The Pi-Rate Ratings

January 17, 2020

20 Basketball Coaches Ready For Prime Time–2020 Edition

Last year, we listed 20 basketball coaches that were either assistants at top power conference programs or head coaches at mid-major programs. We rated them from 20 to 1, isolating on the 20 candidates that received an A grade or better from our captain.

We had certain data that we used to isolate on the 20 candidates. If you want to read that publication from a year ago, follow the link below:

https://piratings.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/20-basketball-coaches-ready-for-prime-time/

From our list of 20, eight of the coaches have new jobs this year, and five have moved from Mid-Major to Power Conference head coaches.

Then Stony Brook head coach Jeff Boals moved up to Ohio U, while former Lipscomb head coach Casey Alexander replaced Rick Byrd at Belmont. While it is a lateral move, it allowed Alexander to return to his alma mater without having to move out of his house, as he lives equidistant from both schools and within walking distance. With the heavy traffic congestion on Belmont Boulevard, his commute on foot might be quicker than trying to get out of his driveway and onto Belmont Boulevard.

Luke Yaklich left Michigan when John Beilein took the Cleveland Cavaliers job. Yaklich was hired at Texas to install the same defense he used to make the Wolverines one of the best teams in the nation.

The other five candidates that moved from mid-major to power conference this year were all part of our top 10 and considered A+ or A++ candidates:
#8 Kyle Smith moved from San Francisco to Washington State.

#6 John Brannen moved from Northern Kentucky to Cincinnati

#4 Fred Hoiberg moved from being fired by the Chicago Bulls to Nebraska

#3 Nate Oats moved from Buffalo to Alabama

#1 Eric Musselman moved from Nevada to Arkansas.

We called Musselman not just the best Mid-Major coach last year, we tabbed him the best coach in all of college basketball. We went so far as to call him the best head coach in college basketball since Dean Smith retired over 20 years ago. Why were we so high on Muss? It was simple. Looking at the analytical data, it was clear that Musselmen was able to turn his players into more efficient collegians. With a large sample size of players that played for another college head coach and for Musselman, something like 95% of the players had higher efficiency rates playing for him compared to the other coaches.

Musselman has continued to excel in this data in his first year at Arkansas, where he inherited a team that lost its one star and has made the Razorbacks a top 25 team and near lock to make the NCAA Tournament, after the Razorbacks were picked to finish 11th in the SEC preseason poll. Musselman could be in line for SEC Coach of the Year, and if Arkansas continues to play at this level, Muss could be a contender for National Coach of the Year. Arkansas has an incredible recruiting class and the addition of a game-changing transfer next year, so the Razorbacks might be a top 10 team and Final Four contender in 2021.

This year, we remove the eight candidates that took new jobs last year, which opens up eight new spots for this season. Additionally, we have removed one candidate from last year’s list, as he was surpassed by other candidates. Once again, we will show you our 20 top candidates that rate as an A, A+, or A++ on our grading scale. If your favorite didn’t show up, it doesn’t mean we dislike him as a potential star at a power conference school. We considered 47 candidates, and 16 of the candidates not selected graded out at A-.

What are the criteria we used this year? It’s slightly different from last year, as we allowed a couple of older candidates to make the list this year. Here’s the criteria we used.

1. The candidate must have a proven record as a successful recruiter. A success in the lowest conferences is quite different from succeeding at Kentucky or Kansas. We compare the candidates’ recruiting success against their peers in the same conferences. The coach at Mid-Major U might have a couple of 2-stars, and a transfer that was the 7th man at a losing power conference school. It might rate around #140 overall, but it might rate #1 in the conference in question. This counts as a major plus and is considerably better than being the #45 overall recruiting class but only 7th best in the conference in question.

Recruiting is the number one talent a successful college coach must possess. There are teams that are so talented that any decision made by the head coach and assistants is going to be successful as an inevitable result. There are teams with Einsteinian teaching ability and the ability to diagnose game action like Gary Kasparov diagnoses a chess board. If these genius coaches have sub-standard talent, they can make the greatest coaching decisions of all time and still lose 20 games. If you take the top 12 recruits and make them play without a coach against a team with the top 5 coaches but a roster full of 2-star players, the 5-star coachless team will beat the two stars 99 times out of 100.

2. The candidate should have a reputation for being able to put his talent together and maximize overall team efficiency. While talent is the most important key, there are a high percentage of games played where the difference in talent between the combatants is negligible. When this happens, game preparation and in-game adjustments are necessary, as well as a little luck, but luck tends to consistently aid the teams that are better prepared.

3. The coach has a track record of taking teams and making them better over successive seasons. When we see a coach come to a school that has lost 100 games the previous five years, and then he increases the wins from 7 to 10 to 14 to 19 to 23 in his first four years, or when we see a coach take over a program that was on the cusp of the Big Dance with records like 18-14 and 19-13, and then said coach proceeds to win multiple conference championships and multiple NCAA appearances, this can usually be sustained at the power conference level.

Throughout the course of college basketball history, the legendary coaches were either assistants at top programs or head coaches with successful track records at mid-major schools (or small schools in the distant past). For example, these all-time greats began at smaller schools and moved on to bigger schools.

John Wooden came from Indiana State to UCLA.
Bob Knight came from Army to Indiana
Mike Krzyzewski came from Army to Duke
Jim Calhoun came from Northeastern to Connecticut
Rick Pitino came from Boston U to Providence (with a brief sojourn with the Knicks)
Bob Huggins came from Akron to Cincinnati
Eddie Sutton came from Creighton to Arkansas
Lefty Driesell came from Davidson to Maryland
Lute Olsen came from Long Beach State to Iowa

This list could extend into over 100 great coaches.

The other entry to greatness in the major college coaching world has been top assistants with other great programs, such as:

Dean Smith off the Kansas and Air Force staffs to North Carolina
Jim Boeheim off the Syracuse staff to become Syracuse coach
Roy Williams off the North Carolina staff to Kansas
Denny Crum off the UCLA staff to Louisville
Tom Izzo off the Michigan State staff to become Michigan State coach

With this in mind, our top 20 list for 2020 includes nine coaches that earned A’s, seven that earned A+’s, and four that earned A++’s. And without further adieu, here is the list.

 

20. Brian Wardle–Bradley University
Age: 40

A Tom Crean disciple, Wardle took over the Green Bay program and improved the Phoenix in wins from 14 to 15 to 18 to 24 to 24 in his five years as head coach. At Bradley, he’s replicated the improvement going from 5 to 13 to 20 to 20 wins, including a big MVC Tournament championship last year, where the Braves led Michigan State in the second half of their NCAA Tournament game. Bradley is off to a 4-1/13-5 season this year with a strong defense and even stronger rebounding rate.

Score: 90.2

19. Mark Pope–Brigham Young University
Age: 47

Pope has an incredible coaching pedigree, with connections to two of the all-time great coaching trees from the Bluegrass State. Pope played for Lynn Nance at Washington before moving on to play for Rick Pitino at Kentucky. Nance comes from the Adolph Rupp coaching tree through Joe B. Hall.

The Pitino coaching tree has been quite successful, and Pope learned well from his college coaches. At Utah Valley, he made the program the second best in the WAC and took UVU to three consecutive CBI Tournaments, winning 48 games in his final two years there.

In his first year at BYU, Pope has the Cougars in line for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid with a 2-1/13-5 record that includes wins over Virginia Tech, UCLA, Houston, and Utah State with losses to Kansas, Utah, and Saint Mary’s. BYU faces Gonzaga tomorrow, and an upset on the road would solidify Pope’s chances to take BYU to the Big Dance this year.

Whether he would bolt Provo after just one season is debatable, but whether he can lead a Power 5 team to riches is not.

Score: 90.4

18. Jon Scheyer–Duke University Assistant
Age: 32

Not much has changed from our 2019 comments on Scheyer. He is one of two assistant coaches to make this list, because he is one of the top three assistants in college basketball. Scheyer combines top-flight recruiting ability along with the Duke system. He has more years in the Duke system than just about anybody other than Coach K himself, and he is ready to take over a program. He’s just 32, and more than likely, he will have to begin a few rungs down from the big-time. A short sojourn in the Colonial Athletic Association, Southern Conference, or Big South might be all he needs to end up at a big-time program, maybe even Duke when Coach K decides to do something else or nothing else. He still rates an A Grade on this list.

Score: 90.9

 

 

17. Anthony Grant–Dayton University
Age: 53

Some of you reading this may believe Grant doesn’t belong on this list, after he failed to turn Alabama into a major power. Grant won three conference championships in three years at Virginia Commonwealth after serving on Billy Donovan’s Florida coaching staffs when the Gators won back-to-back national titles. He was hired at Alabama to turn around a program that had languished in mediocrity under Mark Gottfried. In the prior three seasons under Gottfried, Alabama won less than 40% of their conference games.

Grant took over the job, and he won an SEC Western Division title and took Alabama to an NCAA Tournament bid. He won 53% of his SEC games, quite an improvement over Gottfried, but it wasn’t enough to keep his job at ‘Bama.
Since he left, Alabama has won just 47.4% of their SEC games.

To date, Grant’s Dayton team is 4-0 in the A-10 this year after going 13-5 last year. DU has a +20 Scoring margin in conference play this year, and their two losses came to Kansas in OT and Colorado. Dayton has wins over Virginia Tecj, Saint Mary’s, and Georgia.

Score: 91.3

16. Bob Richey–Furman University
Age: 36

Richey is a branch off two major coaching trees. On one side of the trunk, he has ties to Gene Keady through Kevin Stallings through Jeff Jackson. On the other side, he has ties to Dean Smith through Eddie Fogler through Barclay Radebaugh. Just like you can predict to some extent how a thoroughbred horse will perform through its pedigree, basketball coaching through mentorship can tell you a lot about a coach. Furman excels in intelligent offensive patterns with an ability to get to the foul line and make more foul shots than the other team attempts.

Furman is the co-leader in the SoCon today at 5-1 in the league and 15-4 overall. The Paladins have a nice combination of inside players, outside players, and a player or two that can do both. Furman lost in overtime at Auburn. They are talented enough to contend for a Sweet 16 berth this year, and they could even earn an at-large bid if they finish strong but lose in the conference tournament.

Score: 91.5

15. Wes Miller–UNC Greensboro
Age: 36

Miller stays in this list, but his grade has dropped a bit this year. He’s still a strong candidate to move up to a power conference school, but his reputation may have peaked last year. UNCG has come back to the pack a little this year, but we don’t count the Spartans out of a tough Southern Conference race.

Miller played for Roy Williams at North Carolina, and one of his three years as an assistant was under former Tar Heel Scott Cherry.

Miller did not really earn his position as head coach at UNCG. He became the acting head coach when Mike Dement was forced to resign in mid-season. Miller was only going to have the job until the end of the season. When he took over, UNCG was 0-3 in the conference and 2-8 overall. Under Miller, the team was totally different, and as they began to win in conference play, it became apparent that Miller might get the job. Win, Miller did, and when UNCG won seven games in a row, the Spartans went from last place to first place in the Southern Conference’s North Division.
Miller did not turn the program around overnight once he was named full time coach. Three rebuilding years finally led to the first real success in 2016, as UNCG went 10-8 in the league for a fifth place tie. The last three seasons have produced excellent results. The Spartans finished in a first place tie in 2017 with a 14-4 conference mark and then won the league outright last year at 15-3. Additionally, the Spartans won the Socon Tournament last year to advance to their first NCAA Tournament bid in 17 years. A furious second half comeback brought the Spartans within a whisker of upsetting Gonzaga in the Big Dance.

Last year, Miller led UNCG to a 29-7 record and the Championship Game of the SoCon Tourney. The Spartans are 4-2 in the league and 14-5 overall this season with a win over Georgetown and a close loss to Kansas. Miller’s unique pressing defense is still quite potent, as UNCG is number two in the nation in both turnovers forced and steals.

Miller is just 36 years old, and he has time to return to an A++ grade. With North Carolina struggling this year, and Coach Williams hinting that he is doing a terrible job, the time could be ripe for Miller to return to his alma mater and replace his college coach.

Grade: 91.7

 

 

14. Earl Grant–Charleston
Age: 43

Seven years as an assistant to Gregg Marshall at both Winthrop and Wichita State are enough to make Grant a hot commodity. Add a few years under Brad Brownell at Clemson, and it makes Grant’s pedigree excellent. Throw in his recruiting results, and you have a potential superstar in the making before he ever became a head coach.

Now, let’s look at Grant’s results as a head coach. Grant took over a program that had been 14-18 the year before, and his first season was a rough one, as the Cougars had a tough adjustment to an all-out assault man-to-man defense. Charleston finished just 9-24. In year two, the players began to gel in the system, and Charleston improved to 17-14. Their two-point loss in the CAA Tournament Semifinals to eventual champion UNC-Wilmington was a heart-breaker, as they blew a double-digit lead in the second half to the tournament favorite.

In 2017, Charleston gave UNCW a run for their money in both the conference and tournament races. A 25-10 record included a trip to the NIT. In 2018, Charleston broke through with both a conference and tournament championship. In the NCAA Tournament, they took Auburn to the final seconds before Auburn could secure the four-point victory, holding the Tigers to less than 36% shooting.

Last year, Charleston finished 24-9 with wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Memphis. Grant is one of the top recruiters in the nation, and he’s beginning to stockpile quality talent in Charleston. His Cougars are 5-2 in the Colonial Athletic Conference and 11-8 overall this year including a win over Providence. Recruiting ability moves Grant ahead of others on this list.

Grade: 92.0

13. Mike Rhoades–Virginia Commonwealth University
Age: 47

Rhoades has done something rarely done in modern basketball. He won at Rice. Prior to Rhoades, the Owls had won three CUSA games in two seasons with just nine overall wins. Rhoades won 12 games both of his first two years at Rice, and then his final Owls’ team won 23 games. The previous 23- win season was 1954. Since he left Houston, Rice went from 23-12 to 7-24.

Rhoades comes from the Shaka Smart coaching tree, and his teams play a harassing defense, forcing turnovers and bad shots from the field. The Rams are 12-5 overall this year, 2-2 in the Atlantic 10. The Rams were ranked in the top 25 for a couple weeks earlier this year, having beaten LSU. Among the Rams’ five losses this year are to big time teams Purdue, Tennessee, Wichita State, and Dayton.
It is only a matter of time before Rhoades becomes the next VCU coach to move up to a bigger program.

Grade: 92.4

12. Joe Pasternack–UC Santa Barbara
Age: 42

Pasternack proved his worth as an excellent tactician and game-preparation success, when he was the head coach at the University of New Orleans, when the Privateers were de-emphasizing their program following Hurricane Katrina. With players jumping off the ship continually to go to schools that were guaranteed to field a team the following year, Pasternack still produced competitive teams.

Following his tenure in the Crescent City, Pasternack was an assistant to Sean Miller at Arizona, the years in which the Wildcats won three Pac-12 Championships in four years. Before going to UNO, Pasternack was on Ben Braun’s staff at Cal, when the Bears went to multiple NCAA Tournaments.

As head coach at UCSB, Pasternack inherited a team that had finished 6-22 the year before. The change in the squad was incredible. In the previous year, UCSB finished at the bottom of the nation in field goal percentage at less than 38% and in three-point percentage at 29%. Pasternack’s team increased their field goal percentage and three-point percentage by almost 10%, and the Gauchos improved from 6-22 to 23-9.

After a 22-10 season last year, UCSB is 12-5 so far this season, and they are still one of the top two teams in the Big West. UCSB is still winning by playing very efficient offense. If the defense can improve just a little in the next eight weeks, the Gauchos could easily win the lone Big West bid to the Big Dance.

Grade: 92.8

11. Travis DeCuire–The University of Montana
Age: 49

Starting with DeCuire, we move up to A+ coaches. DeCuire made our list last year, and he moves up a little in 2020. The State of Montana is not full of Division 1 basketball prospects. It isn’t easy to entice talented players from outside the Treasure State to spend their college years in a city where the temperature rarely tops the freezing mark in winter with three to four feet of snow.

Yet, DeCuire has been successful getting somewhat overlooked recruits from California to join the handful of in-state recruits to keep the Grizzlies at the top of the Big Sky Conference. DeCuire’s teams are complete packages. In their classification as a low major, Montana excels in every aspect of the game–shooting, defending the shot, rebounding on both ends of the floor, and forcing more turnover than they commit.

This year’s Montana team currently leads the Big Sky at 5-1 in the league. The Grizzlies have an excellent backcourt, and not only is it talented, it is experienced. It would be a major upset if anybody keeps Montana out of the Big Dance. They were 26-9 last year and gave Michigan maybe five or six minutes of trouble in the NCAA Tournament. With more experienced guards, they could be dangerous in the 2nd round this year.

DeCuire has an excellent pedigree. He was an assistant underMike Montgomery at UC-Berkeley, when Cal enjoyed its best run of years since Pete Newell led the Bears to the Title.

Grade: 93.3

10. Russ Turner–UC-Irvine
Age: 49

Turner would have had an A++ grade and possibly be number one overall this year had his mouth not wounded him greatly last March. He made statements about an Oregon player that were determined to be out of bounds by many people. His statements were no worse than other coaches referring to players that have Oedipus relations, but because they incited a powerfully political opposition, Turner became a non-entity in the coaching world. Thus, it could be a few more years before a big name school seriously considers him. Or, it could take some major program that is not used to losing a lot of games to hire him and ignore the overly political objections, mostly from people that would not take money to attend college basketball games.

Turner has a very impressive coaching tree resume. He has assisted Dave Odom, Mike Montgomery, and the legendary Don Nelson (who comes from the Red Auerbach tree). Turner has excellent NBA contacts from his time with the Golden State Warriors, and he has shown in a short time in Irvine that he can organize and run a successful college program, one that can win in the NCAA Tournament, as UCI defeated Kansas State in the second round last year.

UCI had never been to the NCAA Tournament until Turner became head coach. The program had wallowed in mediocrity for eight years. After two seasons of putting the wheels in motion, the Anteaters began winning consistently and have won for eight consecutive years.

Turners’ teams play tough defense and patient but smart offense. Turner gets more out of his talent than an average coach and his in-game adjustments frequently lead to the Anteaters winning toss-up games.

Grade: 93.7

9. Scott Nagy–Wright State University
Age: 53

We almost included Nagy on this list last year, but as 52 years of age, we moved him into the Honorable Mention group that just barely missed the cut.

Nagy built from scratch the program at South Dakota St. taking SDSU from D2 to D1 independent to the premier program in the Summit League. In his fourth year at Wright St., he’s made the program the top in the Horizon League. At 6-1/16-4 this year, the Raiders outscore their conference foes by 10 points per game.

Nagy comes from the Lou Henson coaching tree, which at the current time also boasts SDSU’s coach Brian Dutcher. His teams play tough defense and usually features offenses that patiently set up the team’s best shooters to get open shots.
In a manner similar to last year’s #1 coaching candidate, Nagy is brilliant in finding players in the transfer portal and has the potential to move into elite company next year.

Grade: 93.9

8. Travis Ford–Saint Louis University
Age: 50

This selection might be a bit controversial just like with Anthony Grant, but we believe Ford belongs in the A+ group.

Ford played under two legendary college coaches in Rick Pitino and Norm Stewart. After he failed as a professional player, he got a head coaching job at the age of 28 at Campbellville College going 28-3 and 23-11 in his last two years there.

He went to Eastern Kentucky and slowly built the program up by improving his conference record for four consecutive seasons, getting the Colonels to the Big Dance.

He then advanced to UMass and went 24-9 and 25-11 in his second and third year with an A-10 conference title and followed that up with a long stint at Oklahoma State, taking over for Sean Sutton after Sutton had three consecutive losing seasons in the Big 12.

In Stillwater, Oklahoma State went to 5 NCAA Tournaments in 8 years. Oklahoma State has won 37.9% of their Big 12 games since they fired Ford, and they lost 20 game last year. They are 0-4 in the Big 12 so far this year.

Meanwhile, at SLU, Ford has had the school’s best recruiting success since Eddie Hickey coached the Billikens in the 1950s, and he’s improved the Billikens every season from 12 to 17 to 23 wins with an NCAA Tournament bid last year. SLU is 14-3 this year, with the 3 losses to ranked Seton Hall and Auburn plus 15-2 Duquesne.

Grade: 94.0

7. Matt McMahon–Murray State University
Age: 41

Last year, we joked that we might have had to reconsider McMahon’s resume, because in the past McMahon had spent most of his years as an assistant to Buzz Peterson, who did not have a stellar coaching career.

His years as an assistant to Steve Prohm, who has proven himself to be one of the top 20 head coaches in college basketball, made McMahon’s pedigree excellent.
As a head coach at Murray State, McMahon has proven that he is ready to take over a big time program. When you can recruit a Ja Morant to a small Ohio Valley Conference school, the best player in that league since Fly Williams played at Austin Peay more than 45 years ago.

After winning the OVC regular season and conference tournament championships last year, Murray State knocked off Marquette in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before bowing out against Florida State in the Round of 32.
Without Morant, it was expected that the Racers would fall back in the pack this year in the conference race, but McMahon has guided his team to a 5-0 league mark so far and eight wins in their last nine games.

Now that John Brannen has moved from Northern Kentucky to Cincinnati, it leaves McMahon as the best coach in the Commonwealth not at Louisville or Kentucky.

Grade: 94.4

6. Kyle Fuller–Stephen F. Austin University
Age: 51

Fuller missed this list last year, because he needed more career games played to really qualify based on his merits. Keller comes from the Bill Self, Eddie Sutton, and Billy Kennedy coaching trees, placing him also in the Hank Iba, Dean Smith (through Larry Brown through Self), and Rick Barnes (through Frank Haith through Kennedy) trees.

Yet, Keller seems to be more of a renegade as coach of Stephen F. Austin, relying more on former SFA coach Brad Underwood’s system of pressure defense and fast break offense than on the playing styles of the Hall of Fame coaches listed above.

The Lumberjacks lead the nation in turnovers forced per game at more than 22, while averaging double-figure steals per game. This leads to a lot of fast break points, both in baskets made and foul shots. This style of play allowed SFA to pull off the season’s biggest upset when they won at Duke.

Keller should see quite a bump in salary, as he figures to enjoy a bonanza to sign with a power conference school in April.

Grade: 94.8

5. Paul Weir–University of New Mexico
Age: 40

Weir finished at #21 last year and missed the list by one spot. He moves way up the list as the top A+ grade this year. If you like up-tempo, full-court basketball, Coach Weir may be your candidate. He started his head coaching career at New Mexico State and went 28-6 and won the WAC regular and tournament titles. His Lobos this year are 4-2/15-4, and he’s made The Pit one of the top home court advantages in America. San Diego State has to visit ABQ on January 29, and the Lobos might be the best bet to end the Aztecs’ undefeated season if they are still unbeaten going into that game.

Weir is a branch off the Bobby Knight coaching tree having been Steve Alford’s assistant at multiple stops. He has a strong recruiting class with a key transfer sitting out, so he might not be available for 2020-2021. He can make New Mexico as powerful as San Diego State.

Grade: 94.9

The A++ Coaches for 2020

4. Steve Forbes–East Tennessee State University
Age: 54

We might have had Forbes contending for the top spot if he was five years younger, but 54 is getting up there if a coach is going to move to the big time. Forbes has a little baggage in that he was on Bruce Pearl’s staff at Tennessee that was punished with infractions, leading to Pearl receiving a show-cause order to coach for a few years.

Like another coach on this list in Chris Jans, Forbes spent a few years getting back into the NCAA’s good graces as an assistant to Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. Before that, he simply won 91% of his games as head coach at a junior college in Florida.

Forbes brought the offensive genius and the full-court press of Pearl to Johnson City, combined with the pressure man-to-man defense of Marshall at Wichita State. The Buccaneers immediately improved when Forbes took over the program after Murray Bartow was forced out. ETSU improved from 16-14 to 24-12 and a second place Socon finish and near miss in the conference championship game. In year two, the Bucs went 27-8 and won the conference regular season and tournament, making a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Two years ago year, ETSU finished 25-9 and runner-up to UNC-Greensboro. The Bucs went 24-10 in a slight rebuilding year, and the Bucs are back on top of the SoCon this year with a 5-1 league mark and 16-3 record overall.

This year’s ETSU team is winning with smart, efficient offense combined with terrifying defense. The Bucs not only limit opponents’ shooting opportunities by forcing turnovers and cleaning the glass, opponents are not getting a lot of open shots.

Grade: 95.4

3. Dwayne Stephens–Michigan State University Assistant
Age: 49

Had we graded Stephens last year, he would have made the top 10 of our list. We chose to exclude him, because we believed he was not interested in becoming a head coach, unless it was as Tom Izzo’s eventual replacement at Michigan State.

We’ve added him to the list this year, because our Captain heard Stephens give an interview where Stephens said that he had turned down opportunities to be a head coach, but it didn’t mean he didn’t want to be a head coach. He was just being picky about choosing the right school. The right school might come along this year.

Stephens should have been a head coach at least 10 years ago. He is one of the top recruiters in the nation, and he’s an expert at teaching defense and rebounding. A lot of Izzo’s wins deserve assists to Stephens. At this point in his career, he’s not going to take a mid-major head coaching job, as he has earned the right to be a power conference head coach. His recruiting acumen could make any power conference team a contender for the Big Dance, but when you add his ability to teach and improve those players’ defensive abilities, Stephens is a diamond in the rough. His resume should scream “Ideal Candidate” for him, but his near anonymity outside of Michigan, mainly because he doesn’t make headlines, has kept athletic’s directors from realizing the potential coup they could pull off by hiring him. If Stephens had just a couple years head coaching experience in the mid-major ranks, he might top this list this year.

Grade: 95.8

2. Ron Sanchez–University of Charlotte
Age: 46

Last year after listing him at #5 overall, we received multiple messages from readers telling us we were nuts to include him this high and even at any of the top 20 spots. Our Captain put him here, because he’s a former coach himself, and he told us to watch Sanchez quickly mold the 49ers into a Conference USA juggernaut.

Sanchez went 8-21 in his first year in Charlotte, but the 49ers were making a transition in styles of play similar to what Mississippi State’s football team will undergo with Mike Leach in 2020. Sanchez might as well be Dick Bennett’s other coaching son, because he learned the Pack-line defense and blocker-mover offense under the elder Bennett at Washington State, and then he continued to refine his experience under Tony Bennett at both Washington State and Virginia.

In just year two, Charlotte has the best defense in the league, and they sit atop the standings at 4-0. Sanchez has the 49ers running the pack line defense about as well as Louisville runs it. Not only do opponents find it hard to drive the lane against all the bodies sitting in the lane, they cannot get many open three-point shots. In CUSA action, opponents are hitting less than 20% from behind the arc.

He’s only been a head coach for two years, but Sanchez is ready to make the jump to a big time school. Chances are not high that he will get that chance this year, but he might move up to the top spot on this list in 2021.

Grade: 97.1

1. Chris Jans–New Mexico State University
Age: 50

Last year when we placed Jans in our top 20, we posited that the selection might be considered a tad controversial, and then we proclaimed that Jans deserved a second chance after proving that he could defeat the demons of alcohol.

As an assistant coach, Jans worked with Gregg Marshall at Wichita State both before and after his issues with alcohol at Bowling Green. He received Marshall’s endorsement when NMSU was considering him for its opening.

Jans has been a head coach for nine prior seasons at multiple levels. At four different schools below D1, he went 159-45 in six seasons winning 22 or more games every year and winning more than 30 games twice. In his one year at Bowling Green, he led the Falcons to 21 wins and a third place finish in the MAC East Division. In his first two years at New Mexico State, the Aggies went 28-6 and 30-5, winning the Western Athletic Conference’s regular season and conference tournament titles both years. The Aggies lost by one point to Final Four team Auburn in last year’s NCAA Tournament second round.

This year, NMSU is back in first place in the WAC at 4-0, and the Aggies look to be set to possibly run the table in the league. Jans’ teams play very similar to Bobby Knight’s teams at Indiana. They control every aspect of games in conference play. NMSU has by far the top offensive efficiency in the WAC, while their defensive efficiency is just behind the leaders.

Jans has proven to be an excellent recruiter, getting a good number of recruits along with multiple transfers. The Aggies could become another Gonzaga west of the Pecos River if Jans stays in Las Cruces, but some power conference school will eventually realize what an amazing coach he is and hire him. While he does not rate as high as #1 Musselman from last year, Jans is the best Mid-Major coach in America in 2020. If a school is willing to overlook the past, Jans could coach a big time program to a Final Four.

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