The Pi-Rate Ratings

February 19, 2021

20 Basketball Coaches Ready For Prime Time–2021 Edition

For the last two seasons, we have issued our list of mid-major and low-major head coaches that we believed were ready for the big time–ready to move up to a power conference program.  The coaches on our lists that have received hefty promotions have done quite well in this time, namely Nate Oats at Alabama, Eric Musselman at Arkansas, Jeff Boals at Ohio, Kyle Smith at Washington St., and a promising start for Steve Forbes at Wake Forest.

In the past two editions, we included top-shelf assistant coaches at the power conferences, but none of these top assistants have taken jobs in this time.  Dwayne Stephens seems satisfied to remain at Michigan State, maybe to eventually replace Tom Izzo.  Jon Scheyer has turned down as many offers as Stephens, maybe to be the next king at Duke.

We have not mentioned something that we should have mentioned.  There are five head coaches that are more than excellent and could easily take a big time job, but it is our opinion that they are firmly rooted in their mid-major school.  Mark Few isn’t leaving Gonzaga for any college job, not even Kentucky, North Carolina, or Duke.  Gonzaga is the Marquette of the modern era, and Few is the Al McGuire of the 21st Century.

His cohort at rival Saint Mary’s, Randy Bennett, looks like a lifer in the Northern California hills.  Bennett has endured an off-year this season, but with Covid issues, he hasn’t had the opportunity to use that Aussie pipeline to bring in ready-to-star talent.

Porter Moser took Loyola of Chicago to the Final Four a few years back, and this year’s Ramblers team might be the best in the Windy City since Loyola won the national title in 1963.  Moser is now the king of the Missouri Valley, and Loyola is more like a major program again.

Bob McKillop is entrenched at Davidson.  He could have moved up in the ranks many times, but he’s content to stay in the lovely, picturesque mountain college.

Brian Dutcher has no reason to leave San Diego St., as he’s made the Aztecs into a minor national power.  Had SDSU been able to play in last year’s Big Dance, we believe he had the material to make the Elite 8 and possibly the Final 4.

This year’s list saw a lot of movement.  Covid has put a little damper on some candidates, as their teams might have suffered more distractions than others.  However, we believe that the fans have a say in the hiring process, if only to barbecue the athletic director that hires the unpopular choice when the fans have anointed their choice.

Once again, we topped this list at 20.  We will tell you up front that the difference between #17 and #30 on our list was minimal.  This year, six coaches made the elite A++ list.  We expect any power conference school that hires one of these geniuses will see immediate improvement in 2021-22.  10 coaches earned an A+, meaning that these men would be relatively good choices if a power school hired them.  The final four on this list earned an A, which means they are good enough to get a power conference job, but they have a question or two that could be a concern.  Fret not if your coach is on this list of A.  A lot of our past A coaches moved to A+ and even A++.

20. Dave Richman–North Dakota St.

Richman is new to this super list in 2021.  He’s a lifelong North Dakota native, and this is the only Division 1 program he’s ever worked for, having been an assistant there for a decade before ascending to the job when prior head coach Saul Phillips left for Ohio.  Richman’s Bison teams are known for tough man-to-man defense that forces shots deep in the shot clock, and then controls the defensive boards.  His teams are not flashy.  They win from the inside out, the way basketball used to be played.  When this year concludes NDSU will have had five winning seasons in Summit League play out of the seven Richman has been in control.  The Bison are currently in first place in the league.  Had the tournament been played last year, Richman would be looking at a possible threepeat in getting NDSU into the Dance.

19. Joe Golding–Abilene Christian

Golding is another newcomer to this list after finishing 29th last year.  Golding doesn’t come from a glamorous coaching tree.  He was an assistant for five seasons at Little Rock, but in those five years, the team made the NCAA Tournament three times.  

Golding’s teams are like mosquitos with their pest-like defense.  They force opponents deep into the shot clock and then typically force bad shots.  Better yet, his ACU teams play in the passing lanes and steal a lot of passes that lead to instant offense and opponent fouls.  With maybe another successful year, Golding will be ready to add a + to his A grade.  He needs to recruit a mid-major star and pull off a big upset win over a power conference team, and we believe that is in his near future.

18. Bryce Drew–Grand Canyon

Like another coach that will be in the superior group, Drew was a victim of circumstance beyond his control.  Five years ago, he would have been in the top five on this list, when he routinely had his alma mater Valparaiso contending for conference championships.  He went to Vanderbilt and took the Commodores to the NCAA Tournament in his first year, where they lost a heartbreaker in the first round on a terrible mistake by an upperclassman.  Then, after suffering a rebuilding season, he recruited the best ever incoming class to the school, led by the Tom Brady of that class, point guard Darius Garland.  Vandy was off to a 4-0 start that included a Quadrant 1 road win over USC, when Garland’s college career ended two minutes into the fifth game.  With Garland out, Vanderbilt was like a football team forced to play a running back at quarterback, and the Commodores went 0-18 in the SEC, leading to Drew’s firing.  All Drew did while in Nashville was recruit three NBA draft picks in his three years, and it is possible that two more recruits he left for his predecessor could become NBA players.  He’s taken over a GCU team that came within a whisker of contending in the WAC only to fall down last year, and he’s guided them to the top of the league in year one.  

17. Bob Richey–Furman

Richey flies under the radar in the Southern Conference.  Wofford had a major breakthrough season that propelled a coach to a bigger and better job.  East Tennessee and Chattanooga did so as well.  UNC-Greensboro has the North Carolina protege winning big.  Richey sort of anonymously can claim branches in both the Gene Keady and Dean Smith coaching trees, and his Furman teams play consistent offensive and defensive basketball, just like those patriarchs.  To date, his conference record at Furman is 49-17, which comes to a better than 13-5 average.  The only factor that keeps that + from being added to his A grade is that he has yet to win the SoCon Tournament.

16. Craig Smith–Utah St.

We debate whether or not to classify the Mountain West Conference as Mid-Major when multiple teams routinely get selected to the NCAA Tournament every year, and three or even four could be invited this year.  Smith’s Aggies is one of those teams contending for an at-large bid.  He’s only in his third season in Logan, but he’s been quite successful from the moment he stepped foot on campus.  He inherited a USU team that had been mediocre for five years with a sub .500 record in MWC play, and in his first season, the Aggies shared the conference title with a 15-3 record and then won the automatic bid to the Dance by taking the conference tournament.  Last year, The Aggies dropped to 12-6 in the league but turned it on at the end and repeated as conference tournament champions.  This year, USU is in the thick of the race again at 9-3 and on the Bubble for an at-large bid if they don’t threepeat in the conference tournament.  His prior coaching stop at South Dakota saw his teams improve every season, ending with a 25-7 conference record in his final two years.

15. Matt McMahon–Murray St.

McMahon takes a tumble here after his Racers have endured a rebuilding season after going 47-7 in Ohio Valley Conference play the last three years.  McMahon’s coaching tree is such that his branch is stronger than the trunk and roots.  He assisted Buzz Peterson, who washed out at Tennessee, and Steve Prohm, who is washing out at Iowa St.  But, when you can recruit a Ja Morant to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, you should get some respect and a pass that this rebuilding year will be a short-lived bleep in his overall record.

14. Travis Decuire–Montana

Like McMahon, Decuire has dropped some as the Grizzlies have had an off-year with a half-dozen losses that could have been wins.  Like his mentor Mike Montgomery, Decuire’s teams play tough fundamental basketball.  Making things tough for Decuire this year is the fact that he lost his top four players from last year’s team, and the one top returnee, last year’s conference freshman of the year, has been injured for a good part of the year.  Montana could be a tough out at the Big Sky Tournament.  Decuire still belongs in this list.

13. Casey Alexander–Belmont

Alexander was on the just missed list last year, when he guided his alma mater to the regular season and conference tournament championships.  His record to date at Belmont is 34-3 in OVC play and 49-8 overall.  He returned to his alma mater from rival Lipscomb, where in his final year, he took the Bisons to the NIT championship game after winning the conference tournament championship the year before and giving North Carolina fits in the NCAA Tournament.  Alexander did something rarely done by a coach moving from one school to another–he didn’t have to move.  His house is equidistant between Lipscomb and Belmont.  If for some reason, the Vanderbilt job were to become available, he wouldn’t have to move, as he’s still within walking distance of that campus.

12. Niko Medved–Colorado St.

We aren’t sure Medved would consider another job for next year, because 2021-22 could be the year the Rams become a top 25 team.  Everybody could be back from an already NCAA-tournament worthy team.  CSU is 11-3 in the MWC with no seniors on the roster.  Medved has done an incredible job recruiting talent to Fort Collins, and only one of the key contributors comes from in-state.  The knock on a lot of mid-majors is they might be good until you get to their bench, and then they lack depth.  CSU can go nine-deep without losing a beat.

Medved turned around a then moribund Furman program before taking over at Drake.  He stayed only one year, but that one year was outstanding.  He inherited a 7-24 team that was expected to do no better and maybe take another small step backward and shocked the Missouri Valley by guiding the Bulldogs to a 17-17 record a CIT invitation.

11. Russ Turner–UC-Irvine

Turner has seen his star decline a little ever since he made a gaffe at the NCAA Tournament when he was at the zenith of his career in Irvine.  Additionally, his teams are rather dull offensively, and fanbases at big time schools may not be fans with his hiring.  Still, he is one of the best coaches in the business, and his defenses keep his teams in contention for conference championships.  This year, UCI has taken a small step backwards and will most likely finish second or third in the Big West after finishing first in four of the past five seasons (second by one game in the other).

10. Darian DeVries–Drake

A 65-26 career record, with three consecutive 20-win seasons, speaks for itself, especially when it comes at a school that prior to DeVries taking the job had not had a winning record for seven years and a 20-win season for 11 years.  The last Drake coach to have a three year run like this was Maury John, who took the 1969 Bulldogs to the Final Four, where they almost pulled off the David vs. Goliath upset against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and UCLA.

DeVries has an excellent coaching tree heritage.  He was an assistant to Dana Altman and Greg McDermott.  He also played collegiately for Eldon Miller, and that adds Ray Mears to his coaching tree.  His coaching philosophy borrows some from all these past greats.  He’s ready for the Big Time.

9. John Becker–Vermont

He just missed both of the last two years, and the chief liability was our personal belief that he might be a lifer in the Green State.  Take that bias away, and Becker may deserve to be a few spots higher on this list, even into possible A++ territory.  He’s been entrenched in Burlington since 2006, and he’s been the head coach of the Catamounts since 2011.  In his tenth season at 

Becker has won the conference championship five times with the sixth likely this year, which would also be five in a row.  His 119-31 record in the last five years trails Mark Few and nobody else.  Becker’s teams usually play smart offense and take high percentage shots more than the average team.  They guard the perimeter quite competently and usually win the rebounding battle when they play within the mid-major level.

8. Mark Pope–BYU

Pope makes a big jump on this list, just barely missing out on the elite A++ status.  His pedigree is outstanding, through his ties to the Kentucky basketball program.  He played for Rick Pitino at Rupp Arena, but that isn’t his only tie to the Big Blue or the namesake.  He also played briefly for Lynn Nance at Washington, and Nance was a former Joe B. Hall assistant at Kentucky, who in turn was an assistant to the Baron Rupp himself.  One could predict that Pope’s teams play up-tempo basketball and score a lot of points. 

Pope did a magnificent job in his first head coaching assignment, guiding upstate Utah Valley to a 48-21 record his final two years, including three consecutive CBI postseason tournament bids.  In his first year at BYU, the Cougars went 24-8, finished ranked #18, and would have earned a round of 64 favorite’s seed in the NCAA Tournament.  This year, BYU is 16-5 and played two decent games against number one Gonzaga.  Out of conference wins over St. John’s, Utah St., and San Diego St. will give the Cougars an at-large bid.

7. Wes Miller–UNC-Greensboro

Miller missed the elite A++ grade by a fraction of a point.  Miller has been a yo-yo on this list, dropping some last year, but rising back this year.  When Roy Williams decided to stay in the coaching business after dropping hints last year that he might be considering retirement, Miller quickly became the rumored replacement if Williams were to ride off into the Tar Heel sunset.  

Miller has slowly built UNCG into a mid-major power.  The Spartans have contended for the conference championship and conference tournament championship each of the last five years.  UNCG currently leads the SoCon this year, giving Miller a 67-19 conference record in that time.  That comes to a 14-4 average conference record, and a lot of Power Conference teams would kill for even one 14-4 conference mark, and when you add the exciting full-court pressure defense Miller’s teams use, the fans would be enthusiastic about his becoming their coach,

Now we enter the elite status, the A++ coaches.  It is our opinion that any coach on this list can immediately take over a program and make a big positive difference.  In the past, Nate Oats and Eric Musselman came off this list of elites and have done quite well (currently 1st and 2nd in the SEC).

6. Chris Jans–New Mexico St.

Last year’s number one on this list is still an A++, and he didn’t really drop much; the five ahead of him rose by enough to surpass him.  Jans doesn’t deserve the drop to sixth place, as his Aggies have basically been a travelling team that couldn’t go home until recently.  The team had to sojourn to a hotel in Arizona and use it as their base of operations, while the Land of Enchantment wasn’t very enchanting due to the virus.  Then, just about every game for almost two months was cancelled, and the team didn’t get the experience it needed to gel with a lot of new parts.  So, 2021 is going to be Jans only year in his coaching history where his team does not win 20 games.  Of course, they may not play 20 games this year.  They are 5-5 at this writing.  Prior to this season, his career coaching record was 263-74.

5. Mike Rhoades–Virginia Commonwealth

Rice basketball teams usually struggle to win 20 games in a two year period.  Rhoades once won 23 games there in one year!  The year after Rhoades came to VCU, Rice regressed to 7-24, so you know just from that this guy can flat out coach.

Since coming to the Monument City, Rhoades has continued the great modern tradition with the Rams’ program.  He currently has the Rams 1 ½ games up in first place in the Atlantic 10 with a 9-2 league mark and 16-4 overall.  Another factor making him an A++ is his ability to win close games with strategic moves in the final minutes; this year’s VCU team is 4-1 in these games.

Rhoades comes from the Shaka Smart coaching tree so “Havoc Defense” is in his DNA.  Because his roster is almost totally interchangeable, players can gamble on defense and move out onto the perimeter and into the lane without worrying about having to help out on a helpless defender.  Rhoades would be an excellent choice for the Boston College or Penn State openings.

4. Joe Pasternack–UC Santa Barbara

It was only a matter of time before Pasternack moved into the elite level.  His past work is nothing short of miraculous, and now that he’s had time to really build the UCSB program, his Gauchos appear to be on the cusp of taking away the king’s status from rival UC-Irvine.

What Pasternack did at the University of New Orleans was incredible.  The school was in a multi-year process of shutting down the basketball program after Hurricane Katrina wiped out large paths of the Crescent City, and players were leaving before, during, and after seasons.  Yet, Pasternack played the hand he was dealt all through the process and continued to field competitive teams.

Pasternack then served as the top assistant to Sean Miller at Arizona, which happened to produce Miller’s best teams in Tucson.  The Wildcats have not been as good since Pasternack moved to UCSB.  His first UCSB team had been 6-22 the year before and ranked dead last in the nation in shooting percentage at less than 38%.  In year one, UCSB improved its FG% accuracy by 10%, and the record improved from 6-22 to 23-9.  The Gauchos then went 22-10 and 21-10 headed into this year, where they currently lead the Big West at 10-2 in league play and 14-3 overall.  Pasternack’s squads have consistently been smart offensive teams that have not forgotten the nearly forgotten art of passing the ball.  They currently have a 10-game winning streak, and Pasternack will get consideration for multiple potential Pac-12 job openings in March.

3. Scott Nagy–Wright St.

Nagy is ready for a multi-million dollar, multi-year contract to a big time school.  He’s proven everything he can prove at the level he’s coached.  Nagy has now starred as the coach of two mid-major programs, and there is no doubt that he could win at a Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, or SEC school.  If he were 10 years younger, he might be number one on this list.

Nagy took South Dakota St. from Division 2 to Division 1 transitioning independent to the dominant team in the Summit League, winning 121 games in his last five years there and earning three NCAA Tournament bids.

All he’s done at Wright St. is go 108-47, and his current squad at 15-3 in the league and 17-4 overall is close to wrapping up its third consecutive Horizon League championship.  

Nagy shares something in common with former #1 Mid-major coach Musselman; he’s a master at scouting out transfer portal talent and getting the players to come play for him.  Like, Musselman, these players almost to a man see their offensive and defensive efficiency improve playing for him.  

2. Kyle Kelller–Stephen F. Austin

Former SF Austin coach Brad Underwood has done a magnificent job turning the Illinois program back into an NCAA Tournament team.  Keller can do the same for almost any Power Conference Program.  If Keller was a horse running in the Kentucky Derby, and you looked at his pedigree, you would put $2 bucks on him across the board.  In addition to being a top assistant under Underwood here, in his coaching tree, you will find Bill Self, Eddie Sutton, Hank Iba, Dean Smith, Larry Brown, and Rick Barnes.  What a pedigree!

After winning at Duke last year, Keller’s star began to rise.  His Lumberjack teams are not only solid in all respects, they are one of the most exciting teams to watch.  Fans of a downtrodden Power Conference team would love to see him step in and bring his version of full-court pressing defense, which brings a lot of easy fast break baskets, as SFA’s near 60% accuracy from inside the 3-point line reveals.

SFA is in a three-way tie at 10-1 with Abilene Christian and Sam Houston St.  The Lumberjacks end the regular season with games against both of the other co-leaders.

NUMBER ONE FOR 2021

This Year’s number one was once given up for dead in the coaching profession, but he didn’t deserve the burial.  His team this year has gone through a lot of Covid issues with games cancelled for five consecutive weeks.  The team was 7-1 with a quadrant 1 win over a sure NCAA Tournament team this year.  Then, they didn’t play between December 23 and January 26, rarely getting a chance to have the entire squad available for practice.  Somewhere in this time, these players had to take final exams for the semester.  

It was obvious that when the team finally returned to play, they were quite rusty.  They lost their first two games back, but since then, they have begun to return to form with four consecutive victories, including a blowout win over the then number one team in their conference.

Do you have a clue yet who this coach is?  Let’s tease a little more.  This coach started for two different college teams, playing for two legendary head coaches.  He played for conference champions at both colleges, going to the Final Four with the second one.

His first head coaching job came at the early age of 28.  He led an NAIA program out of a mess, guiding them to a 51-14 record in his second and third years there, before taking his first Division 1 job at a mid-major school.  He took over a program that had been buried in the basement of its conference for some time and slowly built up the program with improving records every year, until he finished his tenure there with an NCAA Tournament bid, where he gave a #2 seed all they could handle before losing a close game.

His next stop was to a higher mid-major, where he assumed the head coaching duties at a school that had been good 10 years before but had fallen on hard times.  After a learning season, this coach guided this school back to the top of its league in year two, going 49-20 in his last two years there.

Then, he got a chance to take over a Power Conference school, albeit one that had enjoyed up and down success through the years. He inherited a program that had been mediocre for three years and winning just 39.6% of its conference games.

All this coach did was to take this program to the NCAA Tournament five times in the next seven years, winning 20.4 games per year in this stretch, but the fans and top donors believed this was not good enough.  The coach was fired.  That school has been to just one NCAA Tournament since then.

Meanwhile, this coach quickly received a job offer to a school that had lost 42 games in the prior two years after being rather decent in the near past and one that had been a semi-power 60 years ago.  This coach quickly improved the fortunes of the mid-major winning 6, then 9, then 10, then 12 conference games.  In one of those years, he won four games in four days to pull off an upset and win his conference tournament to earn an NCAA bid.

This year’s team is on the bubble for another NCAA Tournament bid.  This coach has done one of the quietest best coaching jobs in the history of college basketball to keep this team together through the virus crisis, and if he takes this team to the Big Dance, there has to be a Power Conference school in need of his services.

Can you guess who this is now?

He’s Travis Ford, and he coaches at Saint Louis University, where his Billikens are 4-2 in the Atlantic 10 and 11-3 overall.  His teams almost always win the “hustle stats” in their games.  They control the boards at both ends, and they force turnovers while limiting turnovers.  His Billiken team knows how to distribute the ball and get open shots, so what’s not to like?  

Ford is our King of the Mid-Major coaches for 2021.  He deserves another shot at the big time.  A school like Nebraska, Penn State, or Minnesota could improve quickly if one of the Big Ten schools decided to make a move.  He’d even be a good replacement at Indiana if the Hoosiers decide it is time for Archie Miller to find another situation.  He’d be an excellent choice for an SEC team that might have an opening, and he’d have to be considered for a Pac-12 opening as well.  We think it would probably be better for him not to return to the Big 12, just because he got a bad rap at Oklahoma St.

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