The NCAA Basketball Coaching Power Rankings
The Ping-Pong balls have spoken. The NBA Draft order has been determined, which means we have an entire month to discuss which talented teenager should be taken with the #1 pick, and whether it was worth it for Dan Gilbert to sell his soul for three top picks in four years. But for now, let’s talk coaches! There are several current vacancies in the NBA that could attract some high-profile college coaches, and as always when this situation pops up, we need to determine who’s the most worthy. Here are some of my choices for the best coaches in NCAA Division I basketball, regardless of whether they’ll ever leave their current employer.
3. John Calipari, Kentucky
Coach Cal may be the prime example of a coach who succeeds more on his ability to attract the best prospects. He isn’t well-known as an “X’s and O’s” guy, but rather a master recruiter who uses every tool at his disposal to lure talent. Of course, this is a huge part of college basketball, and Calipari is the best at it. He has also proven to be able to get the most out of his team’s talent in big spots. After assembling one of the best recruiting classes in NCAA history before the 2013 season, the Wildcats choked their way through a dismal season while their lauded all-freshman starting five looked like exactly like freshmen. That is, of course, until Cal whipped them into shape and kicked off an insanely grueling run to the championship game. Calipari has found success at every head coaching stop of his career, and that’s no accident. No matter how you feel about his morals, he continues to be one of the best.
2. Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Izzo is often spoken about in contrast with Calipari, and for good reason: while Cal lands the best possible talent by promising them a one-year stepping stone to the NBA, Izzo builds his programs around players who are willing to fit within his system for three or four years. The Spartans don’t churn out superstars, and few of Izzo’s former players have amounted to much in the pros…and yet in Izzo’s 19 years at the helm, they have made the Sweet Sixteen a staggering 10 times and the Final Four six times. The knock against Izzo is that he has won “only” one title despite consistently fielding one of the sport’s top teams. His teams aren’t flashy, but his tough, old school brand of basketball gets hoops purists salivating, and has his team in serious contention nearly every year.
1. Shaka Smart, VCU
When the 32-year-old arrived on the scene in 2009, not much was expected of him. Smart was an unknown commodity, and VCU hadn’t been what you might call a basketball powerhouse. That changed in his second year, however, when Smart led the Rams on an incredible run to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, stunning top-seeded Kansas along the way. He hasn’t found quite as much postseason success lately but his Rams have made the tournament every year since, and have posted 12-4 conference records in the past two years after moving up to the increasingly competitive Atlantic-10. The great thing about Smart is that he’s primarily a coach and a leader, rather than a recruiter like some of his more heralded peers. He doesn’t have access to the same resources as some, but his self-labeled “havoc” defense has morphed VCU into a scary competitor year after year – and it’s mighty entertaining to watch. Smart also seems dedicated to turning his program into a serious contender, as he has consistently turned down the prestige and money that would come from better-known programs like UCLA and USC. Now that Brad Stevens has left Butler to lead my beloved Celtics to their next championship (Love/Rondo 2017!), Smart is my favorite coach in Division I, hands down.
Although Boeheim has never won a title without the force of nature that was Carmelo Anthony, his legendary zone defense has kept his Orangemen at the top of the rankings for decades. Boeheim finds overlooked talent and exploits it in his schemes to make Syracuse a dangerous matchup every year. Plus, his cranky old man persona was off the entertainment charts this year after his beloved Big East dissolved. Talk about high comedy.
No list of coaches is complete without the man they call Coach K out of fear of the evil squiggly red line that spellcheck puts under your misspelled words. Eight championship game appearances and four national titles over three decades will do that for a reputation. Duke has seemingly produced half of the NBA’s stars, and yet they all seemed to coexist and work toward their common goal under the leadership of Coach K.