March has arrived in style. College hoops were so fun this week, they actually defied the laws of physics! Only hours into the best month of the year, BYU upset Gonzaga in a close, up-tempo thriller. Georgia took Kentucky to the wire before the Wildcats displayed absolute dominance in the final few minutes, and Iowa State and Kansas treated us to dueling amazing comebacks in Big 12 play. On top of all this, conference tournaments tipped off Tuesday night.
With the sun setting on the regular season, it’s time to debate awards and honors before filling out brackets. This week, we begin with Coach of the Year.
Coach of the Year consistently produces the most befuddling of all year-end award outcomes. We automatically dismiss all-time great, Hall of Fame-caliber coaches seemingly because Jim Boeheim or Rick Pitino winning every year would bore us. Since Mike Krzyzewski’s last AP Coach of the Year Award, Larry Eustachy, Matt Doherty, Keno Davis, and Frank Haith have all taken home the trophy. When did Krzyzewski last win the AP Coach of the Year Award, you ask? Never. The award should and probably will be named after him the day he retires, and he’ll never let him win it because OF COURSE he’s the best coach, he doesn’t need an award to prove it.
The narrative drives the outcome of Coach of the Year. AP voters and mainstream college basketball writers seem to rely exclusively on subjective team stories and personal impressions to determine their Coach of the Year votes. Dayton’s Archie Miller will get votes because his tallest players went down with injuries early on, but the Flyers had a great season. Butler’s Chris Holtmann will get votes because former coach Brandon Miller stepped down due to illness on October 2, but the Bulldogs exceeded expectations under Holtmann’s leadership. Both were tremendous leaders given the circumstances, but I don’t think you can point to either and say he was the best coach in basketball this season.
Admittedly, evaluating coach performance in men’s college basketball is difficult. Important elements of coaching – practice, recruiting, alumni relations – all happen behind closed doors. We mostly guess who the best coach is based on record, plays following time-outs, and end-of-game scenarios. Somehow, with incredibly limited knowledge and no formal assessment or metrics, we decide that Baylor’s Scott Drew coaches like a drunk hobo but Villanova’s Jay Wright understands the game on a higher level than other very good Division I helmsmen. The brilliant Luke Winn gives us hope in his analysis of Arizona’s Sean Miller that there are better guideposts than “He did the most with the least talent.”
Based on what we’ve seen this season, I would cast my ballot for John Calipari. The 2015 Kentucky Wildcats are Coach Cal’s best defensive team by a mile and second best offensive team by tempo-adjusted efficiency ratings. He assembled an amazing group of players, managed their personalities, game- planned to perfection, and never let them slip or get bored, even through the dog days of conference play. I’ve written extensively about just how good this Kentucky team is, and it truly deserves recognition. Like Coach K, Coach Cal has never taken Coach of the Year honors, likely having more to do with personal vendettas than on-the-court performance. It will be tough to deny an undefeated regular season should the Wildcats beat Florida at home this Saturday, and the award will be better for it.
Other viable candidates do exist. Virginia’s Tony Bennett runs a stunning pack-line defensive scheme and finally has the offensive fire-power to fuel a Final Four run. Arizona’s Sean Miller (brother of Archie) also deploys the pack-line, and he’s quickened the pace of his offense from last season to maximize the potential of his experienced backcourt. I would even accept an argument for Larry Krystkowiak for the job he’s done building Utah into a Pac-12 powerhouse. But the obvious choice this year, as often happens in other years, is also the correct one. Hopefully AP voters recognize it.