The Pi-Rate Ratings

February 19, 2021

20 Basketball Coaches Ready For Prime Time–2021 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. Dave Richman–North Dakota St.

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

19. Joe Golding–Abilene Christian

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

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

18. Bryce Drew–Grand Canyon

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

17. Bob Richey–Furman

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

16. Craig Smith–Utah St.

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

15. Matt McMahon–Murray St.

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

14. Travis Decuire–Montana

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

13. Casey Alexander–Belmont

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

12. Niko Medved–Colorado St.

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

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

11. Russ Turner–UC-Irvine

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

10. Darian DeVries–Drake

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

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

9. John Becker–Vermont

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

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

8. Mark Pope–BYU

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

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

7. Wes Miller–UNC-Greensboro

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

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

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

6. Chris Jans–New Mexico St.

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

5. Mike Rhoades–Virginia Commonwealth

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

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

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

4. Joe Pasternack–UC Santa Barbara

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

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

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

3. Scott Nagy–Wright St.

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

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

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

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

2. Kyle Kelller–Stephen F. Austin

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

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

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

NUMBER ONE FOR 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you guess who this is now?

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

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

January 20, 2019

20 Basketball Coaches Ready For Prime Time

Every year, as fans and administrators grieve over the fact that their school’s basketball team is in the middle of a crash and burn, attention turns to possible replacement candidates. When a team was expected to be better than the year before or even turn things around, but said team does not show the improvement or even takes a step back, media, fans, and administrators begin wondering if a coaching change is on the horizon.
We are sure there are readers here that fall into this category.

 

If you are a UCLA fan, you already have a coaching search underway. Fans at Wake Forest and Washington State may experience a coaching search in March. There can be somewhat unexpected coaching changes when a new athletics director comes in and want’s “his man” in the position. All it takes is a bad February and March for an unexpected change to be made. Then, there are always the unexpected dismissals, retirements, and lateral moves leaving power conference jobs open.

 

To become the head coach at a major power conference school, most of the time, the new coach must have head coaching experience at the college level. On the rare occasion, a top assistant can be the hire, but this usually happens when said assistant replaces a retiring sucessful coach, like when Chris Holtmann replaced Brandon Miller, who had replaced Brad Stevens at Butler.

 

At the present time, there are a couple dozen excellent potential candidates to move up to power conference schools if there is a job opening. By power conference, I refer to AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC. That comes to 87 schools.
Today, the PiRate Ratings list 20 excellent coaches that we believe could take over a power conference basketball team and make it a successful choice. We set some criteria to make this list, so if a coach you think is deserving is not on this list, it could be that we did not include him because he failed to meet our criteria.

1. Age–We limited this list to coaches that will be under 50 years old on March 15, 2019. Yes, older coaches can still make a move upward past the age of 50. The PiRate Captain (me) is pushing 60, and I am not ready to be put out to pasture just yet. Still, most coaches that are going to move from low or mid-major schools to the Big Ten, Big 12, or ACC are going to be under the age of 50.

2. Past Division 1 head coaching experience or considered one of the three best power conference assistants–even if the coach is an assistant coach this year, he must have been a head coach in Division 1, unless he is considered to be the top in his class. We have included just one assistant with no previous college head coaching experience.

3. I must have seen him coach in person or on TV to see that this guy knows what he is doing. That means his team was prepared to win the game from the start, and the coach made adjustments that increased his team’s chances of winning more than the guy on the other bench.

4. He needs to have some sort of pedigree from a successful program other than his own.

5. Or, he needs to be a former power conference head coach that has been in the NBA and now needs a job.

With this criteria, here are the 20 best candidates to be given big pay raises to become power conference head coaches in 2019-20. We graded each coach on a scale of 1-100, and they had to earn a score of 90 or better to make this list. The #1 pick is not that far ahead of the #20 pick; all these men get A’s for coaching. They are presented in order of #20 to #1.

 

20. Jon Scheyer, Duke Associate Head Coach

Scheyer 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 31, 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.

19. Mike Rhoades, Virginia Commonwealth

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 has gone 14-36 through this weekend.

 
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 13-5 this year, giving up just 62.6 points per game, the lowest mark since Smart’s 2012 team gave up 60 with a 35-second shot clock instead of 30-second shot clock now. Rhoades will eventually become the next VCU coach to move up to a bigger program. It probably won’t be after this season, but give him time to put together a couple of 23-win seasons at VCU, and somebody will come calling.

18. Jeff Boals, Stony Brook

Steve Pikiell built up the Stony Brook program into a competitive winner, and it took Boals a couple of years to bring in an entirely new plan and four new starters from the best team in Seawolves history. Stony Brook was expected to finish in the lower half of the standings in Boals’ first year in Long Island, but the Seawolves surprised with a second place finish. After a down year last year, the Seawolves are back. They are 4-0 in the America East Conference and 16-3 overall, locked in a tight race with Vermont.
Boals comes from the Thad Matta coaching tree plus the Keith Dambrot (Akron) coaching tree. As an Akron assistant, he contributed to three 20-win seasons. Then, when he moved to Ohio State, the Buckeyes enjoyed their best years of the Matta era, including the Final Four, an Elite 8, and two Sweet 16 appearances in four seasons. Boals will probably need a year or two more to prove himself, but he is 46 and will fall off our criteria list in four years.

17. Casey Alexander, Lipscomb

Alexander is not well known outside of Nashville. He was a 16-year assistant at his alma mater to Coach Rick Byrd at Belmont, and he has followed in Byrd’s footsteps coaching down the street at Belmont’s arch-rival Lipscomb.

 
After guiding Lipscomb to their first ever NCAA Tournament last year, Alexander’s 2019 team is better. The Bisons have won at SMU and at TCU and have a narrow miss at Louisville. At 4-0 in the Atlantic Sun and 13-4 overall, the Bisons are the co-favorites along with Liberty to win the ASUN regular season and conference tournament championship.

Alexander is 46 years old, so his time is probably now if he is going to move up to a power conference school. The one big feather in his cap is that his Lipscomb team ranks among the nation’s leaders in tempo. Lipscomb averages 77 possessions per game.

16. Russ Turner, UC-Irvine

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.

 
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 seven consecutive years. Included in that streak is the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament bid where UCI did everything but upset Louisville in a two-point loss that saw many 50-50 calls go Louisville’s way.

This year, the Anteaters are 3-1 in the Big West and 15-5 overall. Like all of Turners’ teams, UCI plays 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. Including in this year’s victims are Texas A&M and Saint Mary’s, both of whom fell to UCI on their home floors. Turner is ready to make that next move, and this could be the year. It doesn’t have to be a West Coast school.

15. Travis DeCuire, Montana

In baseball, the great Willie Mays was called a “5-tool player,” which meant he could hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw expertly. In basketball, I like to call a team that can do everything well a 5-tool team. That means, they can shoot, defend the shot, rebound on both ends of the floor, and force more turnovers than they commit. When a team enjoys an advantage in all five categories over its opposition, it becomes hard to beat them on a consistent basis.

 
Travis DeCuire’s teams are 5-tool teams. His current Montana Grizzlies squad shoots the ball well from inside and outside the arc and prevent the opposition from doing so. Montana wins the battle of the boards, and they force more turnovers than they commit. Because this current Grizzlies squad is quite experienced, look for Montana to be a force to be reckoned with in March. UM is 12-6 this year, one game behind leader Weber State in the Big Sky Conference. If Montana wins the automatic bid to the Big Dance, DeCuire might do the two-step to a bigger program like his predecessor Wayne Tinkle, who is doing a great job at Oregon State.

 
DeCuire has an excellent pedigree. Like Turner, he assisted Mike Montgomery. His tenure with Motgomery came at UC-Berkeley, when Cal enjoyed its best run of years since Pete Newell led the Bears to the Title. Additionally, DeCuire helped guide Old Dominion to success during the Blaine Taylor years.

14. Matt McMahon, Murray St.

We almost had to reconsider his resume, only 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. Throw in one year with Michael White at Louisiana Tech, and it only increased his resume by a little, as White has not yet proven he is capable of succeeding at Florida. However, it’s his four years as an assistant here at Murray State that elevates McMahon onto the A grade coaches list. He was an assistant to Steve Prohm, who has proven himself to be one of the top 20 head coaches in college basketball, and that makes McMahon’s pedigree excellent.

 
As a head coach at Murray State, McMahon is proving that he is ready to take over a big time program. The Racers are the class of the league again this year after winning the Ohio Valley Conference regular season and tournament last year. Murray sports a 6-0/15-2 record this year after going 26-6 last year. McMahon is ready to coach in the big time next year, and he could be in the mix at a Big Ten, Big 12, or SEC job. He rates an A grade, but he is not the top commodity in the Commonwealth. Read on to find out who rates ahead of him.

13. Chris Jans, New Mexico St.

This selection might be considered a tad controversial, but a man deserves a second chance when he has proven that he can defeat the demons of alcohol. If not for the past issue, Jans might be in the top three in this list. Before looking at the rest of his resume, I will mention that he was caught on video inebriated in a bar patting a woman on her rear end and using a bad word to describe another woman that tried to scold him for his actions. It cost him his job as a head coach at Bowling Green.

Let’s look at the rest of Jans’ resume. As an assistant coach, he worked with Gregg Marshall at Wichita State both before and after his incident at Bowling Green. He received Marshall’s endorsement when NMSU was considering him for its opening. He also worked under current Loyola Coach Porter Moser, when Moser was the head man at Illinois State.

Now for his results. Jans has been a head coach for eight 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.
Last year, in his first season in Las Cruces, Jans guided the Aggies to the WAC regular season and tournament championships and a 28-6 record. They are 15-4 so far this season, and a half-game back of the leaders at 4-1 in the WAC. Under Jans, NMSU plays a style similar to Wichita State. The Aggies almost always win the hustle points over their opponents, and to date they are +7.4 in rebounding margin and +2.2 in turnover margin (2.2 less than opponents). If you are familiar with the PiRate R+T rating, the Aggies current R+T is 13.9, which is good enough to get a WAC team to the Sweet 16.

If a school is willing to overlook the past, Jans could coach a big time program to a Final Four.

12. Joe Pasternack, UC-Santa Barbara

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.

UCSB is 14-3 so far this season, including a perfect 3-0 in the Big West. Their shooting percentages have taken a slight upward turn, but this year, their defense is fantastic, and the Gauchos will fight UC-Irvine for the title.

Pasternack is certainly ready to take over a major program. Tulane might become available, and I am sure there are people in New Orleans that would like to have Pasternack back in town.

11. Nathan Davis, Bucknell

Davis has an interesting coaching pedigree. His first division 1 assistant job found him serving under Don Devoe at Navy at the end of Devoe’s long tenure in college basketball. He was an assistant here at Bucknell for five years under Pat Flannery, and the Bison went to the NCAA Tournament a couple of times, including the team that upset Kansas.
Davis has won big as a head coach, first at Division 2 Randolph-Macon, and now at Bucknell.

 

At RMU, he won 141 games in six years and put teams in the D2 NCAA Tournament every season, one of which included a Final Four trip. At Bucknell, he is three for three in winning the conference championship, and his team is in first place this year as well. In road games against the big schools, his Bison teams have not backed down from NCAA Tournament teams. In 2017, Bucknell won at Vanderbilt. Last year, they came close at North Carolina and Maryland. In NCAA play, Bucknell came close to pulling off upsets of West Virginia and Michigan St. They led Ohio State in Columbus into the second half this year before losing by two.

 
Davis has shown he can take lesser talent and go toe-to-toe with big time programs. He’s ready to show his stuff at a big time program.

10. Earl Grant, Charleston

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 serves as 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. Last year, 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.

This year, Charleston is 14-6 with wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Memphis. The CAA is stacked at the top with good teams, so if the Cougars can win the tournament again and play well in the Big Dance, Grant could be in line for a bigger job, especially with his ability to recruit.

9. Luke Yaklich, Michigan assistant

This is the other top assistant that should get a head coaching offer soon. Yaklich is the reason Michigan’s defense improved by leaps and bounds. Previous John Beilein teams were all about beating opponents with three-point shooting and fast break scoring, but the Wolverines made it to the National Championship Game last year with their defense leading the way, and they have remained a defensive force this year with their fantastic start. When they finally lost this weekend at Wisconsin, it was their offense that let them down. The defense was still outstanding.

 
Yaklich will bring an intensity to any program, and his reputation should help him land enough talent to win as a major college head coach. Yaklich also had two years of assistant coaching experience under Mike Davis at Indiana.

8. Kyle Smith, San Francisco

Smith may be an unknown name to basketball fans outside of the Bay Area of San Francisco, but he has an impressive resume to date and should get the opportunity to either turn USF into the power it twice was or move to a big time program.
Smith got his coaching start under former UCLA star Brad Holland, when Holland coached at the University of San Diego. After a season as an assistant at Air Force under former Princeton starter Joe Scott, he served for a decade as an assistant to Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s.

 
Smith’s first head coaching job was at one of the ten toughest places to win in Division 1. He took over the Columbia University program in 2010, the Lions had not enjoyed a winning season in Ivy League play for 18 years. He won immediately in upper Manhattan, guiding the program to a winning season in his first year. When he won 21 games in 2014, it was the first time since 1970 (when the program had its best ever player in future Laker all-star Jim McMillan) that a Columbia team had won 20 games. In his final year with the Lions, he set a record at the school with 25 wins plus the College Insiders Tournament Championship. Since Smith left Columbia, the Lions have returned to the bottom half of the Ivy League.

Smith has done a remarkable job at USF. He won 20 games his first year and 22 last year, both teams making appearances in the CBI tournament. This year, the Dons are 16-3 with losses to Buffalo, UCSB, and Gonzaga and wins over Stanford, Cal, Saint Mary’s, and BYU. The Dons could earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they can win at Saint Mary’s or at Gonzaga or make it to the WCC Championship Game with only two more losses.

 
Smith is more than ready to guide a major program, and it could be any location. He’s won in the East, and he’s won in the West. Or, he could choose to stay by the Bay and bring USF back to the land of powerhouse basketball teams.

7. Steve Forbes, East Tennessee St.

Like Chris Jans at New Mexico State, 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 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. Last year, ETSU finished 25-9 and runner-up to UNC-Greensboro. The Bucs are 16-5 so far this season, but UNCG just knocked them off in Johnson City.

 

6. John Brannen, Northern Kentucky

Some of you may be asking who in the you know what is John Brannen? Brannen is the best coach in the Commonwealth not coaching at Rupp Arena. Brannen served as a top assistant to Anthony Grant at Virginia Commonwealth and Alabama, and he actually coached the two NIT games for the Crimson Tide in 2015 once Grant was dismissed. The Tide played its best game of the season under Brannen’s direction against Illinois in the NIT.

 
Brannen took the Northern Kentucky job after the Tide were knocked out in the following NIT round, and he quickly built the program in its infancy as a Division 1 program. In his second year with the Norse, NKU enjoyed its first ever winning season in D1. Brannen guided NKU to a 12-6 Horizon League record and third place finish, and then the Norse won the conference tournament, advancing to the NCAA Tournament . As a #15 seed, the Selection Committee placed them against #2 Kentucky, the big brother of the Commonwealth. Brannen’s team faced the heavily favored Wildcats without fear and stayed within contention for most of the night before losing by just nine points.
Last year, NKU had a better team, and the Norse won the Horizon League Championship with a 15-3 record, but they were upset in the conference tournament by a Cleveland State team they had blown out twice during the season.

 
This year, NKU looks even better yet. The Norse are currently leading the Horizon with a 6-1 record and are 16-4 overall. If Brannen sweeps the regular season and conference tournament titles, and then NKU has a decent showing against a heavily favored opponent, he could get a chance to become a power conference coach. He’s ready.

 

5. Ron Sanchez, Charlotte

How can I have somebody in his first year as a head coach so high? There are extenuating circumstances. Sanchez would have made this list last year as one of the top three assistants. Sanchez was the top assistant to Tony Bennett at Virginia and Washington State and Tony’s dad Dick also at Washington State. He knows the Pack-line defense as well as any other coach in America not named Bennett.

 
In his first head coaching job at Charlotte, the 49ers have only a 5-12 won-loss record and a 2-4 Conference USA mark. Again, this looks bad on the surface, but it is anything but. To implement a change in systems from what Charlotte used last year to what they are using this year, it is like Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense leaving Washington State’s football program and replaced by Army’s Jeff Monken and his triple option offense.
Sanchez has the 49ers running the new defense with rather good results, and Charlotte is getting better every game. They have won two of their last three games, and the two wins came against conference foes in the upper half of the league standings. Included in recent losses is a one-pointer to league leader Marshall.  Having watched the 49ers play, it is easy enough to see that with just a little more talent, Charlotte is going to become a force in CUSA.

Sanchez almost assuredly will not get any offers to coach a Power Conference team next year, but if there is a school out there that has some talent but seems to be needing better defensive structure, Sanchez would be an excellent dark horse candidate. He gets a coveted A+ grade here.

 

4. Fred Hoiberg, recently fired coach of the Chicago Bulls

There are always rumors that Brad Stevens will leave the Boston Celtics to come back to college ball or that Billy Donovan is just waiting for the right college job to open up, but we believe the next NBA guy to return to college will be the one that was just fired by the Bulls.

 
Hoiberg won big at Iowa State, going 99-40 in his final four seasons with four NCAA Tournament appearances at his alma mater. The Iowa State job will not be available in March, unless Steve Prohm takes an even more prestigious job. Hoiberg has already been rumored to be a front-runner for the UCLA job, and in my opinion, he deserves an A+ grade for the work he did at Iowa State.

 

3. Nate Oats, Buffalo

Oats isn’t just maintaining the success that former coach Bobby Hurley enjoyed in Buffalo. He’s taken the Bulls program and made it better with his own style. Oats comes from an interesting background. As an assistant at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, he worked for two intelligent long-time Wisconsin greats in Dave Vander Muelen and Pat Miller. Miller won the National Championship there. In Oats’ basketball DNA are traits of Dick Bennett’s defense which we now know as the Pack-line, and Bo Ryan’s offense and defense, as many coaches in Wisconsin use the same type of offense and defense. When you see a quality coach from Wisconsin, you know his teams will play excellent man-to-man defense, run a patient offense that uses a lot of screens, rebounds on the defensive end better than most, and takes care of the ball.

 
Oats’ Buffalo teams play at a quicker pace than the teams coached by Wisconsin coaches. The Bulls average 74 possessions per game, and they are exciting to watch at both ends of the floor. Oats has proven he can coach and has enjoyed success when Buffalo has played big name opponents. This year, Buffalo has wins at Syracuse and West Virginia.
Oats becomes the first of what I call the A++ grade coaches. He is a hot commodity, and he might be able to be a bit selective about where he wants to go, especially if Buffalo makes a run at 30 wins this year.

 

2. Wes Miller, UNC-Greensboro

The reason Steve Forbes is not higher on this list is because Miller is. The reason Miller isn’t even higher is that his pedigree only qualifies due to his college coach. 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.

 
This year, Miller has solidified UNCG’s dominance in the Southern Conference. The Spartans are 6-1 in the league and 17-3 overall, which includes an impressive win at East Tennessee. Two of the losses were at Kentucky and at LSU, two NCAA Tournament worthy teams. UNCG led Kentucky in the second half of that game.
Miller is just 35 years old, and he has been rumored to be a leading contender to take over at his Alma Mater if Coach Williams retires. He rates as an A++ candidate.

 

1. Eric Musselman, Nevada

And now to the best coach in college basketball today, a coach in a league by himself. Yes, I say the best coach. He’s better than Coach K, better than John Calipari, better than Roy Williams, and better than Jay Wright.

 
Eric Musselman will win a national championship at a big time school like Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, or maybe UCLA if he ever gets one of these jobs. He could take a power conference team like Illinois or Wake Forest to the Final Four.
When you combine his ability to evaluate talent and recruit rare gems, his ability to prepare his team in advance to play, and his incredible ability to make in-game adjustments, you have the best overall head basketball coach in college since Dean Smith retired.

 
Let’s look at his pedigree. First, he was born to a father that was a successful, albeit controversial head coach in college and the NBA.  Eric was the head coach at Golden State and Sacramento in the NBA, doing better than he got credit for under difficult circumstances.

He spent two years at Arizona State under Herb Sendek, and the Sun Devils won 43 games in those two years. A year as an assistant at LSU was the lone year that former coach Johnny Jones guided the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament, even though Jones had Ben Simmons the following year.

 
At Nevada, Musselman has brought in a lot of castoffs from other teams along with some fine recruits, and the Wolf Pack have been dominant from the start.
Taking over following a 10th place MWC finish and 9-22 record, Mussleman did a 180-degree turn in his first year and took Nevada to 24-14 record and fourth place finish in the league. The Wolf Pack earned an invitation to the CBI Tournament and won the event beating Morehead State.

 
In year two, Nevada won both the regular season and conference tournament championships, earning a trip to the Big Dance. Several times during the season, Nevada came from behind to beat teams with better overall talent.

 
Last year, the Wolf Pack won the regular season title again, but they were upset by San Diego State in the conference tournament. At 27-7, they earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Musselman guided the Wolf Pack to a comeback win over Texas in overtime in the opening game. Then, after trailing big favorite Cincinnati by 22 points midway through the second half, Nevada took total control of the game at both ends of the floor and posted one of the greatest comeback wins in tournament history. As good as Musselman was, he could not beat Sister Jean’s power, and the Wolf Pack lost to Loyola of Chicago in the Sweet 16 round.

 
This year, Nevada is one of the top two teams in the West. The Wolf Pack are 18-1 and ranked in the top 10. Nevada has joined Gonzaga and Buffalo as the three top teams not in a power conference.

 
Musselman has been rumored to be in the mix for the vacant UCLA job, but the big money names in Los Angeles will probably force AD Dan Guerrero to go after a bigger name, which will be a big mistake. If the Bruins want to return to the top of the West, they need to hire Musselman. If they don’t, then some other school will exploit yet another bad move in Westwood and gobble up a potential national champion coach.

 

Coming Monday, January 21: An updated PiRate Ratings and an updated Bracketology report.  There was quite a bit of change over the weekend.

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