College basketball: 7 Coach of the Year candidates to watch for
If the season ended today, who would your Naismith Coach of the Year be?
Unlike last season, when John Calipari took home the award, 2015-16 doesn’t offer an obvious choice. There are several deserving candidates that have turned in outstanding coaching performances to date.
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Here are seven Coach of the Year candidates to monitor.
Sean Miller, Arizona
Arizona sits at 19-5 and is the No. 15 team in KenPom. However, considering several factors, one could argue that it has no business winning at such a high rate.
Last year’s team finished 34-4, but Arizona lost its four leading scorers to the NBA (Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and T.J. McConnell).
Most schools in such a position would hope to rely on incoming freshmen to shoulder that burden. But talented youngster Ray Smith tore his ACL and will miss this entire season, while Allonzo Trier, Arizona’s other blue-chip rookie, has missed significant time for the Wildcats this season due to a wrist injury.
And yet here Arizona is, still a legitimate national title contender in a college basketball season as wide-open as there has been in a long time.
Miller deserves a lot of credit, and he’s masked the fact that Arizona isn’t elite in any category by making sure it’s solid at everything. The Wildcats have spit out a top-20 KenPom offense playing without Trier and Kaleb Tarczewski for a good chunk of the season, and senior bulldozer Ryan Anderson has blossomed into a star under Miller’s tutelage.
Archie Miller, Dayton
Turns out, Sean’s little brother is a pretty good coach himself. Dayton is 20-3 this season and has dropped just one Atlantic-10 game, and the younger Miller continues to churn out excellent defensive teams that forge just enough offense to win.
The Flyers rank 20th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency this season, and Miller has flipped the common small-ball narrative on its head.
Dayton’s five leading scorers all stand 6-6 or shorter, yet it’s not a great offensive team (87th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency). So what makes the Flyers so good?
Miller’s team has mastered the art of running opponents off the 3-point arc while constantly communicating on a defensive string, as their opponents get only 35.1 percent of their points from 3-point range. That ranks 16th in the country. With the right coach, small-ball can work on defense, too.
Miller has learned to morph Dayton’s lack of size into a positive, and it’s paying huge dividends.
Mike White, Florida
Billy Donovan was a legend at Florida for years, but he didn’t experience much success in his final year in Gainesville, finishing 16-17 and missing the NCAA tournament.
This year’s roster looks pretty similar to last season’s, but White has the Gators at 16-8 with a 7-4 record in the SEC. Florida doesn’t have any terrible losses -- the Gators have yet to lose to a sub-.500 team this season, and players are buying into White’s high-octane defensive system.
The Gators are KenPom’s No. 14 defense at the moment, but beyond that, nothing else about them stands out. And that’s okay. White inherited a struggling group of players and has made them solid across the board, and he deserves high praise for the job he’s done thus far.
Fran McCaffery, Iowa
What a year it’s been for Iowa Athletics. The Hawkeyes are as well-rounded as any team in the country, as they’re the only team close to sniffing a top-10 adjusted offense and defense (eighth in offensive efficiency; 11th in defensive efficiency.) How has Iowa made its hay? Through dedicated effort towards player development.
Programs not named Kentucky, Duke or Kansas (though it helps those programs, too) must be relentless in developing their own talent each season, as player progression is a crucial variable that makes college basketball so fun. McCaffery has done a stellar job in helping his stable of talent improve.
Jarrod Uthoff has blossomed into a two-way superstar after averaging 7.6 points per game as a freshman. Peter Jok barely cracked the rotation as a rookie and is averaging more than 15 points per game as a junior. Anthony Clemmons is doubling his scoring average from a year ago, and Adam Woodbury has turned into a reliable force at both ends of the floor after struggling to make an impact in his first three seasons.
The kids deserve a lot of credit for improving their games, but so does the coaching staff. McCaffery has this Hawkeyes team playing superb basketball.
Dana Altman, Oregon
I detailed most of Altman’s credentials here, but here’s a quick synopsis: Oregon is playing without Villanova graduate transfer Dylan Ennis, who was supposed to start in the backcourt in place of Tyler Dorsey or Casey Benson this season. Ennis will miss the entire season due to injury.
Dorsey and shot-blocking extraordinaire Jordan Bell have also missed time, but the Ducks just keep on keeping on, winning 20 of their first 24 games while playing an exciting, modern style of basketball. When you’re the Oregon Ducks, style points matter.
Andy Enfield, Southern California
Is there a bigger surprise in college basketball than USC? The Trojans haven’t had a winning season since 2010-11. As of now, they’re 18-5 and have notched wins over Arizona, Wichita State, Washington and UCLA (twice).
There’s nothing flashy about the way USC plays, but Enfield has made the most of what he has. The Trojans are playing efficiently on offense and intuitively on defense. They lack ball-stoppers, and Enfield has stressed the importance of keeping the orange moving around the perimeter until a crease forms in the defense. USC only uses 15.5 seconds per possession, which is the 24th quickest mark in the country.
On the flip side, Enfield’s defense is forcing opponents to use up almost 17 seconds per possession on the other end. USC is winning the war of attrition, and even if the Trojans aren’t the most talented team in America, they’re one of the most disciplined.
Shaka Smart, Texas
It hardly comes as a shock to see Smart on this list. The Longhorns have a knack for playing their best ball in big games, as they’ve knocked off North Carolina, Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor and recently took Oklahoma down to the wire before succumbing to a Buddy Hield outburst.
Texas stumbled to an 8-5 start this season, but as the level of competition has ratcheted up, so has its level of play. Similar to his teams at VCU, Smart has installed a defensive culture in Austin that the program had been lacking for years. The Longhorns rank 25th in the country in opponent effective field goal percentage and are 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency. Texas has talent, and Smart is unlocking optimal lineup combinations on a nightly basis.
Nobody is going to want to face the Longhorns in March, and their coach is a major reason why.
Editor's note: The mention of any coach reflects only the opinion of the writer and not his actual chances of winning the award.