Reid Forgrave’s Most Interesting College Basketball Coaches in the World
The NBA is a player-driven business: LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. These are the names and personalities who shape the league.
But college basketball is different. The college game is ruled by the coaches. Perhaps it’s because the one-and-done rule means we have only six months to get acquainted with the elite college players before they’re off to the NBA, so we don’t form lasting bonds with the best of them. Perhaps it’s because the college game itself is often more coach-driven and less improvisational than the NBA. Perhaps it’s because we identify these men as part and parcel of the blueblood schools where they’ve stayed for decades: Mike Krzyzewski is Duke, Jim Boeheim is Syracuse, Billy Donovan is Florida, Bo Ryan is Wisconsin.
More than any player, it’s the coaches who are the outsized personalities of their sport. Here are the 20 coaches I’m most interested in this season.
John Calipari, Kentucky: Any list of most interesting coaches would be silly not to begin with the most polarizing, fascinating, innovative coach in college basketball. In everything from his full and early embrace of the one-and-done rule to the preseason NBA combine he conducted for Kentucky players this October, Calipari is ahead of the curve. Go ahead and call him more of a marketer and recruiter than a true basketball coach; he doesn’t care, and it doesn’t matter. Anyway, any coach worth a damn tells you the most important part to college coaching success is getting the best players. Cal has done that yet again, with a recruiting class of four McDonald’s All-Americans after that historic class from last season. But this season he has some serious experience and his deepest roster yet. It’s been a whirlwind of a recent journey for Calipari – from his first national title in 2012 to a first-round NIT exit in 2013 to a rollercoaster of a season last year that ended in a national title-game loss to UConn. There’s no doubt that given all these factors – the immense talent, the history of Kentucky basketball, and the cultural significance of a man like Calipari – college basketball’s best drama will be in Lexington this year.
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: The greatest basketball coach alive (who else is even close? Gregg Popovich?) enters this season only 17 wins from 1,000 career victories. That’s something no Division I college coach has ever done. And the grizzled veteran will be reaching the milestone in the most newfangled of ways, with a freshman-dominated roster that includes the nation’s top recruiting class — filled with potential one-and-doners Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. This team will be so much fun to watch, and unlike a season ago, Coach K will even get the Blue Devils to defend.
Roy Williams, North Carolina: Ol’ Roy would have been a good pick for one of college hoops’ most interesting coaches even before the 131-page Wainstein Report laid bare an academic scandal in UNC’s athletic department. After all, his team – which had to weather a difficult situation last season with the P.J. Hairston fiasco – seems primed for its best season in several years. Star guard Marcus Paige said the goal is a Final Four. But the release of the report and the accompanying stink means several other things are brought into play: the values and ethics of the university, the who-knew-what-and-when aspect to the investigation and the possible sanctions that could be levied against UNC down the road. Williams is in a tough spot. The question is whether it’s a tough spot of his own making.
Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State: It tells you something about a man when he goes from being a first-time head coach whose hiring was considered silly by everyone outside the state of Iowa to being perhaps the single most sought-after college coach by NBA teams. He rebuffed multiple pro offers in the offseason to stay at Iowa State. His reasons are multiple and real – he grew up in Ames and starred at Iowa State, his parents and his in-laws live there, his youngest children, two twin boys, are still a few years from high school – but perhaps the biggest is he’s built a self-sustaining machine in just four seasons at Iowa State. The Cyclones lost two studs in Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane after last season, but they still crack my preseason top 10 because of matchup nightmare Georges Niang, steady point guard Monte Morris and dynamic UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, a kid who can flat-out score. Hoiberg may not have the most exciting courtside demeanor – he never got a technical foul in 10 seasons as an NBA player, and he’s had only had two as a coach – but the excitement he’s generated for basketball at his alma mater is a sight to behold.
Rick Pitino, Louisville: Pitino takes Louisville into its third conference in as many seasons as the Cardinals join the basketball juggernaut that is the ACC. And Pitino – known for his maniacal work ethic and intense attention to detail – seems as driven as ever at age 62. His team has six freshmen this season but also a loaded and experienced backcourt in Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, plus junior power forward Montrezl Harrell, who eschewed the NBA draft to return to Louisville and work on his game. I can think of few better coaches to do so under than Pitino. I asked Pitino which one player made the most strides in the offseason, and he said Harrell; if you remember what a monster Harrell was last season, that’s a scary proposition. Louisville has made two of the last three Final Fours, and last season’s ouster came in the toughest NCAA tournament region I’ve seen. Pitino is at the top of his game.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota: Close your eyes at the University of Minnesota practice court and you’d swear you’re listening to the father, not the son. Richard Pitino has all the mannerisms of his father, plus a system modeled after his dad’s pressing defense, but he’s carving his own niche in his second season at the helm of the Golden Gophers. This is a program that’s been in the mediocre-to-good range for quite some time; Pitino is striving for something great. Minnesota just missed the NCAA tournament last season, but it won the NIT as Pitino installed an up-tempo system unfamiliar to the holdovers from the Tubby Smith regime. There’s an excitement at The Barn these days, and it ought to only grow.
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin: What did it take to shed the label of Best Coach Who Hasn’t Made a Final Four? Bo Ryan’s most talented team, his most potent offensive attack, and a wild overtime finish against Arizona in the Elite Eight. (If Bo were here, he would remind you of all those national titles at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. But we’re not talking Division III Final Fours, Bo.) Nearly everyone returns from last year’s team, including matchup nightmare Frank Kaminsky, NBA lottery prospect Sam Dekker, and a Nigel Hayes who is a popular pick for the guy who’ll make the biggest jump in the Big Ten this season. This year the Big Ten will be Wisconsin and everyone else. A Big Ten repeat would be sweet; a Final Four repeat would be much, much sweeter.
Kevin Ollie, UConn: One season, he was working on a seven-month interim contract for a team unable to play in the postseason as he took the spot vacated by legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun. The next season he was hoisting the national title trophy as a 7-seed. How about that ride for Kevin Ollie, who’d never been a head coach until two years ago? He loses one of the most pivotal players in college basketball in point guard Shabazz Napier – not to mention forward DeAndre Daniels and three-point machine Niels Giffey – but Ollie is a great motivator who gets his guys to follow. The backcourt is still excellent, with Ryan Boatright joined by N.C. State transfer Rodney Purvis, and Daniel Hamilton highlights a good crop of newcomers. I heard that, in Ollie’s first official practice since the national title, he ran these guys ragged in a grueling three-hour session. Don’t expect any championship hangover here.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: A Cinderella trip to the Final Four one season. An undefeated run into the NCAA tournament the next season, ending only with a loss in the Round of 32 to eventual national finalist Kentucky. The question in Wichita is this: How can you top that? Employing a “play angry” style that matches his feisty, chip-on-his-shoulder nature, Marshall has built a high-major juggernaut in the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference. Even after sending Cleanthony Early to the NBA, Marshall’s team ought to be a national power, with arguably the nation’s top backcourt in Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and versatile lockdown defender Tekele Cotton. People wonder how long it will be before Marshall leaves for supposed greener pastures. You never know what sort of jobs will open up, but I’m telling you: It’ll take a lot to pry him from Wichita. I’m talking a blueblood or near-blueblood-level job. He’s beloved in the city, with a school that values (and pays top dollar for) great basketball.
Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech: It was a perplexing, lateral-at-best move when Buzz Williams left Marquette for Virginia Tech, which some coaches have told me is the toughest school to recruit to in ACC. Of course, it’s still a job in the ACC, the best conference in basketball, and there’s nowhere to go but up. Williams is in the midst of instituting BuzzBall in Blacksburg, complete with his preseason “Boot Camp” – run ‘em til they puke – and strict academic standards, where he insists players tweet him photos from certain classes to show they showed up six minutes early and sat in the front three rows. It’s a tough job, but Williams has the charisma and the coaching acumen to make this a job where he can make some serious progress.
Mark Few, Gonzaga: I’m not even sure if it’s fair to call Mark Few’s team a dark horse Final Four candidate. The Zags aren’t a dark horse; they ought to be right there in the conversation of the top dozen or so teams that have a really good shot at making it. Few has made a really nice life in Spokane, where his team is always part of the national landscape. This year might be his deepest, most talented team, with an experienced senior backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. that could take the Zags deep into March, a giant body in the post in 7-1 Polish junior Przemek Karnowski, and the X-factor of Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, who might be one of the nation’s top 3-point threats. Bo Ryan got off the Best Coaches Who Haven’t Made a Final Four list last season; who’ll do it this season? My money is on Arizona’s Sean Miller, but it could easily be Few.
Dana Altman, Oregon: At the end of last season, Oregon seemed like a success story – two NCAA tournament appearances in a row, a program that appeared on the rise – but the trouble was already brewing. Three players were being investigated for a sexual assault yet they were allowed to play in the NCAA tournament while the investigation was still taking place. The players – Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin – were later kicked out of school. This is shaping up into a difficult season for Altman in many ways. One is that it appears that he lost control of his players and his program. (His shaky post-incident press conference didn’t help.) And on the court, he simply doesn’t have the talent he should have this season. Phil Knight U. no longer settles for mediocrity, and this Ducks team will have only four returners and recently added five walk-ons to the depleted roster. If the Ducks miss the postseason this year – a likelihood – Altman’s name will lead the list of hot-seat candidates next year.
Lon Kruger, Oklahoma: Kruger’s squad is one of a few dark-horse Final Four candidates from the Big 12, along with Iowa State and Texas. (Kansas can never be considered a dark horse, of course.) If Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas is eligible to play this season, the Sooners will have one of the best starting fives in the nation, led by junior Big 12 player of the year candidate Buddy Hield. Kruger has made one Final Four, way back in 1994 at Florida, but his career has been more defined by taking down-on-their-luck basketball programs and, with his brand of incessant positivity and encouragement, turning them into competitors. That’s what he’s done at Oklahoma. This team could be really, really good.
Steve Lavin, St. John’s: It’s time for Lav to make an NCAA tournament. You can hear that sort of grumbling all around St. John’s. And this should be the year. The past two seasons have been fraught with players going through all sorts of off-court personal dramas. A more steady season this year would help volatile players like sophomore point guard Rysheed Jordan and senior shooting guard D’Angelo Harrison play up to their enormous potential. I love junior shot-blocking machine Chris Obekpa, but I’m worried about frontcourt depth, especially after big, talented juco transfer Keith Thomas, who led the junior-college circuit in rebounding last year, was declared academically ineligible. Talent has never been a question on the Queens campus. Lavin and his staff have been among the better recruiters in the country. The question has been whether they can put all that talent together.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse: This is not unlike the situation that Roy Williams is dealing with at UNC. Rumored misdeeds in and around the basketball program have shadowed the on-court product for years, and those misdeeds are finally coming to a head. In October, Syracuse went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions to discuss charges of academic fraud and extra benefits provided to players that date back a decade. It remains to be seen what happens to the program or to Boeheim. But the coach will keep grinding as long as he can – he’s at 949 wins, second all-time behind Coach K – although the expectations for this season’s squad are lower than past seasons. After losing C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and Tyler Ennis to the pros, Syracuse will have to reboot the team around some talented freshmen (Chris McCullough, Kaleb Joseph) and some experienced role players who’ll be asked to move into more central roles (Trevor Cooney, Rakeem Christmas). If anyone has the surliness to thumb his nose at an outside distraction like an NCAA investigation, it’s Boeheim; just remember how this team banded together in the aftermath of the Bernie Fine fiasco in 2011-12, with a 30-1 regular season and a trip to the Elite Eight.
Rick Barnes, Texas: A year ago I joined plenty of other so-called experts in placing Barnes firmly on the hot seat, after he missed his first NCAA tournament in 15 years at Texas and after his team was decimated by a rash of transfers. But Barnes told me before last season that his young team was getting back to its roots. He was right. Texas surprised all of us with a 24-win season, good for third in a stacked Big 12 and for a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament. Now he has pretty much that entire team back and has added uber-talented one-and-done candidate Myles Turner, who has garnered some way-too-early comparisons to Kevin Durant. Barnes has a sneaky shot at winning the Big 12, perhaps at winning it all.
Larry Brown, SMU: It’s a damn shame that Emmanuel Mudiay’s eligibility issues relating to his Dallas prep school, Prime Prep, kept him out of college basketball and forced him to spend a season in China. Because, man, would I have loved to see what that kid could do on Brown’s up-and-coming SMU team. SMU barely missed the NCAA tournament last season because of a weak non-conference schedule, but the Mustangs rallied to make the title game of the NIT. Brown is a Hall of Fame coach with a good, experienced roster. McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier is entering his sophomore year, and four of the team’s top five scorers from last season return. Expect to see Larry Brown in March.
Tom Crean, Indiana: Amazing to think that it was only two seasons ago when Crean had gotten Hoosiers basketball back to its rightful place atop the college basketball landscape, with a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation for 10 weeks before eventually losing in the Sweet 16. Now Crean is considered directly on the hot seat with a program that seems, from afar at least, to be out of control. There are all sorts of disturbing reports coming out of Bloomington: Players getting in trouble for failed drug tests and underage drinking, players who don’t seem to respect their coach, a program that appears to have gone off the rails. And then there’s the fact that, despite rescuing Indiana basketball from the doldrums, Crean’s overall record hasn’t been particularly impressive. Four times in the past six seasons, Crean has both had a losing record in the Big Ten and missed the NCAA tournament. To set things straight, this season’s team will have to rely on a great group of shooters but little else.
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall: Few people would dispute Willard is a great, detail-oriented coach and a pretty damn fun guy to be around. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to survive much longer in South Orange without some results. In four years at Seton Hall – which, it must be said, was one of the more difficult jobs in the old Big East and is one of the more difficult jobs in the new Big East – he has posted one winning season and one postseason appearance, making the second round of the NIT in his second season. He needs to make an NCAA tournament, and this season he finally has the sort of talent that can take him there, with a bumper crop of freshmen, including Brooklyn combo guard Isaiah Whitehead, one of the top players in the 2014 recruiting class, and Angel Delgado, one of the class’ top rebounders. With a backcourt that returns Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs, Willard will have one of the most intriguing teams in the Big East.
Saul Phillips, Ohio: I’ll admit it: I have a bit of a man-crush on Saul Phillips. The last you saw him, the man who once played for Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin-Platteville teams that won so many Division III titles was leading 12-seed North Dakota State over Oklahoma in one of the bigger upsets in the NCAA tournament. Then he was blubbering at the podium after his team lost in the Round of 32, talking about how it was the greatest professional moment of his life and how much all these kids meant to him. Now he finds himself in Athens, Ohio, the head coach of a MAC school with a historically competitive basketball program. What I love about Phillips, aside from his wacky and honest sense of humor, is how he doesn’t take his job nearly as seriously as so many at this level. He knows it’s basketball, not life or death, and that makes his teams play with a level of joy and abandon that you don’t always see. You may not see his name on the big stage too often this season, but trust me: You will in the future.