Normally, I couldn’t care less about any national coach of the year award.
It’s an honor that usually goes to the guy whose team overachieved, and that team is usually fairly easy to identify.
Last season San Diego State’s Steve Fischer took home the Naismith version of the award. To approach it like a TV producer pitching a show to a major executive, the Aztecs were the “little guy that competed with the big guy and were led by another guy who found happiness coaching the little guy after a scandal marred his years coaching the big guy.”
The knock on all this, however, is that the Aztecs were sort of supposed to be good last season.
This season they weren’t, but somehow find themselves in the top 25 once again. If anything, 2011-2012 is Fischer’s best coaching campaign, but too many stronger candidates push him down the list of nominations.
Not only are there an inordinately high number of valid candidates, together they provide us with a variety of reasons why they should be part of the discussion The winner will likely be the coach whose story prevailed as the most interesting among voters.
So who are they?
To start, we must look at the work being done by Missouri’s Frank Haith.
Remember back in April when his hiring was lambasted by Tiger fans and alumni?
“This would be like if someone hired Quin Synder away from us,” the quasi-famous quote goes.
Today, Haith leads the nation’s most exciting team; enjoying a level of success that is exceeding expectations and erasing the name “Mike Anderson” from the minds of Tiger fans. For voters, he can play the angle that things were so bad at Miami that even the greatest of coaching minds couldn’t propel that program to the top.
Haith deserves some votes. He could get my vote if I had one, but maybe all this newfound success is really nothing more than being placed in a good situation. Remember, Haith didn’t recruit Ricardo Ratliffe, or the team’s prolific backcourt. He isn’t responsible for his team’s cohesion, either. He really may have only implemented a system that suits the personnel better than what his predecessor had in place.
That in itself is laudable, yes, but just how responsible is he for the 2011-2012 Missouri Tigers?
Is it enough to warrant hardware?
Moving north, we have to consider a pair of Big East coaches.
First, you have Mike Brey.
Unquestionably, the reigning AP Coach of the Year has spearheaded one of the most impressive efforts to get to the top third in the standings of a major college basketball conference in recent memory.
This fall, Brey had to crowdsurf just to get fans into the Joyce Center. Then he lost his star guard Tim Abromaitis and was left with a bevy of role players and not a lot of scoring. So Brey decided to slow the game down, and was able to position his players on the court where they could still score.
Now, the Irish are a tournament lock, boasting wins against Syracuse, Marquette and Louisville even though the roster is made up of players who may not even be talented enough to play overseas upon graduation.
Where the argument for Brey breaks down is based on what lies ahead. Most COY recipients (Brey, ironically being the most recent exception to the rule) play at least into the second weekend of the tournament.
The Irish may not get that far, thus making it unlikely for Brey to repeat as AP Coach of the year.
Jim Boeheim, however, will coach deep in to the tournament, and marching to a 20-0 start on the heels of the firing of a long-time assistant coach is an excellent anecdote for his application.
Whether or not the Bernie Fine sexual abuse allegations really served as a distraction is undetermined, but Boeheim’s body of work goes far beyond overcoming that scandal.
The real argument for Boeheim, which has turned into a joke, is that the Orange don’t have one go-to guy. Regardless about how you project their tournament hopes based on this trait, it should speak to the teamwork and selflessness this team possesses. Guys like Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters could be all-league if there was less talent around them, and this culture was fostered entirely by the game’s third all-time winningest coach.
Boeheim is in a great position to win either of the national coach of the year awards because he took a good pre-season team and made them great, and the award should be his if the Orange finish the regular season with only one conference loss.
Deviating from name brand coaches, no coach of the year discussion would be complete without a nod to the unknown coach that’s exceeding expectations at a mid-major school. So where does Murray State’s Steve Prohm fit?
Undefeated until last week, Prom’s Racers fell from everybody’s favorite team that was sure to get underseeded by the committee to being flung onto the bubble by skeptics.
After 13 years as a Division I assistant, including five at Murray State, Prohm is in position to pull a Keno Davis by taking a true mid-major to the Sweet 16, earn COY honors, then bolt for a BCS program with a bigger budget.
Who knows what the fate of the Racers will be this season. Despite maintaining an unblemished record through early February, it was clear this team wasn’t playing that well leading up to their first loss.
They could lose another Ohio Valley game, or to Saint Mary’s on Saturday, or even during Championship Week. Whatever the case, Prohm’s situation places him squarely on the bubble for this award and one more loss eliminates him from contention.
So all this, and we’re left with the most polarizing character in all of college basketball: John Calipari.
Part of me thinks that Cal is currently trending up as the choice around the country, but that might just be because Big Blue Nation is the loudest fan base in the nation.
But Kentucky is a Christian Watford buzzer-beating three-pointer shy of playing for an undefeated regular season late into Feburary, and that’s historic.
Contrary to what the haters say, Calipari’s methodology of selling elite high school players on his one-and-done program, and working them for six months before sending them to the NBA is not easy. Each fall Cal is tasked with melding egos and accelerating the maturation of teenagers. He has to quickly learn what motivational tactics will work and which will mentally fatigue a player. What drives DeMarcus Cousins may not resonate with Marquis Teague, and Calipari doesn’t have a lot of time to figure that out.
Over the past two seasons, the learning curve has become less steep, and Calipari seems to be getting the hang of optimizing his program. He’s become more methodical, and a better coach this season based on what he went through in years one and two at Kentucky.
If you can appreciate that body of work, and if Kentucky remains a National Championship favorite entering mid-March, he may leapfrog all the aforementioned coaches for the award.
So who is the coach of the year? Well, that all depends on how you interpret the distinction.