The Pi-Rate Ratings

January 19, 2022

20 Coaches Ready For Prime Time–2022 Edition

Welcome to the fourth annual edition of one of our top-visited features every year.  In 2019, we decided to make a list of 20 basketball coaches at the Mid-Major and Low-Major level or top assistant coaches that were ready to take over Major Conference teams.

In that first list, our top three were then Nevada coach Eric Musselman, then UNC-Greensboro coach Wes Miller, and then Buffalo coach Nate Oats.  Others in the top 10 included East Tennessee’s Steve Forbes, San Francisco’s Kyle Smith, and Charleston’s Earl Grant.  All six coaches are now enjoying success at a big time school.  Musselman quickly turned around the program at Arkansas.  Miller just took over at Cincinnati this year and has the Bearcats’ program moving back to where it was under Mick Cronin after previous coach John Brannen was unable to sustain the success.  Oats took the Alabama job and made Crimson Tide basketball exciting again, like the second coming of C.M. Newton in the 1970s.

In the next two years, more coaches making our list would go on to earn a promotion to the big time.  We included a couple of assistant coaches, and we named Jon Scheyer as the next coach at Duke before Coach Mike Krzyzewski announced his eventual retirement, and Duke made it official that Scheyer would replace him.  We removed Michigan State assistant Dwayne Stephens from the list as he refused several job offers to stay at MSU.  If Tom Izzo decides to retire in the next year or two, Sparty would most definitely benefit by moving Stephens over into the head coaching seat.

In past years, we started with a list of about 30 coaching candidates and then chose the 20 best as our list.  This year was quite a bit different.  College basketball is experiencing an evolution where more Mid-Major and Low-Major schools are starting to compete like never before.  In the past, there were usually two or three schools outside of the Power Conferences that looked like they belonged in the same league as the Power Conferences.  Gonzaga certainly made the leap.  Wichita State, Butler, Xavier, and most recently Loyola of Chicago have made the leap, although these schools have histories as being legitimate basketball factories. 

The issue with coming up with just 20 coaches ready to move up to the big time is that there are about 40-45 coaches at these Mid-Major and Low-Major schools that are competent enough to take over a Big Ten or Atlantic Coast Conference team.  Additionally, there are more assistant coaches that are more than ready to become head coaches.  And, for the first time in our list, a Division 2 head coach makes his debut and grades out in the upper echelon of all coaches at any level.

Some of the coaches that have graced this list in the last few years have dropped out of the top 20.  They haven’t lost their luster; they simply were passed by others.  We grade each coach on an A++, A+, A, or A- scale.  Any coach that is B+ or weaker does not make the long list.  After we pick the 25 to 35 coaches receiving an A of some type, we then break it down into A++, A+, A, and A-.  This year, no A- grade found a spot in the top 20.  Additionally, the difference between #1 and #20 is closer than it has ever been.  The talent level in these lower ranks has never been better, and it would not surprise us this year if a Cinderella team made the Final 4, and more than one made the Elite 8.  

Some of the potential coaches on this list were not included due to our perception that they have no desire to move to another school at this stage of their career.  Stephens would be in the top 10 every year if it appeared he was in the market for any job other than Michigan State.  Brian Dutcher at San Diego State would certainly be there as well, but he looks like he will remain with the Aztecs until retirement.  Scheyer was also not included, as he is already the head coach at Duke starting next year.

Without further adieu, here is this year’s Terrific 20.  If your favorite coach didn’t make this list but has similar credentials, he most likely just missed the cut.  Eight additional coaches earned an A grade and did not make the list.  See “Best of the Rest” at the end of this list.

Coaches Grading at High A’s

20. Kyle Keller–Stephen F. Austin

Any coach that can take a Low-Major school to Durham, North Carolina, and beat Duke has to rate as an A.  Keller has a rich pedigree which includes stints assisting Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M, Bill Self at Kansas, and Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma St.

As of this writing on January 18, 2022, Keller has a 55-14 record in the last three seasons in addition to a 28-7 record in 2018.  Keller’s teams are up-tempo and exciting to watch, and they always compete for the conference title.  SFA has moved from the Southland Conference to the tougher Western Athletic Conference, but the Lumberjacks have proven to be up to the task.  Additionally, SFA continues to show they aren’t intimidated by big time competition.  Earlier this year, the Lumberjacks went to Allen Fieldhouse and competed for 40 minutes against Kansas, before losing by eight.  Keller is one of four WAC coaches on this list, and his team faces two of the other three in its next two games.

19. Dana Ford–Missouri St.

An essential factor in the history of our list has been who the coaches learned the profession from as assistants.  One former head coach has produced a plethora of assistant coaches that have proven to be excellent head coaches.  Former Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall has a long list of assistants that have done well.  Most of them have made our list through the years.  

Ford was a Coach Marshall assistant three different times at both Winthrop and Wichita State.  Marshall raved about his ability to recruit, to teach, and to recognize in-game situations calling for adjustments.  Ford’s first head coaching job was in Nashville at Tennessee State, where he turned the Tigers from a perennial second division program to a conference title contender.  He inherited a 5-25 team with a lot of dissension within the program and produced a 20-game winner in his second year, just missing on the Ohio Valley Conference Championship.

At Missouri State, he inherited a program that had not finished with a winning Missouri Valley Conference record for eight years.  In year, one, Ford directed the Bears to a 10-8 league mark, which included a sweep of Loyola of Chicago.  His second MSU team took a slight backtrack to 9-9 but included victories over top two teams Loyola and Drake.  The Bears lost a lot of games by five points or less and were better than the prior year.  The Bears improved to 12-6 last year, and at this point of the 2021-22 season, they are a game behind Loyola for the MVC league lead in what looks like a very competitive conference.  Ford has the perfect pedigree for a Big Ten school.  He will build a program from the ground up.

18. Joe Pasternack–UC Santa Barbara

Pasternack has been victimized twice as a head coach by things out of his control, and he has proven to be a coach that can withstand adversity and conquer it.  He once was the head coach at the University of New Orleans, when the school decided to shut down the basketball program in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  With half of his team leaving just before the start of a season, Pasternack still produced a competitive team.  In his final year, with UNO playing a Division 2 schedule but with a roster put together piece-meal, Pasternack produced a 16-6 record before the program went black.

Pasternack then spent seven years in Tucson, as an assistant to Sean Miller at Arizona.  These were Miller’s best seven seasons at UA.  After he left, the Wildcats’ regressed to the point where Miller was fired at the end of last year.

At UCSB, Pasternack inherited a program that had been 6-22 the year before with the worst field goal percentage in the nation at 37.7%.  In his first year, Pasternack immediately repaired the offensive damage, producing a team that scored 15 more points per game and shot 46.4% from the field.  Best of all, the Gauchos finished in a surprise second place in the Big West and won 23 games and came within a minute of knocking out UC-Irvine for the automatic bid to the Big Dance.

Three more 20-win seasons followed, culminated by the Gauchos winning the Big West regular season and tournament championships last year.  As a 12-seed, they lost by one point to 5-seed Creighton in the second round.

This year, the Gauchos were off to another great start when Covid hit the school and program harder than the rest of the league.  UCSB went two weeks without playing a game and then was not at full strength when they did return.  It has led to an 0-3 start in the league this year, but the Gauchos will turn things around when they are totally healthy again.  Having to play three games a week to make up for the postponed games will be yet another big obstacle, but Pasternack should overcome this one as well.

What about his pedigree?  It is golden.  Pasternack is one of a handful of coaches not to have played college basketball.  He attended Indiana, where he began learning the game under legend Bob Knight as a student volunteer assistant.  His first paid gig was as an assistant to Ben Braun at UC-Berkeley.   

17. Casey Alexander–Belmont

Alexander has coached two different Division 1 college teams while living in one house!  How is that you ask?  He lives exactly halfway between Nashville college rivals Lipscomb and Belmont.  All he needed to do was change his commute direction going left on Belmont Boulevard after going right before then.

Alexander played at Belmont under one of the top legends in Mid-Major college basketball history in Rick Byrd.  He eventually replaced his mentor at his alma mater.  Prior to returning to Belmont, he had been at rival Lipscomb for six years.  He rebuilt the once dynastic NAIA powerhouse into a strong Low-Major program in the Atlantic Sun Conference winning 20, 23, and 29 games his last three years with the Bisons.  The final two editions went to the NCAA Tournament, where Lipscomb led North Carolina into the second half as a 15-seed playing a 2-seed.

He followed up that with a final year where he took the Bisons to the Atlantic Sun regular season championship.  The Bisons lost in the Atlantic Sun Championship Game after leading in the final 10 minutes.  Relegated to the NIT, Lipscomb advanced to the Championship Game, losing to Texas.

Moving to Belmont, Alexander has taken the Bruins to a 66-15 record in two plus years.  Belmont had earned the automatic NCAA bid in 2020 before the tournament was canceled.  After winning the OVC regular season title last year, the Bruins were upset in the tournament semifinals and finished the season 26-4.  Belmont’s 14-4 record this year includes wins over Iona, Saint Louis, and Chattanooga.

Unlike a lot of teams, Belmont plays more of an old-fashioned motion offense with crisp, intelligent passing.  It is a style that has made the Bruins one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball, and the Bruins are quite exciting to watch in person.

16. Lamont Paris–Chattanooga

This is a new addition to the list this year.  Lamont Paris has made the Mocs a better team in each succeeding season in Chattanooga.  Paris is a coaching disciple of two great head coaches–Keith Dambrot at Akron and Bo Ryan, formerly at Wisconsin.  His teams play the same style that these coaches used, so you know Chattanooga will run a patient offense that limits mistakes while relying on a tough inside defense that makes life hard on opposing front courts.

Paris might need a little more time to develop his resume, but the annual improvement from one year to the next has placed his future career on track to the big time like it’s riding the Incline to the top of Lookout Mountain.

A+ Coaches

15. Joe Golding–Texas El Paso

Golding is in his first year at UTEP after enjoying a meteoric rise in the coaching ranks coaching at Abilene Christian.  He took over a program that was beginning its transition from Division 2 to Division 1, and ACU had to struggle for four years bringing their program out of mandatory probation during the transition.

By the fall of 2018, Golding had the Wildcat program ready to compete on equal terms in the Southland Conference.  His 2018-19 team won the Southland Conference Tournament to give the school its first NCAA Tournament experience.  The quick exit after drawing Kentucky gave the Wildcats their first taste of the big time.

In 2020, Golding’s team began to tighten the screws defensively on its opponents with a harassing pressure defense that forced 20 turnovers per game and made 10 steals per game.  The Wildcats were in the semifinals of the SLC Tournament when Covid ended the basketball season.

Last year, ACU had its best team yet, and the Wildcats repeated their pressure production forcing 20 turnovers with 10 steals yet again.  This edition added excellent rebounding to give ACU a lot more scoring opportunities per game than a typical team.  Their R+T Rating was one of the highest in the field, and we mentioned that the Wildcats were a potential team to pull off an upset, which they did by beating Texas in the second round before losing to eventual Final Four team UCLA.

Golding accepted the UTEP job after the season.  The Miners had long ago stopped being a dominant basketball program and have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010.  He is totally re-working the program attempting to install his pressure defense system with players recruited to run a standard system.  Think of a football school trying to switch from smashmouth to Air Raid in its first year.  The Miners will take their lumps this year and probably finish around .500 in the league.  They just may surprise a team or two in the CUSA Tournament.  

Golding should make UTEP a serious player in the future CUSA race, assuming the league can avoid going out of existence.

14. John Becker–Vermont

We almost didn’t include Becker this year, because we have some doubt about whether he would consider leaving Vermont.  But, when you compile a record of success like Becker has in Burlington, you have to include him in this list, maybe even a bit higher if we didn’t have that little bit of doubt.

Since 2014, Becker’s conference record at Vermont is 110-19.  While the Green State is one of the most picturesque states in the union, it produces very little college basketball talent.  The Catamounts have one local player playing on this year’s team.  Players from Illinois, Oregon, Ohio, and California are on this roster.  Becker can recruit nationally at this little program and put together the pieces to each year’s puzzle better than almost any other coach in the nation.  What if he went to a school where recruiting was a lot easier, like Florida, Georgia, or Maryland?

Becker’s teams cannot be labeled as one particular type, because his recruiting needs require him to tailor a system around what he has available.  Most of his teams take care of the basketball and make few mistakes, and they tend to improve defensively throughout the season.  Unfortunately, in some years, the team tends to suffer from more than the average amount of fatigue.  The one year where the Catamounts had a lot of depth, they improved throughout the season, winning both the America East regular season and conference tournament championships and finishing 29-6.  

Becker won 20 or more games every year at Vermont until last year, when Covid limited them to just 14 games played.  The Catamounts are on their way to another 20-win season this year and look like the class of the America East Conference yet again.  Some school will eventually offer him too much to turn down, and Becker will use his recruiting strength to do incredible things.

13. Jeff Boals–Ohio

Boals comes in just ahead of Becker, because he has moved up one rung from the America East Conference to the Mid-American Conference while proving he has been up to the task.

Boals was an assistant to Thad Matta at Ohio State for seven years before getting a chance to become a head coach at Stony Brook for the 2016-17 season.    At first, Boals looked like he was in over his head, as he inherited a conference champion in Long Island.  In his first year, Stony Brook fell off to 18-14 with a first round loss in the CBI Tournament.  In 2017-18, the Seawolves fell to 13-19.  Year three saw a great turnaround as Boals put his stamp on the program.  Stony Brook went 24-9 and made another appearance in the CBI.  At this point, Boals was second fiddle to Becker in the AEC.  But, his alma mater, Ohio U, needed a new coach, and they tapped their native son to return to Athens and bring the Bobcats’ program back from mediocrity following consecutive 14-17 seasons.

Ohio went from 17 losses to 17 wins in Boals’ first year back at his alma mater.  Last year, Ohio beat Kent State, Toledo, and Buffalo on successive nights to win the MAC Tournament Championship and earn an NCAA bid.  As the #13 seed, they pulled off a big upset, topping defending national champion Virginia out of the Dance before losing to Creighton in the Round of 32.

This year’s Ohio team is even better than last year’s team, as the Bobcats are the co-favorite with Toledo to win the MAC Tournament.  Ohio is currently 4-0/13-2 with one of the top defensive efficiencies in the Mid-Major ranks.  While the MAC isn’t likely to receive two bids to this year’s Big Dance, if Ohio and Toledo play in the Championship Game, the loser should be a favorite in the first round of the NIT.

12. Niko Medved–Colorado St.

Like Paris at Chattanooga, Nicko Medved has a reputation for taking a program that is down and bringing it back to competitiveness.  At Furman, he built the Paladins into a Southern Conference title contender by winning 9, then 11, then 19, and finally 23 games along with a conference championship in his final year there.  In his next stop at Drake, he inherited a mess.  The Bulldogs’ prior head coach only made it through half of the prior season before being dismissed, and the interim was in way over his head.  Drake had gone 7-24, its third consecutive 20-loss season, prior to Medved taking the job.  He had very limited talent on hand, and the general consensus was that Drake might lose 25 games in Medved’s first year.  The Bulldogs couldn’t shoot and couldn’t rebound.  Their defense couldn’t force turnovers, as it was all they could do to prevent easy shots in the paint.  Did they lose 25 games?  They didn’t even lose 20 games.  In fact, they broke even at 17-17, winning games by playing patient offense with numerous cuts into the lane.  Teams fouled them, and Drake was deadly at the foul line.

Medved left Des Moines after one season for his current position in Fort Collins.  Once again, he inherited a mess at Colorado State, where the prior coach had been placed on administrative leave after multiple players claimed abuse.  The Rams had lost 21 games with the departure of players out of the program.  

In his first year, CSU was a lot more competitive in the Mountain West, improving their conference record by three wins and losing many games by small margins.  In year two, CSU’s record went north of .500 again at 20-12.  Last year, the Rams improved to 14-4 in the MWC and advanced to the semifinals of the NIT.  

The Rams were one of the last undefeated teams to lose a game this year.  They are presently 13-1 and have one of the best foul shooting teams, a Medved trademark.  This team can shoot from outside and get the ball inside while playing above-average defense.  CSU should make the Big Dance this year, along with multiple MWC teams, and Medved’s name is going to be on short lists at Power Conference schools with coaching vacancies to fill.

11. Anthony Grant–Dayton

Grant is one of three coaches on this list attempting to return to the big time after coaching at a Power Conference school in the past.

Grant was the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth , winning the conference championship all three years in Richmond, as he took over for Jeff Capel and built the Rams’ dominance that Shaka Smart would inherit from him.  In his first year at VCU, his team beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament before losing in overtime to Pittsburgh in the Round of 32.

Grant took over at Alabama following a year in which prior coach Mark Gottfried had resigned in mid-season, and the Tide had seen key recruits go elsewhere.  The Alabama program he inherited had experienced winning SEC records just three times in the prior 13 years.  After a big rebuild in year one, in which Alabama far exceeded expectations and took a Kentucky team with eight future NBA players to the wire in the SEC Tournament, the Crimson Tide turned things around with three consecutive winning SEC records and three consecutive 20-win seasons.  Things took a bad turn when multiple players were suspended, and Alabama suffered a losing season in 2014.  In 2015, the Tide was starting to return to competitiveness, and they just missed by a game or two of getting an NCAA Tournament bid, when Grant was fired.  

His replacement at Alabama was former NBA Coach of the Year, Avery Johnson.  Johnson’s four years in Tuscaloosa were mediocre at best, as the Tide never competed for the conference title and suffered through three losing conference records in the four years.  

Meanwhile, Grant spent two years as an NBA assistant under his mentor Billy Donovan at Oklahoma City and then took the Dayton job  in 2017-18.  He inherited a big winner that was having to start over with a major rebuilding project.  The first year was tough, as the Flyers suffered through a 14-17 season.  The program improved quickly, going 21-12 in 2019 with an NIT appearance.  2020 was the big turnaround.  With sophomore forward Obi Toppen developing brilliantly under Grant’s tutelage, the Flyers looked like a Final Four team and possible national title contender.  Dayton went 28-2, running the table in the Atlantic 10.  Both losses were in overtime, one to Kansas.  Dayton sat at number three in the polls and sure to earn a 1-seed in the Big Dance, until the virus knocked the tournament out cold.

After a 2021 season that saw many games canceled, Dayton finished 9-7 in the A-10 and 13-8 in the regular season.  This year, DU is back in contention in the league with a 3-1 league mark and 11-6 overall.  The Flyers are one game behind league leader Davidson.  

Grant may be on the radar screen of a few Power Conference schools, if he can get this DU team to the Dance.

10. Bryce Drew–Grand Canyon

Here’s another case similar to Grant.  Drew began his coaching career as an assistant first to his father and then to his brother at alma mater Valparaiso.  When Scott Drew left for Baylor, Bryce Drew replaced him at Valpo.  With a highly competent staff that excelled in recruiting, Valpo enjoyed four conference championships in five years with two NCAA appearances, two NIT appearances, including a trip to the Championship Game, and a CIT appearance.  The Crusaders averaged almost 25 wins per year.

Drew was then hired by Vanderbilt to replace long-time coach Kevin Stallings.  In his first year in Nashville, he took the Commodores to the NCAA Tournament, where an unfortunate mistake by a Commodore player allowed Northwestern to win in the final seconds.  Following a major rebuilding season, in which his star player played injured all year, Vanderbilt suffered its first ever 20-game losing season, but the fans in Nashville were excited because of the best ever recruiting class in school history (or at least since recruiting ratings existed).  Two, five-star players were signed, plus a high four-star.  Another five-star almost switched to Vandy late in the process.

The five-star that did sign is current Cleveland Cavalier star point guard Darius Garland.  The other five-star had the misfortune of tearing an ACL and entering Vanderbilt at maybe 70% effectiveness.  The four-star player is current Boston Celtic player Aaron Nesmith, while Drew’s top recruit from the year before, Saben Lee currently plays for the Detroit Pistons.

At least 80% if not more of coaching is recruiting.  The team with the better players wins most of the time.  It was one of John Wooden’s famous quotes, “The Team With The Better Players Almost Always Wins.”

With this incredible roster, Vanderbilt won its first four games of the 2018-19 season including a quadrant 1 road win.  Garland scored 33 points in his fourth game, looking like Steph Curry.  Two minutes into game five, he drove the lane for an easy layup, and he came down awkwardly on his leg.  He tore his meniscus, and his Vanderbilt career was over.  With it, Drew’s career at Vanderbilt was over, or at least headed that way.  Without the potential first team All-American, Vanderbilt was like an NFL team having to use a Practice Squad player at quarterback.  Vandy went 0-18 in the SEC, and Drew was fired.  He was fired just as he had an even better recruiting class lined up to sign at Vanderbilt that included three, five star players.  Current Gonzaga star freshman Chet Holmgren was leaning heavily toward Vandy as well.  He signed with Gonzaga because the person that was recruiting him to Vandy was hired by Mark Few to recruit in Spokane.

Meanwhile, Drew spent a year as a color analyst for American Athletic Conference broadcasts and was hired as the head coach at Grand Canyon, a school that had yet to sniff postseason competition in Division 1.

Taking over a 13-17 GCU team, Drew brought in a couple of instant contributors.  Using the same offense and defense he had used at Valpo, GCU showed immediate improvement.  The Antelopes were among the nation’s leaders in field goal efficiency,, defensive field goal efficiency, and rebounding rate.  GCU won both the WAC regular season and conference tournament championships, the first time in school history for both.  In their first NCAA Tournament, as a 15-seed going up against 2-seed Iowa, they played a competitive game, keeping it close for most of the night.

This year, GCU has additional Quad 1 wins in their 4-0/14-2 start.  They are currently #59 in the NET ratings, which has them in the discussion for a potential at-large bid should they not repeat as WAC Tournament champions.  Drew has revived his career after the bad luck at Vanderbilt, and the next Power Conference school that hires him will experience more of the success like he’s had at Valpo and GCU.

9. Darian DeVries–Drake

DeVries may be staying at Drake for quite some time after signing a lengthy extension, but Power Conference schools have the money to buy out contracts to get the coach they want.  DeVries definitely is worth the extra money.

DeVries spent several years as an assistant at Creighton, under former coach Dana Altman and current coach Greg McDermott.  When he took over the Drake program, he inherited five players–total!  He had to build up the roster almost like an expansion team in pro sports, and Drake figured to be a contender for last place in the tough Missouri Valley Conference.  Instead, the Bulldogs tied for first in the MVC.  Last year, Drake began the season winning its first 18 games.  They earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament where they defeated Wichita State before bowing to USC.

This year, with yet another heavy round of turnover, Drake wasn’t expected to contend for the tough MVC title.  At this point, they are squarely in the race at 4-1/13-5.  They are one of the most balanced teams in the nation with seven players scoring between 7 and 13 points per game.  Their schedule has been tough, and their losses have been by single digits to teams squarely competing for NCAA bids.

DeVries is more than ready to take over a Big 12 or Big Ten program.

8. Bill Armstrong–LSU assistant

Four assistant coaches made our original list of 40.  Armstrong is the only one to make the Top 20, and he might even be undervalued on this list.  The key to winning college basketball is to accrue the most talent possible.  Armstrong has quickly become one of the top if not the top recruiters in the nation.  LSU has eight players on its current roster that were top 100 recruits when they signed with the Tigers, including 5-star freshman Efton Reid.  Set to come to LSU next year is another 5-star and high 4-star recruit, and yet another 5-star has made a hard commit for 2023.

Additionally, when Coach Will Wade had Covid last year, Armstrong took over as interim coach and showed he had the right stuff for the job.  He may have to start his career in Conference USA or the Sun Belt, but Armstrong is going to be a big winner when he gets the chance.

7. Russ Turner–UC-Irvine

Turner might be coaching a Pac-12 team today if not for a statement made at the NCAA Tournament a few years ago that in modern times was considered too politically incorrect.  Eventually, the statement will be forgotten, especially when a team needs a winning coach.

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 his time in Irvine that he can organize and run a successful college program, one that can win in the NCAA Tournament, as UCI has beaten a Big 12 team in a past Dance.

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 ten 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.

A++’s

6. Mike Rhoades–Virginia Commonwealth

Any coach that can go 23-12 at Rice earns permanent placement on this list.  Rhoades was Shaka Smart’s top assistant at VCU before taking over at Rice for three years and then coming back to Richmond to replace Smart when he took the Texas job.

The Havoc Defense can disrupt a lot of teams, but one of the hidden assets of this defense is the amount of time a team must take to get the ball into the scoring zone.  Even if the defense doesn’t force a turnover, if the opponent has 15 seconds to run its offense after getting the ball across halfcourt and then advancing it to the scoring zone, all it takes is a little more pressure to force the opponent to take a low percentage shot.

VCU’s players are used to playing this way night after night.  Opponents frequently wilt when having to play a pressure game.  

Under Rhoades, the Rams earned two NCAA Tournament invitations in his first four years, even though they didn’t get to play last year due to Covid forfeit.

This year, Rhoades had to replace an NBA Draft pick, and then he lost his top big man to a torn ACL.  He also had to begin the season without the services of his point guard who was still recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.  Once Adrian Baldwin returned to the lineup, the Rams took off with seven consecutive victories and today stand at 3-1/10-5.  They should get better as the underclassmen gain the experience of playing on the road, and by Atlantic 10 Tournament time, VCU should be a contender for the title.

Rhoades is ready to coach at a Big East, ACC, Big Ten, SEC, or Big 12 school.  He might be a good fit at Georgia if he can recruit the in-state kids that are going everywhere else.

5. Mark Pope–Brigham Young

Mark Pope is one of the last of his kind.  He is one of two active college coaches that can trace his roots to the Adolph Rupp Coaching Tree (Leonard Hamilton at Florida State is the other).  Pope played for Lynn Nance at Washington.  Nance had been an assistant to Joe B. Hall at Kentucky, who had been Rupp’s assistant.  Ironically, Pope transferred to Kentucky to play for Rick Pitino, so he has a great thoroughbred pedigree from the Bluegrass State.

After serving a four-year trial at Utah Valley, where he guided the Wolverines to three CBI Tournament appearances and won 48 games in his final two years, Pope took the BYU job in 2020.  In his first year in Provo, he guided the Cougars to a second place West Coast Conference finish and a 24-8 record overall that included wins over UCLA, Houston, and Gonzaga.  BYU would have been a sure thing at-large invitee to the NCAA Tournament, but the tournament was canceled.

Last year, their 20-6 regular season record included three losses to undefeated Gonzaga.  As a 6-seed, they played admirably in a first round loss to UCLA.

Off to a 3-1/15-4 start this year, BYU has been ranked as high as #12 in the AP Poll.  Of course, their one conference loss came at the hands of current #1 team Gonzaga, as playing in the WCC is like playing in the Pac-8 in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Pope might be desiring a change of scenery to get out of Gonzaga’s shadow.  Having players go on two-year missions is no picnic, and he is handcuffed in recruiting to some extent.  His teams play an exciting, up-tempo style of basketball, and many schools could have him on their radar if they have a vacancy.

4. Ben McCollum–Northwest Missouri St.

Here is our very first Division 2 head coach on our list.  You probably have never heard of Ben McCollum.  He has dominated the Division 2 ranks in recent years with three national championships, including an undefeated season.  His teams play like Secretariat ran horse races.  They are a “tremendous machine.”  Usually, even the best teams have one exploitable weakness.  Either they have suspect outside shooters, they are a bit soft inside, they don’t rebound well, they have a hard time holding onto the ball, or their defense is too passive.  McCollum’s Northwest Missouri State teams are great in every factor.  

How best can we explain the way McCollum’s teams play?  They best remind us of the Indiana teams of 1975 and 1976.  They run a highly-efficient offense that frequently shoots better than 50% from the field, better than 40% from the 3-point line, and better than 80% at the foul line.  They prevent high percentage shots with an exceptional man-to-man defense with zone principles, and they play the passing lanes and get a lot of steals.  Watching NW Mo. play in the Division 2 national tournament last year, they beat a 2-loss team in the national semifinals by 31 points in a game that was not in doubt two minutes into the contest.  It was a matter of fact win where it looked like a college team playing a high school team.  They won the national championship with little more competition, as it was obvious quickly who would win the game.

McCollum lost the Division 2 equivalent of Larry Bird in Ryan Hawkins, and it figured that Northwest Missouri State would come back to the field some this year.  The Bearcats are merely 9-0 in the Mid-America Conference and 16-1 overall.  They are on pace to defend their national title.

If you don’t think a small college head coach can advance to a Power Conference school, then forget that John Wooden came to UCLA from what was then an NAIA school in Indiana State, or that John Chaney came to Temple from Division 2 Cheyney State or that both Ray Mears and Bruce Pearl came to Tennessee from small colleges, Mears from Wittenberg and Pearl from Southern Indiana via Milwaukee.  

A smart Athletic Director that isn’t afraid to seek out McCollum might pull off the major coaching coup of the year.  With Cuonzo Martin on a hot seat at Missouri, McCollum could be the perfect choice to move down to Columbia.

3. Travis Ford–Saint Louis

Last year’s number one coach on our list falls to number three this year mostly because the two coaches that passed him were a fraction behind him last year and have done great things this year.  

Ford’s pedigree includes playing for Norm Stewart at Missouri and Rick Pitino at Kentucky, playing on conference champions at both schools.  At the age of 28, he became the head coach at NAIA school Campbellsville.  The school was on probation for violations committed by the prior regime.  After a rough first year, Ford guided the school to a 51-14 record, which caught the eye of Eastern Kentucky University.

Ford took over an EKU program needing a major face lift, and in each year he raised the Colonels’ conference win mark over the preceding season.  It culminated with a trip to the NCAA Tournament in his fifth and final year in Richmond, KY.

UMass offered him their job in 2005, where he inherited an average squad from prior coach Steve Lappas.  After a mediocre first season, the Minutemen won the Atlantic 10 Conference title in year two with a 13-3/24-9 mark.  Ford followed that up with a 25-11 record the following year, which included a trip to the NIT Championship Game.

Ford’s next stop was at Oklahoma State.  He replaced Sean Sutton, who had fashioned 6-10, 6-10, and 7-9 conference records in three years following his dad in Stillwater.  In Ford’s first year at OSU, he guided the Cowboys to a 9-7 Big 12 record and invitation to the Big Dance for the first time in four years, where they beat Tennessee in the first round before falling to 1-seed Pittsburgh in a game the Pokes led in the second half.

All Ford did was take Oklahoma State to five NCAA Tournament berths in his seven years there, but that didn’t satisfy the folks in Stillwater.  He was fired after year eight.  

Ford was offered the Saint Louis job and has done quite well with the Billikens.  Taking over a team that had suffered through back-to-back 21-loss seasons, SLU improved by a game in Ford’s first season, then broke even in the Atlantic 10 with an overall winning record in his second season, and then took the Billikens to the Big Dance in his third season.  This year, the Billikens are 2-1 in the A-10 and 11-5 overall.  All five losses were to teams contending for NCAA Tournament bids, including a four-point loss to Auburn.

Ford belongs in a power conference.  Many schools would be happy with five Dance invitations in seven years. 

2. Matt McMahon–Murray St.

We raised McMahon’s status up several points after he continued to enjoy great results after once in a generation talent Ja Morant moved his sneakers to the NBA.  McMahon deserved a lot of credit for recruiting Morant to Murray and then developing him into the best point guard in the nation.

The Racers are currently 5-0/15-2 with wins over Memphis and Chattanooga.  One of their two losses was at Auburn.  Murray State and Belmont are both moving to the Missouri Valley Conference, so McMahon will move up from Mid-Major to borderline Power Conference coach by staying in Murray.  But, he is a sizzling hot commodity.  An SEC school like Vanderbilt or Georgia could return to glory by hiring him.

1. Chris Jans–New Mexico St.

Jans is one of the former Gregg Marshall assistants at Wichita State. He received Marshall’s endorsement when NMSU was considering him for its opening.

Jans is in his 12th year as a head coach 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 three years at New Mexico State, the Aggies went 28-6, 30-5, and 25-6, winning the Western Athletic Conference championship all three years and two tournament titles. The Aggies lost by one point to Final Four team Auburn in the 2019 NCAA Tournament second round, and the Aggies closed the 2020 season on a 19-game winning streak and appeared ready to contend for a Sweet 16 appearance before the tournament was called off.

Last year, NMSU suffered the most from Covid.  They had to leave the state of New Mexico and set up temporary residence in Arizona, living in a hotel and taking classes online during the day.  Most of their non-conference schedule was canceled.  The Aggies played two games against Division 2 teams to start the season and then had four weeks off before a scheduled game was not canceled, when a hastily scheduled game with Cal St. Northridge was arranged.  Then, they went 32 days until they played a conference game, losing twice in a row to eventual champion Grand Canyon.  The Aggies rebounded late, winning seven of eight games to set up a WAC Championship Game against Grand Canyon with an NCAA Bid on the line.  GCU completed the three-game sweep over the Aggies, leaving NMSU at 12-8 for the year.

With the 2021-22 season somewhat back to normal, the Aggies are back to dominating basketball.  NMSU is 4-0 in the WAC and 15-2 overall.  With the top teams from the Southland Conference coming over to the WAC, the conference race is going to be full of pressure-packed games, but we expect NMSU and Grand Canyon to put on a basketball pennant race similar to last year’s Dodgers and Giants in the NL West.

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. For the second time in three years, Jans is the best Mid-Major coach in America. He has the potential to take a school like Arizona State to a Final Four.

Best of the Rest, Alphabetically

Austin ClaunchNicholls St.
Adam CohenStanford ast.
Travis DecuireMontana
Dennis GatesCleveland St.
Grant McCaslandNorth Texas
Paul MillsOral Roberts
Scott NagyWright St.
Leon RiceBoise St.
Mark SchmidtSt. Bonaventure
Saddi WashingtonMichigan Ast.

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