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Which college basketball coach was the best of the last decade?
Glad you asked!
The 2010s are coming to an end, which should make you feel incredibly old.
We’ve now gone a full decade with John Calipari in charge of the Kentucky Wildcats. We’re more than a decade removed from the existence of Psycho T on a college basketball campus. In the last ten years, we’ve seen Kentucky and Duke win titles by playing as young as possible, Virginia win by playing as slow as possible, Villanova win by shooting as many threes as possible and UConn win a pair of titles by hoping a star point guard can carry them through a six-game tournament.
We’ve experienced Jimmermania. We survived Zion Williamson’s Shoegate. We watch Louisville win a national title and then had the NCAA erase it from our collective memory because an assistant coach like to turn dorm rooms into the Champagne Room.
It’s been a wild ride.
And over the course of the next two weeks, we will be taking a look back at some of the best parts of the decade.
Today, we are looking at the best coaches of the last ten years.
12b. CHRIS BEARD, Texas Tech
12a. BRAD STEVENS, Butler
I’m torn on whether or not Chris Beard and Brad Stevens deserve spots on this list.
On the one hand, they have combined to coach eight years as head coaches in the college ranks in this decade, and I am not sure that is enough to get them put on a list that includes a guy that has won nine regular season titles this decade.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that anyone has put together more impressive coaching performances than what these two were able to accomplish while they were on a college campus.
Let’s start with Stevens, because there’s no nuance involved here. In 2010, Stevens led the Butler Bulldogs, the pride of the Horizon League, to the national title game and got Gordon Hayward picked in the top 10 of the 2010 NBA Draft. The following season, without a lottery pick that declared after his junior season, Stevens … got Butler back to the national title game!
That’s unheard of.
Beard’s accomplishment is not quite as impressive, but it is up there. In his second season at Texas Tech, he had the best team in the conference (I’ll go to my grave saying they would have won the Big 12 that year if Keenan Evans doesn’t break his toe) and got the Red Raiders to their first ever Elite Eight. The following season, after losing six of his top nine players, including a one-and-done freshman no one thought was a one-and-done, he not only ended the Kansas’ 14-year reign atop the conference, but he led Texas Tech to their second Elite Eight, their first Final Four and to within one De’Andre Hunter three of a national title.
All this came after he spent one season at Little Rock winning 30 games, something that program has never done before and hasn’t come close to doing since.
I think there is a legitimate case to make that these two men are responsible for half of the ten best coaching seasons this decade. Is that enough to get onto a Best of the Decade list?
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11. BILLY DONOVAN, Florida
Donovan only coached in the collegiate ranks for six seasons this decade, and while the last one was not exactly anything to write home about – it’s tough to replace your top three players when you’re trying to do it with Kasey Hill and Chris Walker – his work before that was among the best of the decade. The Gators won three SEC regular season titles between 2011 and 2014, made it to the Elite Eight four straight years and reached the 2014 Final Four.
There was a legitimate argument to made that, as of 2014, Florida was the best basketball program in the SEC.
That’s pretty good.
10. TOM IZZO, Michigan State
Izzo always finds a way to keep Michigan State rolling.
Michigan State won four Big Ten regular season titles this decade: 2010, 2012, 2018 and 2019. They won four Big Ten tournament titles. They didn’t miss a single NCAA tournament, getting to six Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights and three Final Fours – 2010, 2015 and 2019.
The level of consistency really is remarkable.
9. SEAN MILLER, Arizona
When Arizona hired Sean Miller, they were in a similar position to what UConn is in today. Lute Olsen had, over the course of three decades, taken Arizona from being just another high-major school to being one of the best programs in college basketball. The changeover did not go all that smoothly, and – like UConn is dealing with right now – there was some question about whether it was possible to win at that program without the architect running things.
Turns out, it is.
Miller has brought the Wildcats back to the peak of their powers. He’s won five Pac-12 regular season titles this decade to go along with three Pac-12 tournament titles. He’s been to the tournament eight times and to the Elite Eight three times. Miller has yet to breakthrough to the Final Four – he probably still has nightmares about Frank Kaminsky, and Brandon Ashley breaking his foot didn’t help – but it’s only a matter of time before it happens.
8. BILL SELF, Kansas
No coach in the high-major ranks has hung more banners this decade than Self. The Jayhawks won nine Big 12 regular season titles and five Big 12 tournament titles. They reached the Final Four twice and, in 2012, lost to Anthony Davis and the Kentucky Wildcats in the national title game. I’m not sure what else there is to say. If Self breaks through for a national title one of those years, or if he doesn’t have a couple of uber-talented teams that underperform, he’s probably top three on this list.
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7. JOHN BEILEIN, Michigan
Beilein was tasked with being the guy to build Michigan back into a national power, and he did just that. The Wolverines twice made it to the national title game under his tutelage, and perhaps the most impressive part about it is that those runs came with entirely different rosters. He built a monster for the 2013 season, turned the roster over and, by 2018, had another monster on his hands.
He won two regular season titles in one of the toughest leagues in the country. He won two conference tournament titles. He made it to eight NCAA tournaments and got out of the second weekend five times.
And he did it all while developing players that few thought had a chance into pros.
6. MARK FEW, Gonzaga
This decade, Mark Few has led Gonzaga to 16 WCC titles. The 2011-12 season was the only year that they did not win the WCC regular season title. They also managed to take home seven of the ten WCC tournament titles as well. They reached the national title game in 2017. They’ve been to three of the last five Elite Eights and each of the last five Sweet 16s. He’s never missed the NCAA tournament.
But the real testament to just how good of a coach Few is is that he’s able to survive unexpected early entries without missing a beat. Gonzaga knew they were likely going to lose Rui Hachimura after last season. They did not plan on losing Brandon Clarke and Zach Norvell as well, and it hasn’t mattered. The Zags are currently sitting as the No. 2 team in the country. The same thing happened after the 2017 title game. Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins both left earlier than the program planned for, and the 2018 Gonzaga team finished in the top 15 and reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 4 seed.
This is not an easy thing to do. Villanova struggled with it last season. Virginia is struggling with it this season. Few has built Gonzaga into one of the top five programs in all of college basketball, and that, frankly, is incredible.
5. MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, Duke
Along with Jay Wright, Coach K is one of just two men this decade to win a pair of national titles, cutting down the nets in 2010 and in 2015. He won a share of the 2010 ACC regular season title – ironically enough, the only one of the decade – and four ACC tournament titles. He reached three more Elite Eights, two more Sweet 16s and didn’t have a single season where he won fewer than 25 games.
So why is he only at No. 5?
Because, other than the margins being fine in this lofty air, more than anyone else on this list, Coach K had teams that disappointed. Some of them he had no control over. In 2017, he brought in one of the best recruiting classes that we have ever seen in the college ranks, but injuries to Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Grayson Allen combined meant that the Blue Devils spent the entire season stuck in first gear. They entered the season with some 40-0 hype and ended the season with nine losses and a second round NCAA tournament exit. That wasn’t Duke’s only first weekend exit, either: They were bounced in the first round in 2012 and 2014 and a No. 2 and 3 seed, respectively.
Coach K finding a way to get his 2015 team to defend at an elite level in March, winning a title in the best season of college basketball we’ve seen this decade, is one of his all-time great accomplishments. How do you weigh that against a handful of underwhelming seasons and a nine-year run without a regular season championship?
4. ROY WILLIAMS, North Carolina
Williams is one of just five coaches still in the business that won titles this decade. His title, obviously, came one year after the Tar Heels lost at the buzzer in the national championship game. He won more ACC regular season titles (five) than anyone else this decade, the 2016 ACC tournament title and reached the Elite Eight four times.
All of that is enough to put him in the mix for the best coach of the decade.
The reason I have him above Coach K is that he had to do all of this while dealing with a scandal that hung over the program. Yes, it was self-inflicted – I’m sure it was just a coincidence so many basketball players ended up in those easy classes – but that doesn’t really change the fact that Williams was able to keep this program running at the level UNC fans have come to expect.
The chickens are coming home to roost this season, however. Part of the reason the Tar Heels are what they are right now is because they hadn’t been able to build up the depth of talent they needed to survive losing their top five players to the professional ranks this offseason.
It is what it is, though.
I think most UNC fans would take that.
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3. JOHN CALIPARI, Kentucky
If we would have put this list together halfway through the decade, as 2014 turned into 2015, then John Calipari would have likely been a shoe-in for the No. 1 spot. He won a title in 2012. He was the national runner-up in 2014. He reached the Final Four in 2011 with a team that did not have Final Four talent. He was one 4-for-32 shooting performance from getting to the Final Four in 2010. The only down year that he had came in 2013, when Kentucky’s best player went down in February with a torn ACL. On that day, the Wildcats were the No. 22 team in KenPom’s rankings. Throw in the fact that he was in the midst of a season where he was fielding arguably the best team of the decade, and the choice was easy.
Things have slowed down a little bit in the tournament department, but Cal and Kentucky still won the SEC regular season and tournament titles in 2015, 2016 and 2017. They were just OK in 2018, and it took the Wildcats a couple months to figure it out in 2019, but overall, Calipari has had a stunning amount of success while coaching Kentucky, even if his dominance has waned in recent seasons.
And part of the reason for that is that everyone started copying him.
Cal was the first coach to truly embrace the one-and-done era. He was the first guy to turn his program into a six-month rest-stop for a superteam of star freshmen. He is the reason that the term “package deal” became so popular in the middle of the decade. He’s the reason we talk about recruits clustering. His 2012 national title played a major role in programs like Duke, and Kansas, and Arizona, and even the likes of, say, Washington and Missouri have started building around freshmen.
He changed the game.
2. TONY BENNETT, Virginia
This nugget is incredible, but it is also very, very true: As of this very moment in time, the best program in the ACC is not Duke, or North Carolina, or Louisville, or Syracuse.
It is Virginia.
The same Virginia that had won just a single ACC title since 1995 and that had not reached a Final Four since 1984 when Tony Bennett was hired prior to the 2009-10 season.
And while it took him a good three seasons to really get that thing going in Charlottesville, it’s absolutely rolling right now. The Wahoos have won four of the last six ACC regular season titles. They’ve won two ACC tournament titles in that span. They’re been to the NCAA tournament six straight seasons and seven of the last eight years. When Bennett was hired, they had won just a single NCAA tournament game since 1995.
They won the national title in 2019, which officially negates the one black-mark on Bennett’s program: Struggles in March.
I’m not sure if Bennett has accomplished as much as either of the other two ACC coaches on this list, but I do know this: Winning at this level at Virginia is a much, much more difficult thing to do than winning at this level in Durham or Chapel Hill.
1. JAY WRIGHT, Villanova
In the modern era of college basketball – which means not counting UCLA in the 1970s – has anyone ever had a more dominant five-year run than Jay Wright did from 2014 through 2018?
He won two national titles. He won three Big East tournament titles. He won four Big East regular season titles; ironically, the only time he didn’t win the regular season title during that stretch was the 2017-18 season, when he had the best team in college basketball this decade. During those five seasons, Villanova went 165-21 overall with a 77-13 record against Big East foes. Oddly enough, the only years where Wright was able to get out of the first weekend of the tournament were the years where his team won it all.
What makes that run all the more impressive is that just two years before it started, the Wildcats were 13-19. They were a complete mess. As I detailed here, Jay Wright had abandoned what he did best in an effort to built talent on his roster as quickly as possible, and it cost him.
The biggest question I have is this: If Omari Spellman and Phil Booth play in 2016-17, and if Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo return for the 2018-19 season, would we be looking at the Wildcats winning four titles in a row?