Last April, after a decade of proving himself as one of the very best coaches in all of college basketball, Tony Bennett shook the monkey off of his back for good as he led Virginia to the greatest redemption story in the history of sports.
The Cavaliers, if you have somehow forgotten, went from being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in 2018 to the national champs in 2019.
We may never see anything like that ever again.
But there are a handful of coaches that could follow in Bennett’s footsteps by joining the list of people that can put “Won A National Title” as a line item on their resume.
These are the eight coaches that are the most likely to do that in the next five years, with an added bonus of the threes most difficult names to leave off the list.
1. MARK FEW, Gonzaga: This is obvious. Gonzaga is a top ten program nationally, they are just two years removed from a run to the national title game, they are churning out lottery picks at a rate we’ve never seen from a mid-major and their ability to A) tap into the transfer market, and B) identify and bring in overseas talent will ensure that their floor is as a top 25 team every year. Few is going to breakthrough eventually.
THE SECOND TIER
2. CHRIS MACK, Louisville: For my money, Mack is the best coach in college basketball to never reach a Final Four, and if the way his first season at Louisville played out is any indication, he’s going to lose that title pretty soon. Not only is he coming off of a 20 win season and NCAA tournament trip that few expected, he brought back his best player, brought in a loaded six-man recruiting class and has his program sitting pretty as a preseason top seven team.
Now, the major question mark here is the NCAA. What kind of punishment is the program going to face as a result of the recruitment of Brian Bowen? On the one hand, Louisville is not far removed from the fallout from the escort scandal, where they had Final Four and National Title banners taken down as a result of strippers and hookers that were provided to players and recruits by a member of the coaching staff. On the other hand, everyone involved is both of those incidents is long gone – from the AD to the head coach to the players and members of the coaching staff. Is the NCAA going to come down hard on an entirely new regime that, as far as we know, has never been on the wrong side of NCAA rules? Who knows, but that’s the reason why I have Mack a notch below few.
3. CHRIS BEARD, Texas Tech: Beard is a tough one here, because he is the only guy on this list that could end up working somewhere else within the five-year window. Obviously, if he stays at Texas Tech he seems like he would be a decent bet to breakthrough. The Red Raiders, when healthy, were the best team in the Big 12 two years ago, and this past season they ended Kansas’ reign atop the conference before making a run to the national title game. As of today, they are a consensus preseason top ten team. Beard’s ability to rebuild from scratch on a year-by-year basis means that the Red Raiders will likely always be in the mix, and it makes me confident that, wherever he ends up if he does leave Lubbock, his team will have a shot at being very good, very quickly.
4. MATT PAINTER, Purdue: I have the utmost respect for Painter’s coaching ability. In the last four years, he’s managed to play three very distinct ways. It started with all 6-foot-9, 250 pounds of Caleb Swanigan playing the four alongside A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. When Swanigan left, his team got better by putting four shooters on the floor around Haas. When four of the five starters on that team left, he totally rebuilt his offense by allowing Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline to run off as many pindowns and DHOs as they could handle.
Should I mention that, in three of those four seasons, Purdue finished as a top ten team on KenPom, and the fourth season they finished 19th? Painter is a monster.
THE NEXT BEST
5. MIKE WHITE, Florida: White, at 42 years old, is the youngest coach on this list by a significant margin, and while he has yet to truly live up to the legacy that Billy Donovan left in Gainesville, he’s been to the last three NCAA tournaments, he’s won at least a game in all three – including a run to the 2017 Elite Eight – and he has a preseason top ten team returning this year. I think this is just the start for White, who is arguably the best coach in college hoops under the age of 45.
6. CHRIS HOLTMANN, Ohio State: Holtmann has been a head coach for five seasons since he took over for Brandon Miller in 2013-14, and he’s won at least 20 games in all five seasons, he’s won at least one NCAA tournament game in all five seasons and, I think it’s fair to say, in each one of those five seasons he outperformed expectations. He’s only heading into his third year at Ohio State, which means that the arrow is going to continue to point up.
7. BRUCE PEARL, Auburn: Pearl is another coach that is currently sitting squarely in the NCAA crosshairs, and while he, personally, is only tangentially connected to the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, Pearl has plenty to worry about. He’s already served a show-cause for lying to NCAA investigators, he was nearly fired 18 months ago because of his refusal to speak to Auburn’s investigators and he will undoubtedly get dinged by the NCAA with failure to monitor and/or head coach responsibility charges because of Chuck Person’s actions while on staff.
That said, Pearl has found a perfect fit for himself at Auburn. He’s coming off of a Final Four run, he’s sending players – hi, Chuma Okeke – to the NBA and he’s been able to recruit their replacements – hi, Isaac Okoro – to maintain the stability of his program thanks in part to his uptempo style. Throw in the fact that he’s turned Auburn Arena into one of the tougher places in the SEC to play, and I think he’s going to continue to succeed.
8. PENNY HARDAWAY, Memphis: To be completely honest, I am not quite sure where to put Penny on this list. The fact of the matter is that he has spent one year as a head coach at the college level. We don’t really know what to make of him as a head coach, and given the fact that this Memphis team is being wildly overranked heading into the season, there seems to be a good chance that the narrative on Penny could end up being that he’s a recruiter, not a coach, come the end of the season.
When that happens, remember this warning. And also remember that Penny landed two top ten recruits and seven top 100 players in his first real recruiting class, including a five-star from New York and a top 30 prospect that decommitted from Duke. He’s going to continue to land recruiting classes like this, and with the majority of this year’s No. 1 ranked class being two or three years players, I think everyone is a year early on the Memphis bandwagon.
We’ll see if all of that leads to a chance at winning a national title.
THE THREE TOUGHEST NAMES TO LEAVE OFF
SEAN MILLER, Arizona: “Most likely.” We’re talking about probabilities here, right? That cannot be done without factoring in the chance that A) Sean Miller gets fired, B) Sean Miller gets a show-cause and C) the Arizona program receives some kind of significant punishment for their involvement in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. In a vacuum, it’s hard to ignore the success, both on the court and on the recruiting trail, that Miller has had, but it is also impossible to ignore what they could be facing in the very near future.
MIKE HOPKINS, Washington: I get why the college basketball community is bullish on Hop. He won 21 games in his first season with Washington, he won 27 games and the Pac-12 regular season title last season and he just landed a pair of top ten prospects in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels. But before I go all-in on him, I want to see how well he does coaching one-and-done talent and what happens when the rest of the Pac-12 is actually worth talking about.
RICK BARNES, Tennessee: Barnes is the oldest guy on this list by seven years, he is coming off of two years where he had the Vols as close to program’s ceiling as you can get and, with Grant Williams, Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield gone, they are entering something of a rebuilding stretch. I think that he has found a place where he can have sustained success, but he doesn’t crack the top eight on my list. .