Top Coaches: My Take on ESPN’s List

facebooktwitterreddit recently completed a series ranking the top coaches in NCAA basketball based on recent performance, not legacy or school tradition. Who were the top five and where did Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self land? We’ll breakdown the list and get to the heart of the matter. There’s plenty to debate in this list.

ESPN’s top-50 countdown began over five weeks ago and included six Big 12 coaches in the bottom twenty-five:

  • Scott Drew of Baylor, tied for no. 50
  • Rick Barnes of Texas, no. 44
  • Bruce Webber of Kansas State, no. 40
  • Tubby Smith of Texas Tech, no. 39
  • Lon Kruger of Oklahoma, no. 31
  • Bob Huggins of West Virginia, no. 30

The top coaches ranked sixteen through twenty-five included such notables as Ohio State’s Thad Matta at number twenty, a surprise to many, and UNC’s Roy Williams at number sixteen, another surprise to many college basketball fans.

"But remember, ESPN explicitly stated that committee members of the “Top Coaches” list focused entirely on recent performance, not the distant past, school tradition or legacy. And Williams and Matta only have one final four appearance between the two of them since 2010."

Otherwise, North Carolina fans would be justifiably shocked over Williams’ ranking at number sixteen. After all, he’s a two time national champion and has made seven final four appearances throughout his career.

Mar 23, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams reacts in the first half of a men

Not to mention Williams’ 79% career-winning percentage and the fact that he has already been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame (2007) and the College Basketball Hall of Fame (2006).

And the same is true for Thad Matta who practically brought the Buckeyes basketball program into prominence and elite status. To view his legacy as worthy of no more than a twentieth ranking seems to shortchange the enormous impact he’s had in Columbus. But, alas, Matta’s recent track record in the NCAA tournament has left fans and the top coaches committee wanting.

Continuing, those ranked eleven through fifteen went as follows:

  • Fred Hoiberg of Iowa State, no. 15
  • Tony Bennett of Virginia, no. 14
  • Shaka Smart of VCU, no. 13
  • Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, no. 12
  • Sean Miller of Arizona, no. 11

I congratulate the Cyclones’ Hoiberg on a Big 12 tournament championship and sweet sixteen run in this year’s tournament. I believe this number fifteen ranking is appropriate for him and perhaps will bode well of future success at Iowa State.

Virginia coaches also fared well this year and, of course, Boeheim is no surprise at number twelve. And on any legacy list, Boeheim would obviously be top ten, but other than his 2013 final four appearance, he hasn’t taken the Orange to the tournament semi-finals since 2003, and 1996 and 1987 before that.

But here’s where the potential for mud-slinging really begins: the top ten list:

  • Kevin Ollie of UConn, no. 10
  • John Beilein of Michigan, no. 9
  • Gregg Marshall of Wichita State, no. 8
  • Bo Ryan of Wisconsin, no. 7
  • Bill Self of Kansas, no. 6
  • Rick Pitino of Louisville, no. 5
  • Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, no. 4
  • Tom Izzo of Michigan State, no. 3
  • John Calipari of Kentucky, no. 2
  • Billy Donovan of Florida, no. 1

Of course, Kevin Ollie deserves making the top ten in light of his recent triumph. Winning a national championship is a big deal. And really, other than final four appearances, it’s the only achievement that matters to critics, fans and sports analysts alike.

Do you remember how Roy Williams coached at Kansas without any national titles? Sure, he took the Jayhawks to the 2003 championship game, but he didn’t win. And that’s all people care about. And rightly so. In sports, number of wins matter less. It’s whether or not you capture a championship that counts.

Just think of Bill Self’s tenure in Lawrence: among his many accomplishments stands his one and only national championship in 2008.

"A successful tournament run and national championship signals the validation of everything college basketball fans feel inside for their team. They’re invaluable to programs, fans and, apparently, to ESPN’s top coaches committee."

Just consider the top five: Pitino, Coach K, Izzo, Calipari and Donovan. These coaches have legacy. And they also have an excellent recent track record. Some more than others.

Rick Pitino, a household name among NBA and college basketball aficionados, has made three final four appearances and has claimed one national championship since 2000. So it’s debatable as to why Pitino is ranked above Self, who has coached in two national championships. Except that two of Pitino’s three recent Final Four appearances were in 2012 and 2013. Coach Self’s were in 2008 and 2012.

Mar 28, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino reacts in the first half in the semifinals of the midwest regional of the 2014 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship tournament against the Kentucky Wildcats at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2000, and that’s an arbitrary year as the top coaches committee did not define “recent performance” in specific terms, Coach K has made five final four appearances and has won two national championships. That’s quite a bit more than Self on both fronts.

Coach Tom Izzo hasn’t won a national championship since 2000, but the Spartans have made five final four appearances since 2000 (2000, 2001, 2009, 2010 and 2012). Again, two very recently. One more than Self.

And Kentucky’s Calipari has made three of the last four final four appearances s (2011, 2012 and 2014) and won a national championship in 2012.That’s really impressive and consistent. Both more so than Self’s last four years.

"And Billy Donovan is the outlier, ranked at number one on ESPN’s top coaches list. It doesn’t make sense. He certainly doesn’t have the legacy of the other top five candidates, but he also doesn’t have the same recent success."

Donovan led the Florida Gators to back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007, but hasn’t done anything since except lead this year’s team to a final four appearance. I think the committee made a mistake here.

Apr 5, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan calls time out against the Connecticut Huskies in the second half during the semifinals of the Final Four in the 2014 NCAA Mens Division I Championship tournament at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Something tells me that if coach Self had just taken this year’s team a bit deeper into the tourney that he would have been awarded a top five spot. Still, that doesn’t explain why Donovan made number one. Or even, why he’s in the top five.

Donovan’s recent performance does not stack up to the other top five coaches in terms of final four appearances and national championships. And if we’re ranking coaches in terms of wins, then his 72%, while good, does not stack up to other top ten coaches.

"Donovan’s number one ranking in the top coaches list was a bad choice."

And from top to bottom, there’s room for more criticism within this list. But isn’t that the point? We’re college basketball fans and we’re passionate about our teams! ESPN’s list provides ample material for debating and arguing the matter of coach-greatness. And that’s the point!

Of course, I would love to have seen Coach Bill Self ranked higher. Does he deserve it? I think so. But maybe not.

Self has an 82% winning percentage since coaching at Kansas, one national championship, two championship appearances, two final fours, six Big 12 tournament championships and has won or shared every Big 12 regular season championship since 2005.

He was also awarded the Naismith College Coach of the Year award in 2012, received the AP Coach of the Year award in 2009 and won the Sporting News Coach of the Year award in 2009 and 2012, to name a few recent accolades.

And remember, ESPN’s top coaches list doesn’t take into consideration the tradition of the school. A list of that nature would be altogether different, including the likes of KU, Duke, UNC and Kentucky as untouchable, top five programs.

What do you think? Where should Bill Self have landed? Who should have been selected number one?