85% of your games does not impress me as much as guys with far less talent who also win 80-85% of their games.

    The top Big Ten coaches “met expectations” and are paid handsomely for doing just that. They are who we thought they are and congrats to them.

    I’m not sure who they’d replace on here, and I’d like to see Matta, Izzo, Crean and others do what coaches at Air Force, SLU, Wichita, Boise and elsewhere did. It’s the Joe Torre/Phil Jackson factor.

    I’m impressed by those who EXCEED expectations not who simply do what they’re supposed to do.

    With your logic, this list would be more exhaustive than it already is.

    • For someone who places so much stock on road wins, you seem curiously unimpressed with Tom Crean’s ability to lead his team to three road Ws over top 10 teams. But apparently he just rolls the ball out there and “let’s em play.”

      • AJ Kaufman says:

        That’s why IU should be the #1 overall seed, which not everyone is saying. Most are idiotically saying Duke (who’s STILL Beaten NO ONE since November) or Gonzaga (who has played no one since December and lost to unranked Butler & Illinois.)

        But IU’s great road wins are mitigated somewhat by losses at home to Wisc and OSU, and on road to inferior teams like Minnesota and Illinois (both collapses which you can blame on coaching) and Butler.

        I’m confident with my list. I’d ask you to review all the coaches on there, listen to Jon and my podcast and look at their slate and roster, not being so flippantly IU/Big Ten centric.

  3. Great article.
    Jerod’s comments come from the flaw in the “Coach of the Year” award – namely that we don’t know who we are supposed to reward.
    Coach A took a team with 10-win talent to the tournament. Coach B took a team with Final Four Talent to an undefeated season. Which coach deserves the award?
    The problem is that we are never given this answer explicitly. There are many coaches that can make bad teams competent, and get 15-wins out of 8-win talent. These same coaches, when blessed with great players, don’t necessarily understand how to maximize the talent. Think Larry Brown. There are other coaches that would absolutely fail with poor players, but when given great players, understand the buttons to push in order to make them coalesce and win. Think Phil Jackson.
    Who is the better coach? Many would say Phil Jackson because he has more rings, but what Jackson has also proven to be unable to build teams from mediocre to contenders the way Larry Brown has.
    For college, I tend to take recruiting completely out of the picture and look at in-season performance. “Which coach exceeded or met expectations to the best of his ability?”
    IU and Michigan were both highly ranked coming into the season, and any fan can easily tell that these two teams have far more talent than most other teams. Because of that, Beilein or Crean would have needed to have a Kentucky-2012 type of season to be considered for the award. (Calipari absolutely should have won last year…what other coach in America could make the best player in America take the sixth most shots on his team AND STILL REMAIN HAPPY?!? Nobody.)
    I wouldn’t say Michigan and IU underachieved this year, but they only adequately met the expectations.
    I do agree with Jerod in that I would have probably included Thad Matta and Tom Izzo. To compete with IU and Michigan with a talent disparity as wide as each of them had, THAT was impressive. But again, then we are adding two names to a list that already goes like 20 long…they didn’t HAVE to be included like Crews, Alford, or Larranaga. I don’t typically tend to enjoy arguments about people that belong on “honorable mention” lists…it’s not that big of a deal to me.

    • So we are going to remove one of the most important and time-consuming parts of a college hoops’ coach’s job from consideration for Coach of the Year? This is what doesn’t make a sense.

      Maybe we need two awards: Coach of the Year and Coach of the Season.

      If we are hellbent on putting so much stock in preseason expectations, and then measuring a coach’s success based on how the team’s record compared to those expectations, then give one award for just what happens on the court between November and March.

      But if we actually want to analyze coaches based on the totality of their jobs, and for how they perform in all of the elements that make up the success of a college basketball team, look at what they do from April to April. Then guys like Crean and Beilein, who have done OUTSTANDING work rebuilding programs, would get more of the respect they deserve.

      There is a complete disparity in the criteria we’re looking at here, which is causing the issue.

  4. Correct. There is a complete disparity in the criteria – making it frustrating and difficult to argue.

    I would say that if you make it “Coach of the Season,” then John Calipari probably should have won 5 of the last 7 awards…and of course, this would make everyone in college basketball go insane.

  5. Kurt Allen says:

    Bo Ryan not mentioned!!??

    And about Crean, people have to remember the mess IU was in five years ago w/Kelvin Sampson…

    • Yeah – no doubt! The Badgers were a couple of choked finishes (@ Minn and Vs Mich St.) away from winning the B10 outright. Bo should definitely be somewhere on this list.

      • Not to mention also that they lost their starting point guard (who was going to convert from a 2 guard due to need) before the season started. Their backcourt had exactly zero experience going into this year.

        • AJ Kaufman says:

          He deserves big ten coach of the year. Did a way better job than Crean, Izzo or Boeheim with their 4-5 All Americans. Agree.

  6. AJ Kaufman says:

    It’s not an award for recruiting/rebuilding and the past five years. Crean was ranked #1 preseason because he had 4-5 all-Americans. He finished #2. Great job. How many other coaches could do that? MANY.

  7. Greg Lansing!

  8. How can Richard Pitino not be listed? He took a horrible job at FIU, lost six players who were Isaiah Thomas recruits, played with six walk ons, won 19 games-almost won their conference tournament-as many games as Thomas won in the last three years…watch your back coaches who are not getting the job done…he will be at a major school in the next couple of years with or without his Dad’s help

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      Good point. I should’ve listed all the smaller school coaches, but the big conference apologists are not going to care and are already irate as it is. I take what I can get.

  9. Al Maged says:

    Tim O ‘Shea, Bryant U . From 2 wins to 19, that warrants consideration forC.O.Y. Keep an eye on that program..

  10. Linda Matney says:

    I truly believe that Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall should be considered. His accomplishment in getting into the final four after so many injuries to key players and keeping everyone playing as a team when ‘the team’ continued to change players to is remarkable.

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      Thanks, Linda. I follow the MVC closely from Nebraska and was rooting hard for WuShock. I did list him on Honorable Mention, which is more than the mainstream media who ignored WSU all season until late March did. Of course, I published this five weeks ago before the Shockers miraculous run to the final 4, so you’ll have to understand. Most awards are voted on before the postseason — for better or worse. I do think Marshall is a far better coach than many other “major” leaders: Crean, Beilien, Boeheim, Roy Williams, etc.

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