College Basketball's Top 25 Coaches
In an effort to talk about something college basketball-related other than scandals in the summer, let's talk best current coaches. We'll attempt to order the top 25 current coaches in the nation. This is about the present and the future, not the distant past. What a guy did in the mid-90s doesn't matter near as much as the direction his program is currently headed. Past pedigree also matters, to an extent. For the perfect mix of past accomplishments with present achievement and a paved road for future success, look no further than the man atop the list.
1. Roy Williams, North Carolina -- There are plenty of guys who could out X-and-O him during a game. Of course, he pretty much always has incredibly superior talent on the court, rendering that part of the coaching skill-set less meaningful. Recruiting is part of the job in college basketball, and he's done it well enough to amass two NCAA championships, three Final Fours and four 30-plus win seasons in the past five years. Until someone starts outdoing him on the recruiting trail and keeping those guys in school for more than a year, he'll stay here for a while.
2. Tom Izzo, Michigan State -- He reached his fifth Final Four last season, finishing as the runner-up to Roy's Tar Heels. In 2010, Izzo's Spartans will be cutting down the nets (yes, an incredibly early prediction). He's mixing youth with experience every single year, and that's why this program won't leave the national spotlight as long as he's around.
3. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke -- If this was any year from 1990 to 2001, he'd be the obvious choice for the best coach in the entire nation. In the past eight seasons, however, he's been slightly mortal -- advancing past the Sweet 16 just once. Of course, when we're talking about a guy going to the Sweet 16 six times and the Final Four once in an eight-year span -- and talking about how it hurts his overall resume -- that shows you what kind of bar he set for himself. He's still a legend, he's just being outperformed on Tobacco Road right now.
4. John Calipari, Kentucky -- There will be plenty of naysayers for the foreseeable future when it comes to "Coach Cal" and his "recruiting practices" -- especially in light of recent events. There's a sort of stigma following him around because he's arguably the best recruiter in the nation, but he's never been personally charged with anything concrete. The bottom line is that he's getting the job done and now his national platform is even bigger at one of the NCAA's marquee basketball programs. He's still looking for that elusive first national championship, but the smart money is on that drought ending rather quickly in Lexington (assuming he keeps his nose clean).
5. Bill Self, Kansas -- He's taken three different schools (including Tulsa) to the Elite Eight. He did so in his first year at Kansas. After a decent 2004-2005 season, Self built the team as his own, steadily improving over the next four seasons. Things culminated in 2008 when he did what Williams couldn't do at Kansas, which is win the National Championship. After significant losses to graduation and the NBA, the Jayhawks were in rebuilding mode last season, but it turned out to be reloading. A three-seed and Sweet 16 berth later, and Kansas is set up for another Final Four run. Expect that to be an annual statement about Self's Kansas squad for the foreseeable future.
6. Jim Calhoun, Connecticut -- He's got plenty of longevity, but he's likely not going anywhere, if his health and a possible NCAA inquiry allow, and neither are his Huskies. Though they're only losing Hasheem Thabeet and A.J. Price from a Final Four team, they have enough to pick up the pieces and make another deep run in March (if they make it, it will be Calhoun's ninth trip to the Elite Eight). Calhoun always does.
7. Rick Pitino, Louisville -- A Final Four and two Elite Eights in the past five years for Pitino, but he doesn't seem to have the national championship magic in Louisville. Plus, the addition of Calipari to UK will greatly cramp Pitino's recruiting within the basketball rich State of Kentucky. Don't get me wrong, though, Pitino is still ranked seventh on this list and in the prestigious "untouchables" category. He belongs.
8. Billy Donovan, Florida -- He's lost tons of ground in the past two years. In fact, had we built this list after the two consecutive championships, he probably would have been ranked as the top overall coach in the nation. That doesn't just go away after two NCAA tournament-less seasons, but he's got something to prove now. Can he actually sustain success, or is everything dependent on landing one special recruiting class?
9. Ben Howland, UCLA -- Three straight Final Four appearances for the Bruins didn't yield a championship, though, and he took a step backward in 2009. If you look at his resume, though, there's no reason to doubt the direction of college basketball's most championship-laden program. Howland made Pitt into a powerhouse by his third season and built UCLA back into one -- making the Final Four in his third season. They'll be back.
10. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse -- The 14 Sweet 16 appearances, three national championship games and the one championship are all part of his incredibly lofty standing among historical collegiate coaching greats. Presently, he did take his 2009 group to the Sweet 16 after back-to-back trips to the NIT. He's enduring massive losses to graduation and the draft, though, so he'll have yet another reloading task in front of him. His name is keeping him here and he's likely to continue falling down the list as some of the younger talent trumps him. See the next guy on the list ...
Solid As a Rock
11. Jay Wright, Villanova -- After taking Hofstra to two consecutive NCAA tournament berths, Wright took his talents to Philly at age 40. He built the program for three years and it's been coming to fruition for the past five seasons. He's taken the Wildcats to four Sweet 16s in the past five years, and made a Final Four trip last season. It was the first for 'Nova since the magical 1985 run. They won't have to wait long for another one, because they'll be there again in 2010.
12. Tubby Smith, Minnesota -- He's gone to the Sweet 16 with three different schools and it's soon to be four [edit: originally said four and five, we regret the error] when he completes his rescue of the Gophers from the abyss. Six Sweet 16 appearances and a national championship in 10 years at Kentucky wasn't good enough for the die-hards in Lexington, but I'm pretty sure they'd deal with it in the Twin Cities. It would be awfully tough to win it all from up there, but the Gophers are on track to becoming a team who can occasionally visit the Sweet 16 and perhaps more.
13. Rick Barnes, Texas -- Texas will always be a football school, but Barnes does a heck of a job keeping the Longhorn faithful interested in hoops as well. The 2003 Final Four was nice, and they've been in the Elite Eight twice in the past four years. Heading into this year, they have some serious horses. Look for them to linger around the top 10.
14. Matt Painter, Purdue -- In my view, he's the most likely to jump up a level from this group in the next few years. I also expect this pick to receive the most scrutiny. So, here goes: Purdue has Final Four talent as they head into the 2009-2010 season. Should they make it, his resume will be as impressive as almost anyone at such a young age (he's only 38). In just four years he's transformed Purdue from a Big Ten doormat (3-13 in conference play his first season) to a legitimate national power. Maybe people outside Indiana (the State) don't realize what a joke Purdue basketball had become until he came in and played the role of savior. As beloved as Gene Keady was in Purdue, he never made it past the Elite Eight. Painter will get there before the age of 40. He's the most underrated coach in college basketball. His only other head coaching experience? A single season of domination in the Missouri Valley Conference (17-1 in 2004 conference play for Southern Illinois). [Then again, maybe I'm trying some reverse-jinxing action -- being an Indiana grad.]
15. Gary Williams, Maryland -- It's tough to argue with his past accolades, but I'm seeing three NIT appearances and two second-round exits from the Big Dance in the last five years. This is a list of coaching in the present, not the past. He'll continue to slide from what was once probably a top-5 rank if he doesn't show more potential with the future of the Maryland program.
16. Thad Matta, Ohio State -- He's a much better recruiter than on-court coach, but, again, recruiting is part of coaching in college basketball. He took Ohio State to the national title game in only his third season, yet they've been a tad bit disappointing since. Next year's Buckeyes do look to be very dangerous, especially with the return of David Lighty from injury. His worst season in three different stops still netted 20 wins overall wins.
17. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh -- The big knock on Dixon has been his lack of tournament success. He did make the Elite Eight this year, but the Panthers never really got on track against inferior competition from their number one seed and eventually lost to a three seed. He's only 43, though, and has built a maintained a solid program after the departure of Howland. There's upward mobility here should he get over the hump in the next few years.
18. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin -- His regular season resume is impressive enough to land him higher on the list, but he hasn't had any serious tournament runs and it doesn't appear that's changing anytime soon. One thing I love hearing about him is how he gets so much out of limited talent. Well, first of all, he's had some talent. Secondly, recruiting talent is part of your job in collegiate sports. This isn't the NBA where he's saddled with an awful general manager. All that being said, he's a great coach and deserves a top-20 spot. He just seems a bit overrated to me at times in the eyes of the national media.
19. Bruce Weber, Illinois -- Built Southern Illinois' program into a regular Big Dance attendee before steering the Illini to a National Championship game appearance. After a drastic step-back (losing overall record in 2007-2008, which single-handedly knocked him down several ranking slots here), Weber coached an unheralded team to an impressive 24-10 campaign last season. The 2005 National Coach of the Year looks to continue building his reputation with a solid nucleus in place -- along with talented newcomers -- moving into the 2009-2010 season.
Rounding It Out
20. Bob Huggins, West Virginia -- We have to include him, because he wins games everywhere he goes -- and he wins immediately. He's not higher on the list, though, because there seems to be a glass ceiling in place at this point. His only trip to the Final Four was the last time Bob Knight made a trip and he doesn't appear to be in position to crack the top 5 in the Big East anytime soon. Still, he's going to win 20 and visit the NCAAs. That's clockwork.
21. Mark Few, Gonzaga -- He absolutely owns the WCC -- nine straight conference titles -- and has had decent-to-good success in the NCAA Tournament. At some point, though, the four Sweet 16s in 10 seasons need to turn into something more. Otherwise Few's just a very good coach dominating a sub-par conference. He actually may need to take his show elsewhere to shed that label, but the question is: Why would he? He's set up nicely there and won't get fired.
22. Bruce Pearl, Tennessee -- After making UW-Milwaukee relevant, Pearl took the Tennessee job and immediately thrust them into national prominence. The Vols took a step backward in 2009 after a 31-win season and two straight Sweet 16 appearances. Should Tyler Smith decide to come back -- he's filed paperwork for the NBA draft but not hired an agent and will also consider playing overseas -- they'll be headed back that way in 2010. If not, they still return everyone else and will still be in the NCAA Tourney mix as usual.
23. John Beilein, Michigan -- Talking about working your way through the ranks. He's been to Erie Community College, Nazareth College, Le Moyne College, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and now Michigan. After just one bad season in Ann Arbor, Beilein gave Wolverines hope they could once again cheer for a respectable basketball program. Considering DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris are coming back, the Wolverines have a nice shot at a Sweet 16 this year, which would be the third in the past six seasons for the late-blooming Beilein.
24. Lon Kruger, UNLV -- While Kruger's successors have had more success than he has (Donovan at Florida, Self and Weber at Illinois), he's still pretty adept at building winning programs. He took UNLV to the Sweet 16 in his third season and has been to the NCAA Tournament two of the past three years with the Runnin' Rebels. If he wants one, he'll probably get a crack at another major job soon.
25. Al Skinner, Boston College -- It's gotta be awfully tough to keep Boston College competitive in ACC basketball when measuring up against Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and others. BC is a football school, after all. Skinner's had his Eagles in the NCAA Tourney seven of the last nine seasons. Despite the loss of Tyrese Rice to graduation, they'll look to improve next season with the rest of the young nucleus returning.
Here are some guys who might possibly be better coaches than several currently on the list. Some of them will need to prove it for a few more years, and others have circumstances they'll need to fight through in order to stick (Crean's Indiana mess, Bennett moving to the ACC from Pac-10, Capel needing to show he can win without Griffin, etc.).
Mike Anderson, Missouri -- After winning 20-plus games all four seasons at UAB, Anderson undertook the massive task of cleaning up the Quin Snyder fiasco for Mizzou. Last season, just his third at the helm for the Tigers, saw Anderson lead his team to the Elite Eight. If things continue on this path, they'll have themselves quite the program.
Tony Bennett, Virginia -- Moving from the Pac-10 to the ACC is no simple task. Plus, he's now going to be also competing with the Big East for regional recruits.
Jeff Capel, Oklahoma -- As mentioned above, it's entirely possible he's not a great coach and just was fortunate enough to land the beast that was Blake Griffin. It's also possible he keeps landing beasts due to great recruiting, which would qualify him for the above rankings. Time will tell, but it appears Oklahoma has a quality coach.
Tom Crean, Indiana -- Had he stayed at Marquette he'd easily qualify for the rankings above Skinner and Beilein (at least), but what he's able to carve out at Indiana from this point forward will make or break his legacy. Thus, it's not really fair to put him near the same level as Big Ten counterparts like Ryan or Weber just yet. It's possible he gets all the way up to the top of this list, but it's also possible he's never able to overcome the significant hole dug by Kelvin Sampson -- in which case he'd fall off this list completely.
Keno Davis, Providence -- One stellar year at Drake was followed by a pretty solid season at Providence in the uber-competitive Big East. At age 37, he's a true rising star in the coaching business.
Travis Ford, Oklahoma State -- From Campbellsville to Eastern Kentucky to UMass to Oklahoma State, the former Kentucky point guard has risen through the coaching ranks from the bottom up. His first season as head coach of the Cowboys yielded a 23-12 record and an appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tourney.
Anthony Grant, Alabama -- Two NCAA appearances in three years at Virginia Commonwealth got this rising star the exposure needed to land the head coaching job for the Crimson Tide.
Trent Johnson, LSU -- After making Nevada relevant, he built Stanford as his own team in four years -- making a Sweet 16 in Year 4 -- and won the SEC in his first year in Baton Rouge. If this is his destination job, the Tigers have a program on the rise.
Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois -- His first three seasons were a cakewalk. Three Big Dances, two times advancing past the first round and one Sweet 16. The Salukies regressed to the 18-15 next season and all the way down to 13-17 last season. Did Lowery simply enjoy success due to the foundation built by Bruce Weber and Matt Painter, or is he suffering through a simple down-cycle that will be reversed in the near-future?
Sean Miller, Arizona -- It's time for the 40-year-old coaching phenom to take the next step. In five seasons at Xavier, Miller put together a 120-47 record with two Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight trip. Now, he's moving to a "power" conference across the nation. Fans will expect he maintain a top-10 program, so we'll see if he can meet expectations.
Mike Montgomery, California -- Wait, what? He's like a thousand years old, so how is he here? Because he hadn't coached in the college ranks since 2004 until last season. He had a good re-entry into the coaching ranks, but we need to see it sustained. It's not like he had a John Wooden-like resume before getting back into the swing of things.
Brad Stevens, Butler -- The 32-year-old Stevens learned the Butler ropes under both Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter. Since grabbing the head job, he's gone 56-10 in two seasons -- qualifying for the NCAA tournament both times. The Bulldogs should be even better this season than they were in 2008-2009, too.
It's tough to really hammer out a list with specific criteria and stick with it. For example, you could argue Roy Williams isn't as good a coach as Self because he couldn't win in Kansas while Self could. Then you could follow that up with Weber going to the Final Four at the helm for Illinois when Self couldn't get past the Sweet 16 round for the Illini. Weber, though, went 16-19 in 2007-2008 and Huggins hasn't had a losing record since 1985. All in all, there will always be reasons to say one coach is better than another.
This was simply meant to be a summer topic for arguing about college hoops while we wait out the offseason. You should also be able to find my early early early Final Four picks for 2010, though that's a different topic for a different day.