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
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?
(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.
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
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:
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
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.