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Mike Lopresti | | January 31, 2016

College basketball: Breaking down the top Coach of the Year candidates

  Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has done an excellent job leading the Sooners.

Know what lots of teams making noise in college basketball means? Lots of coach of the year candidates.

Here is a list of suggested contenders.

Fran McCaffery (Iowa)
The 16-4 Hawkeyes have swept Michigan State, and Purdue. They’re 7-4 against top 50 RPI teams, and soared to their highest ranking in 29 years. Their four losses were by a combined 18 points. And back in November, not many people had Jarrod Uthoff among the studs of the game.

Who knew this about Fran McCaffery? He once led the Ivy League in steals and assists for Penn.

Chris Mack (Xavier)
The 19-2 Musketeers have been hanging around the top of the RPI all season, trotting out a balanced offense where six players average 8.7 points or better. Xavier has won four consecutive Big East road games, and is 4-1 against top 25 opponents. This is a program that has advanced to three Sweet 16s in the past six years under Mack, and it is not going away.

Oh, and the last 96 Musketeers to play as seniors graduated.

Who know this about Chris Mack? At the invitation of the groom’s brother, Mack and his family crashed a wedding last fall to surprise a big Xavier fan.

Billy Kennedy (Texas A&M)
They play basketball in College Station, too? The 18-3 Aggies have pushed to a No. 5 ranking, the highest in the history of the school, and are a direct threat to unseat Kentucky in the SEC. That hasn’t been easy to do for eons. Saturday’s win against Iowa State was their fourth victory of the season against the Big 12, so maybe Texas A&M can win two conference titles. In case it comes in March, the Aggies have been to one Sweet 16 since 1980.

Who knew this about Billy Kennedy? He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011, and his success could be something of a beacon for others.

Dana Altman (Oregon)
Ending Arizona’s 49-game home winning streak the other night should make the 17-4 Ducks under-noticed no longer. They have beaten nine—count ‘em – nine teams in the top 50 of the RPI. Altman sometimes gets lost on the national radar screen, hidden out there among the Oregon firs, but owns 19 consecutive winning seasons between Kansas State, Creighton and the Ducks.

RELATED: How the Ducks have risen to the top of the Pac 12

Who knew this about Dana Altman? He graduated magna cum laude from Eastern New Mexico.

Randy Bennett (Saint Marys)
When a man loses all five starters and 80 percent of his scoring, and he’s 18-2 on Feb. 1 the next season, he goes on this list. If there was an efficiency meter, Bennett’s Gaels would make it smoke, leading the nation in shooting and assist-turnover ratio, second in 3-point shooting and scoring margin, third in scoring defense. More than 64 percent of their baskets come off assists. The two losses were by seven total points.

Who knew this about Randy Bennett? When he took his team to the Sweet 16 in 2010, it was the first time in 51 years Saint Mary’s had won a game in the NCAA Tournament.

Will Wade (VCU)
Think it’s easy replacing Shaka Smart at VCU? You try it. But the 16-5 Rams have won 11 in a row, and the defense that Smart made so fashionable has not rested. VCU forced 31 turnovers against Buffalo and held Saint Louis to two field goals in the first half; numbers that make the hearts of Rams fans sing. Even the losses – by eight to Duke, six to Cincinnati, five to Florida State, one to Wisconsin  – have been impressive.

Who knew this about Will Wade? He was a student manager at Clemson.

Roy Williams (North Carolina)
Yeah, the 19-2 Tar Heels were supposed to be No. 1, and the 8-0 ACC record might be a tad misleading because they haven’t done the heavy lifting yet. But Williams lost star Marcus Paige and starter Kennedy Meeks for significant time because of injury, and still kept the Tar Heels humming. If the 1.79 assist-turnover ratio holds, it would be the finest in Chapel Hill since assists started being officially counted more than 30 years ago. The two defeats were by six points, one to Texas on a buzzer-beater.

Who knew this about Roy Williams? His Kansas and North Carolina teams have been ranked No. 1 or 2 in the poll in 17 different seasons.

King Rice (Monmouth)
The 17-5 Hawks are the giant killers of the year. Beating Notre Dame would be big enough, but UCLA, USC and Georgetown went on the trophy wall as well. Monmouth received votes in the polls for the first time in history, and has won 11 games away from home, while being led by a 5-8 guard, Justin Robinson. Rice has built an upstart based on balance; nine players have scored at least 16 points in a game.

Who knew this about King Rice? As a point guard for Smith at North Carolina, he once had 13 assists in a game against Kentucky.

Ed Cooley (Providence)

He lost his center to a sudden transfer, but the 18-4 Friars have become a major player in the Big East race with Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil a 1-2 punch that would make Floyd Mayweather Jr. proud. Cooley marshals his team through the tough moments, Providence is 7-1 in games decided by four points or less, or in overtime.

Who knew this about Ed Cooley? The ultimate hometown story, of overcoming challenges. He grew up not far from the Providence campus, born one of nine kids to a mother on welfare.

Also receiving votes
San Diego State’s Steve Fisher, still going strong at 70. Villanova’s Jay Wright, for sustained excellence. Shaka Smart, because Texas is starting to look dangerous. Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, overcoming injury to the indispensable Fred VanVleet. Indiana’s Tom Crean, quieting the critics, or most of them anyway. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, for making West Virginia’s defense scary (except in the state of Florida). Brad Brownell, for making Clemson relevant.  Kansas’ Bill Self, because Kansas among the elite is more reliable than Old Faithful. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, for damage control without Denzel Valentine.

But the coach to beat at this moment is . . .

Lon Kruger (Oklahoma)
First, the 18-2 Sooners are No. 1 in the AP poll. Secondly, they’re livelier to watch than a Star Wars movie, with Buddy Hield so good, you can forget he wasn’t a five-star recruit everyone wanted. Even the losses are riveting; three overtimes at Kansas, tied in the last minute at Iowa State. But most of all, it is way past time everyone catch on to just what kind of incandescent career Kruger has put together. Nobody else has ever taken five different schools into the NCAA Tournament. Not. One. Coach. And he did it at least twice at every stop. Billy Donovan put Florida basketball on the map? OK, but it was Kruger who coached the Gators to their first Final Four.

Who knew this about Lon Kruger? He was once invited to the Dallas Cowboys rookie camp as a quarterback.

So among the coach of the year contenders, he’s unquestionably the best passer of the bunch. Is he the most deserving? A platoon of men could make a case. It’s that kind of season.

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