Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the national coach of the year race is as wide open as the national title picture is.
Here’s a look at my top five selections headlined by a coach who inherited a dismal situation and has exceeded all reasonable expectations.
1. CHRIS HOLTMANN, OHIO STATE
When Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith abruptly fired Thad Matta last June, he saw no point in waiting any longer. He had lost faith that the Buckeyes had any chance of saving Matta’s job by taking a step forward this season. Not only had Ohio State failed to reach the NCAA tournament in back-to-back years under Matta, the Buckeyes were in the midst of a dreadful spring. Three more players unexpectedly left the team or turned pro, Matta swung and missed in his pursuit of several graduate transfers and high-priority prospects and Ohio State’s top 2018 recruit rescinded his commitment to the Buckeyes. Into that dismal situation stepped Holtmann, and all he has done is win right away. Ohio State (24-7, 15-3) finished tied for second in the Big Ten and has an excellent chance to secure a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. Keita Bates-Diop’s emergence as Big Ten player of the year has spearheaded Ohio State’s rise. The Buckeyes share the ball unselfishly, shoot a high percentage inside the arc and defend voraciously.
2. TONY BENNETT, VIRGINIA
Here’s a rule we should all follow for as long as Bennett coaches Virginia: No matter how many players the Cavaliers lose, they should always remain a mainstay in every preseason Top 25. Virginia began this season unranked after graduating star point guard London Perrantes and losing three other role players to transfers, and boy have the Cavaliers made that look stupid. They’re 27-2 overall, at least four games ahead of every other team in the ACC standings and on track to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament with ease. The key to Virginia’s ascent has been Bennett’s ability to construct a formidable defense no matter the personnel he has. The Cavaliers wall off the paint, hedge and recover to disrupt ball screens, double on the catch in the post and force opponents into a steady diet of contested jump shots. Whether Bennett can reach his first Final Four this season will likely depend on if Virginia can score efficiently enough in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers generate hardly any points at the foul line, in transition or on the offensive glass, yet Bennett has still managed to cobble together a top 40 offense led by emerging freshman forward De’Andre Hunter and guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.
3. CHRIS MACK, XAVIER
Mack has Xavier in strong position to check a few boxes that the program has never achieved before. Not only will the Musketeers capture their first outright Big East title if they win at DePaul on Saturday, they also are in contention for their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and of course their first appearance in the Final Four. Mack’s ability to coax the best out of a veteran roster has fueled Xavier’s ascent. Trevon Bluiett has increased his shooting efficiency as a senior, J.P. Macura is playing better defense and making smarter decisions with the ball and Quentin Goodin has built on his experience from late last season and developed into the point guard Xavier needed. Additionally, Kerem Kanter and Sean O’Mara score efficiently in the paint and Naji Marshall has shown flashes of immense potential off the bench. Xavier (26-4, 14-3) has also been exceptional in close games this season. The Musketeers are 8-0 in games decided by five or fewer points.
4. BILL SELF, KANSAS
Self delivered one of his most impressive coaching jobs to aid Kansas’ bid for a record-breaking 14th consecutive Big 12 title. Kansas (24-6, 13-4) is at least two games clear of every other Big 12 team entering the final weekend of the regular season even though the league has never been deeper and the Jayhawks have never been more vulnerable. At least 80 percent of the Big 12 enters the weekend with aspirations of playing in the NCAA tournament. Only Iowa State (99) and Oklahoma State (61) are not among the KenPom top 50. Kansas has survived that gauntlet despite a lack of frontcourt depth and no obvious first-round NBA talent. Self has scrapped his traditional high-low offense, played with four guards and relied on senior point guard Devonte Graham to fuel the offense. The Jayhawks don’t get to the foul line often and they give up too many second-chance opportunities, yet they’re still in strong position to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for a third straight season.
5. RICK BARNES, TENNESSEE
In a league teeming with first-round picks and top 100 prospects this season, the best team may be the one that has none of those luxuries. A Tennessee team picked to finish second-to-last in the SEC before the season is tied atop the league despite a roster that lacks the size or pedigree of some of the Vols’ biggest rivals. Barnes has guided Tennessee to 22-7 record because of a formidable defense that isn’t tall or long enough to prevent second-chance opportunities but excels at nearly everything else. The Vols’ methodical offense is powered by Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, a pair of tough, underappreciated forwards who excel scoring inside the arc. When Barnes took over at scandal-plagued Tennessee, he was the Vols’ fourth coach in five years. He so far hasn’t recruited the caliber of prospects that Bruce Pearl once did, but he has stabilized the program and gotten the Vols back to their winning ways.
Others worthy of consideration: Chris Beard (Texas Tech), Bruce Pearl (Auburn), Dan Hurley (Rhode Island), Brad Brownell (Clemson), Matt Painter (Purdue), Donte’ Jackson (Grambling State)
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