Predicting the 2014-15 Coach of the Year in Each Major CBB Conference
Pictured above are the head coaches at two of college basketball's most storied programs: Villanova's Jay Wright (facing camera) and Georgetown's John Thompson III (not so much). As we gather to discuss Coach of the Year awards, these two lead us off for a reason.
Everyone has a different set of criteria for how they vote for their conference's COY. Some like the leader of the conference champion. Some like the coach who shows flexibility in winning with a team that may not fit his typical style. And others favor the coach whose team exceeds all expectations, making the award sort of a token of appreciation along the same lines as a Hallmark card.
File it under "Congratulations for Not Sucking."
Wright and Thompson are two of the leading contenders for next season's Big East championship and thereby favorites for the COY honor. Who wins? Read on to find out about not only the Big East, but the rest of the game's top conferences.
ACC: Jim Larranaga, Miami (Fla.)
Miami basketball bore a flash-in-the-pan look after struggling through the encore to 2012-13's ACC championship season. With their top six scorers gone, the Hurricanes had to rebuild around championship reserves like Rion Brown and injury returnees like Garrius Adams.
This year's UM squad is rebuilding again, with five of last season's top seven scorers gone. Coach Jim Larranaga, however, is bringing some quality materials to assemble another winner in Coral Gables.
Part-time starters Manu Lecomte, Devon Reed and Tonye Jekiri are the only returning lettermen, and all three are better suited for supporting roles. The star quality will have to come from new faces, but Larranaga may have some strong candidates.
Point guard Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and wing Sheldon McClellan (Texas) were both wildly inconsistent scorers at their previous schools, but both have proved they can produce against major-conference opposition. Rodriguez ranked third in the Big 12 in assists, fourth in steals and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio during his sophomore season in 2012-13.
Aside from Lecomte, Reed and the transfers, Larranaga also has a solid group of freshmen joining this season's backcourt. DeAndre Burnett, a 4-star combo guard from the 2013 class, was forced to redshirt with a wrist injury. He'll be joined by top-40 Rivals recruit JaQuan Newton and top-100 Washington D.C. product James Palmer.
The frontcourt depth could be an Achilles' heel, but juco recruit Ivan Uceda could summon Kenny Kadji flashbacks with his blend of inside grit and outside shooting. Freshman Omar Sherman is a 250-pound bruiser who could clean up on the offensive glass if his teammates are misfiring.
Larranaga still has to integrate all these new pieces, but if his new bigs are immediately productive, there's enough talent here to push for a top-five ACC finish. That would be more than enough to cement an NCAA tournament return.
American: Fran Dunphy, Temple
The American loses a pair of 800-pound gorillas this season, with both the University of Louisville and—perhaps just as importantly—UConn's star guard Shabazz Napier departing the league. The race should be much more wide-open unless SMU lives up to the preseason hype it's receiving.
A true sleeper that may emerge is coach Fran Dunphy's Temple Owls. After six straight 20-win seasons, Temple slumped to only nine victories in 2013-14, struggling with a lack of depth and inconsistent shooting. It did, however, knock off eventual Atlantic 10 tournament champion St. Joseph's and fall just one point short against Texas.
Scoring guards Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey return after combining for more than 32 points per game last season.
If DeCosey is still the occasionally indifferent defensive player he showed last season, Clemson transfer Devin Coleman could push him for minutes when he becomes eligible in December. Coleman had a string of double-figure scoring games early last season, including 10 points in only eight minutes against UMass.
They'll need frontcourt support, and it could come from a crop of new faces. Former Texas forward Jaylen Bond proved a dominant force on the glass in limited minutes as a freshman, ripping 4.6 rebounds per game in only 15.4 minutes back in 2011-12.
Freshman Obi Enechionyia averaged more than 14 points, 11 boards and three blocks as a high school senior. He should be capable of putting in solid minutes off the bench.
Junior Daniel Dingle isn't a new face, per se, but he did only play in 10 games last season before going down with a knee injury in December. He put up 25 points, nine assists and four blocks in his final two games, giving some indication of his potential.
Dunphy needs his team to execute better defensively, something that hasn't usually been a problem for his teams. The first step may be for Bond and Enechionyia to crash the glass more effectively than TU could manage last season.
There are openings near the top of the American, and Dunphy's more than capable of motivating a healthy team to overachieve.
Atlantic 10: Dan Hurley, Rhode Island
A lot of Atlantic 10 teams have lost significant pieces this offseason, and Rhode Island is no different, parting ways with leading scorer Xavier Munford. Considering Munford shot 40 percent on 100 more attempts than any other Ram, though, this could be addition by subtraction for coach Dan Hurley.
Conference co-Freshman of the Year E.C. Matthews (14.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.3 APG) returns, as does a host of solid frontcourt players.
Forwards Gilvydas Biruta and Hassan Martin combined for 12.7 RPG last season, and the 6'7" Martin led the A-10 with 2.5 blocks per night. They'll benefit from the return of 6'10" junior Jordan Hare, who missed last season due to family issues after being one of URI's best performers during a summer trip to Italy. Hare averaged 5.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 2012-13.
URI desperately needs better ball security and more consistent shooting, particularly from perimeter players like wing Jarelle Reischel and guards Biggie Minnis and T.J. Buchanan. If any keep struggling with such issues—or even if they don't—they could lose serious minutes to a highly touted freshman.
Jared Terrell was an Oklahoma State signee before securing a release from his letter of intent and reopening his recruiting. The 6'3", 220-pound guard may be the most talented recruit to enter the A-10 this year, with the possible exception of VCU's Terry Larrier. Terrell is an aggressive presence on either end, capable of teaming with Matthews to form the conference's best backcourt.
VCU still looks like the class of the A-10, but there could be a serious race for second between schools like Dayton, Richmond and St. Joseph's. Rhode Island should be more than equipped to come in from the wilderness and crash the party, claiming its first NCAA bid since 1999.
Big East: John Thompson III, Georgetown
Georgetown looked on pace for another NCAA tournament bid through its first 13 games last season. The Hoyas were 10-3 with wins over Kansas State and VCU before mammoth center Josh Smith was declared academically ineligible for the spring semester.
From there, coach John Thompson III could only struggle to keep his team afloat as the Hoyas struggled through 12 losses in their final 20 games. Leading scorer Markel Starks is gone, leaving junior D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera as the team's only proven and reliable offensive force.
But, there's still enough talent in the nation's capital for Georgetown to make a charge at Villanova for the Big East title.
Smith-Rivera should be on every short list for Big East Player of the Year, particularly if he has to initiate the offense as well as score. He's proved he can do both efficiently—see 22 points on 10 shots with five assists and no turnovers in a February win over Providence—but he'll need support from senior wing Jabril Trawick and relief from freshman Tre Campbell.
Up front, Smith has proved that he's not a player to be relied upon, with academics joining conditioning concerns as stumbling blocks to what could have been a dominant career. If he can finally get everything in order—and that's an "if" the size of the 300-something-pound Smith himself—the frontcourt has a potent talent to build around.
If not, Thompson has landed a strong recruiting class led by forwards Isaac Copeland and Paul White, along with wing L.J. Peak. All three are in the top 50 rankings of various recruiting services, and Copeland should be among the favorites for Big East Freshman of the Year. His versatile inside-out game has drawn comparisons to former Hoya great Jeff Green.
Senior Mikael Hopkins is a solid rebounding and defensive presence, but he's not in Smith's league as a scorer.
If JTIII can manage to light a fire under Smith's sizable—and seemingly flame-retardant—posterior, he may find himself nominated for sainthood, never mind Coach of the Year. The more approachable goal of getting his freshmen to produce immediately could be enough to contend in a shaky-looking Big East.
Big Ten: John Groce, Illinois
Big Ten bellwethers like Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State may find themselves relying on unproven talents to succeed in the 2014-15 season, and that could leave room for a sleeper to make a run a la Nebraska last season. We can say that Illinois coach John Groce has recruited an odd mix of talents, but most of them certainly can't be called unproven.
Transfer guards Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) provide the Illini with some sorely needed three-point potential, the kind that incumbent point guard Tracy Abrams simply can't give. Both have drained 40 percent from long range at some point during their careers.
Abrams (6'1") is arguably the best distributor and handler of the three, so he'll still play a major role, but Starks (5'9") and Cosby (6'3") should both see major minutes in what could be some very small lineups.
All-Big Ten performer Rayvonte Rice returns for his senior season, and he should benefit from the presence of some talented shooters himself. The perimeter game is not Rice's forte, so if the guards handle long shots and draw attention away from Rice, he could once again contend for the league scoring title.
Center Nnanna Egwu is a strong rebounder and shot-blocker, but he'll never be an offensive threat. Freshman forward Leron Black, a 6'7", 225-pound specimen out of Memphis, Tennessee, should help in that area. The explosive athlete can convert interior passes into dunks and also finds an occasional lane off the dribble himself.
Sophomores Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill finished last season on an upswing, but the Illini need fellow second-year men Maverick Morgan, Austin Colbert and Jaylon Tate to provide some depth to survive the Big Ten season.
Groce's teams frequently rely on the three-point shot, and his additions have been made with that in mind. The keys to Illinois returning to the NCAA tournament, however, will be Rice and Black. If the two can combine for 30 PPG without taking obscene numbers of shots, the Illini offense will be humming along and U of I should put itself safely back in the Big Dance.
Big 12: Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
Oklahoma loses a pair of solid inside operators in forwards Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal. Like most effective leaders, though, coach Lon Kruger made sure to address his needs promptly.
Kruger's one-season rental of Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas is a move that could affect the race for second place in the Big 12. After all, it now seems that only a polio outbreak at Allen Fieldhouse will shunt Kansas off its perch atop the league.
Thomas produced 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game for Houston last season, and he'll be an instant replacement for second-leading scorer Clark if the NCAA clears him to play immediately. The defensive presence Thomas brings will be an upgrade for a team that could have used more steel on that end last season.
With or without Thomas, the Sooners are a contender behind backcourt studs Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins. The three combined for more than 37 PPG last season and all sank at least 37 percent of their three-point shots.
Junior forward Ryan Spangler (pictured with Kruger above) could average a double-double with or without Thomas alongside him. Kruger's challenge with Spangler will be to get him to finish stronger, as the former Gonzaga recruit averaged only 6.1 PPG over OU's final 10 games.
Granted, this selection is heavily contingent on Thomas' availability. Without him, Oklahoma is still a solid NCAA tournament team, but it doesn't look like a true threat to the likes of Kansas or Texas. With Thomas, however, there is definite spoiler potential brewing in Norman.
Mountain West: Larry Eustachy, Colorado State
It's a revolving door in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Colorado State fans will struggle to tell the players without a program if the in-and-out flow of talent gets any faster.
Four Rams transferred out, most notably third-leading scorer Jon Octeus. Four exports from other D-I programs join the Rams this season and all have shown they can play at the Division I level.
Stanton Kidd (NC Central), Dantiel Daniels (Southern Illinois), John Gillon (Arkansas-Little Rock) and Bubu Palo (Iowa State) are the new faces, and the quartet combined for 35.6 points and 13.6 rebounds in their last seasons of active competition. Kidd was a first-team All-MEAC selection in his one season at NCCU.
Another pair of former transfers, guard Daniel Bejarano (Arizona) and forward J.J. Avila (Navy), return after combining for 32.9 points, 15.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game last season. The duo finished first and second on the team in all three categories.
If the newcomers compete as well in the Mountain West as they did in their previous conferences, the Rams will have a strong top seven with Bejarano, Avila and junior guard Joe De Ciman (8.6 PPG). That may be enough to contend in a league where leaders San Diego State, New Mexico and Boise State all have key pieces to replace.
Pac-12: Larry Krystkowiak, Utah
Utah put two very large obstacles in its own path toward the NCAA tournament last season. It played a terrible nonconference schedule, with its only respectable win at home over BYU. The Utes also struggled in close games, finishing 3-8 in games decided by six points or less.
With another year of experience, Utah should be much better equipped to crack the March Madness field behind its great perimeter trio of Delon Wright, Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor.
Wright led the team in scoring, assists, steals and blocks, finished just six rebounds behind Loveridge for the team lead in that category, and did it all while shooting an eye-opening 56 percent from the floor. For his efforts, he became the Utes' first-ever first-team All-Pac-12 honoree.
Loveridge and Taylor had occasional struggles, but Taylor makes up for Wright's main weakness by being a 39 percent three-point shooter. Both juniors are also deadly at the foul line, knocking down 80 percent last season.
Center Dallin Bachynski hasn't quite been the force that his brother Jordan was for Arizona State, but he could be a key if he sees full-time minutes.
Redshirt freshman Kyle Kuzma and true frosh Brekkott Chapman aren't the kind of tough post operators that coach Larry Krystkowiak was during his playing career, but both are skilled players who can shoot with some range. They'll help spread the floor for Wright to attack the rim effectively once again.
Krystkowiak has assembled a talented roster that is NCAA tournament-ready, a far cry from the stitched-together mess he was forced to trot out during his first season in charge. His work in rebuilding the Utah program should receive its next major reward this season, with both a ticket to the dance and some postseason hardware.
SEC: Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Selecting Bruce Pearl as the SEC's Coach of the Year favorite isn't the same as saying that the Tigers will win the SEC, or even contend for the title. Auburn's not a program that can be immediately rehabilitated overnight, as illustrated by a clause in his contract that grants him $25,000 for winning only nine SEC games in either of his first two seasons.
All that said, Pearl's staff is doing a tremendous job of giving him pieces to work with while he finishes his show-cause recruiting ban.
The nation's top returning scorer, Antoine Mason of Niagara (25.6 PPG), has transferred in. New Mexico State point guard K.C. Ross-Miller (8.3 points, 3.5 assists) has come on board. Top junior college prospect Cinmeon Bowers (12.4 points, 8.9 rebounds for Chipola College in Florida) has signed.
All three could step into immediate starting roles, although sophomore Tahj Shamsid-Deen (9.5 points, 2.9 assists) may have something to say about the point guard spot. This nucleus surrounding the SEC's sixth-leading scorer, K.T. Harrell (18.3 PPG), certainly appears capable of a 9-9 or 10-8 mark in a conference that once again appears shaky.
Depth will be a weakness, unless some of Tony Barbee's leftovers turn into competent SEC players. Based on last season's results, that would seem to be an award-worthy development in itself.
Still, the goal for this season is to make Auburn relevant enough to ride Pearl's charisma into recruiting battles with the big boys. A tournament bid would be gravy, but a winning record is doable. At Auburn, that's an accomplishment.
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