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.

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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