1. John Calipari, Kentucky. His latest Instant Megateam – just add five-stars – starts the season ranked No. 1. That is a testament to the absurd level of talent brought in, because last year’s Instant Megateam was a spectacular bust that lost in the first round of the NIT. Most believe this year’s version will be more like the 2012 national champions. Calipari has backed off the 40-0 talk he himself started, and after two underwhelming exhibition performances, that seems like a wise move. But even though the Wildcats will not go undefeated, they should be prime title contenders – before the NBA breaks up the band and it’s start-over time yet again.
2. Rick Pitino, Louisville. Has any coach enjoyed a national championship more than Pitino did? He basically went on 60-year-old spring break: got a tattoo, partied in the Bahamas – everything but keg stands. He also won some big horse races, got inducted into the Hall of Fame and saw his son Richard get the Minnesota job (see below). But amid the celebration, Pitino got one important thing done: he kept guard Russ Smith in school, thus giving the Cardinals a very real chance at a repeat. In the never-ending rivalry between one-and-done Cal and player-developer Rick, this season may be the most intriguing yet.
3. Roy Williams, North Carolina. As fun as Pitino’s offseason was, Williams’ was the inverse. High-scoring guard P.J. Hairston created a flurry of negative headlines and is indefinitely suspended. Guard Leslie McDonald is waiting for NCAA clearance after his likeness was used in an advertisement for mouthguards. Reggie Bullock unexpectedly went pro. Tar Heels supporters have griped that the program has lost its way – the Carolina Way of Dean Smith. And the vigilantes at PackPride.com are all up in Carolina’s business on a daily basis. How does Ol’ Roy handle a season that starts outside the Top Ten, and could finish anywhere?
4. Steve Alford, UCLA. The latest guy to step into the shadow of The Wizard. Don’t know if Alford is a good enough coach to win national titles, but he is the first UCLA coach in a long time (maybe since Larry Brown) who seems to have the ego for the job. It shouldn’t swallow him whole. Alford has been a big deal his whole life and is well aware of it, and probably thinks he was destined to lead one of the flagship programs in the sport. How far he leads, we will see.
5. Rick Barnes, Texas. A guy once celebrated as one of the top coaches in the game has seen his program crumble, and now he is the highest-profile coach on the hot seat. And it is justifiably hot. After years of mediocre coaching concealed by high-powered recruiting, the talent pool dried up in 2012-13 and the Longhorns went 16-18. This year’s team could be worse. As if new Texas athletic director Steve Patterson didn’t have enough to do with a big decision on football coach Mack Brown, this is a program in greater need of fixing.
6. Bill Self, Kansas. He apparently can take five guys from the Lawrence YMCA and win the Big 12. Add a little more talent and he’s a lock for 30 victories. Now let’s see what happens when he gets a guy billed as a once-a-generation talent like Andrew Wiggins, plus a flotilla of other talented freshmen. There will be pressure and scrutiny and second-guessing that comes along with coaching Wiggins – but it’s better than coaching against Wiggins. Self’s team is nearly as young as Calipari’s – and perhaps just as talented.
7. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse. It’s a terrible shame that the ACC lacked the sense of humor to schedule Boeheim’s first road game in the league at Clemson, or some other completely foreign and unseasonably warm locale. The sight of Mr. Big East looking sour and forlorn in an ACC backwater would be the perfect snapshot for realignment madness. Alas, the Orange’s first two ACC road trips are to former Big East locales, Blacksburg and Miami. Then they go to Winston-Salem for Boeheim’s first taste of Tobacco Road. But anyone who thinks the transition will be difficult on the court is wrong; even in the latter stages of his career, Boeheim’s teams are incredibly consistent winners.
8. Sean Miller, Arizona. Jockeying with Mark Few for an unwanted title: Most Accomplished Coach Without a Final Four. After two trips to the Elite Eight and four to the Sweet Sixteen at Xavier and Arizona, he may have the team to get him out of that competition this year. Now in his fifth year at Arizona, Miller has re-established the program and seems ready to take that next step – a step the Wildcats have not taken since 2001.
9. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke. What could possibly be new and intriguing about a 66-year-old coach who has been at the same spot since 1980, and whose teams invariably succeed? This is: The new, 14-team, basketball-first ACC is basically Coach K’s baby, the result of his push to add Syracuse and Pittsburgh and think beyond King Football. If you need more, Krzyzewski’s team is also considered the one to beat in the league thanks in large part to two guys (freshman Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood) who had never worn a Duke uniform before this season.
10. Travis Ford, Oklahoma State. Since his playing days at Kentucky he seemed destined for coaching greatness. But the previously steep arc of career success has reached a plateau in Stillwater, where he’s won a single NCAA tournament game – and that was in his first year, 2009. Now he has the team for a deeper NCAA run, and one with the ability to legitimately challenge Kansas’ stranglehold on the Big 12. If this isn’t Ford’s best season at Oklahoma State, he’ll be under fire.
11. Brandon Miller, Butler. There are few 37-year-old coaches who leave huge shoes to fill, but Brad Stevens did at Shangri-La U. Miller, a gritty former point guard at the school, steps into them. He is the perfect choice to succeed Stevens, getting the whole Butler Thing better than almost anyone. But in addition to following the most accomplished mid-major coach ever, he has to guide Butler through another league upgrade (this time the Big East) and do it without his best player, injured Roosevelt Jones. Best of luck.
12. Kevin Ollie, Connecticut. With the Huskies ineligible for the postseason, last year was basically on-the-job training for the rookie head coach – and he got high marks from almost all graders. Now it’s real, and the heavy lifting of replacing Jim Calhoun gets closer scrutiny and carries greater stakes. He should have the team to satisfy fans with lofty expectations – if the sketchy frontcourt comes through.
13. Tom Izzo, Michigan State. Just in terms of candor, competitiveness and sideline facial expressions, Izzo is always intriguing. This year he has a fantastic team, too – probably better than the overachieving Final Four clubs of 2009 and ’10, and maybe his best since the 2000 national champions. The Spartans are the favorites in what should be another bang-up Big Ten race.
14. Josh Pastner, Memphis. The guy with the thankless task of replacing John Calipari got his first NCAA tournament victory last year, in his fourth season on the job. That was progress, although it was followed by a 32-point beatdown from Michigan State. This year Pastner has overflowing talent and experience in the backcourt, and it is buttressed by a stellar recruiting class. Tigers fans are within their rights to anticipate more progress, into the Sweet Sixteen this year.
15. Fran McCaffrey, Iowa. It’s been a gradual build for McCaffrey in Iowa City, and this looks like the payoff year. The Hawkeyes return just about everyone of consequence from last year’s NIT team, plus forward Jarrod Uthoff is eligible after an acrimonious transfer from Wisconsin. This is a Big Dance or Bust season for a program that hasn’t been there since 2006, and hasn’t won a game there since 2001.
16. Greg McDermott, Creighton. Has teamed with his son Doug to take the Bluejays to new heights: the first back-to-back seasons with NCAA tourney victories in school history, and now an upgrade to the remodeled Big East after 54 years in the Missouri Valley Conference. Can the McDermotts nudge it a step farther in their last year together and crash the Sweet Sixteen?
17. Andy Enfield, USC. From Dunk City to Tinseltown, the guy who took Florida Gulf Coast on a historic NCAA tournament run faces a new challenge at USC. It is an intriguing gamble by USC athletic director Pat Haden, based on a couple great weeks in March, but it may work out. Just don’t expect much right away, because this year’s Trojans should be brutal. The only attention during year one may come when Enfield’s supermodel wife is courtside.
18. Tom Crean, Indiana. He restored the luster to Indiana with the program’s first outright Big Ten title since 1993. But then came the thudding end in a Sweet Sixteen upset loss to Syracuse, followed by the departure of four 1,000-point scorers – two of whom were top-five NBA draft picks. Now some league rivals who were rubbed the wrong way by Crean are looking for payback in a season where the Hoosiers will be vulnerable but still dangerous. Overlook IU at your peril.
19. Chris Collins, Northwestern. A lot of young assistants dive at the first available head-coaching opportunity. Collins spent an eternity at Mike Krzyzewski’s side at Duke before finally getting what looks like the perfect job: a chance to turn the nation’s most underachieving program into Duke Midwest. His first team actually has a chance to earn the school’s first NCAA tournament bid – if the adjustment from Bill Carmody’s creeping, Princeton-style to what should be a rather up-tempo pace isn’t too difficult.
20. John Thompson III, Georgetown. Go ahead and pencil in the Hoyas for 20-25 victories and a high finish in the Big East. And then go ahead and hold your breath. Since the 2007 Final Four berth, JTIII’s teams have been a Big Dance disaster, routinely being upset by lower seeds. Most recently: No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast ran a dunk line on the Hoyas in a mind-boggling upset romp. It would be nearly impossible to fire a guy with his overall record (and surname), but sooner or later the Georgetown brass will need to see something at tournament time.
21. Richard Pitino, Minnesota. Tubby Smith once followed a guy named Pitino into a job. Sixteen years later, a guy named Pitino follows Smith. Fortunately for Pitino The Younger, the pressures at Minnesota do not equate to the pressures at Kentucky, nor do the feelings of the fans about the coach he is replacing. Pitino has a tiny body of work: one season at Florida International, where he revived a moribund program. But he has pedigree, as the son of a Hall of Famer but also as a guy who learned a lot working for Billy Donovan. Expect Minnesota to be more entertaining on the court and more energetic on the recruiting trail than it was under Smith.
22. Craig Robinson, Oregon State. After one winning season in five years and not even so much as an NIT bid, the intrigue begins and ends with this question: can the First Brother-In-Law be fired while Barack Obama is in office? Or would that result in a retaliatory slashing of government aid to the school?
23. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State. Still with the Shockers, even after a shocking run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. Marshall, who had seemed eager to move during his first five years at Wichita, decided to stick around after season No. 6 – and part of the reason is the fact that he should have a very good team once again. Maybe not 30 wins and a regional championship, but the Shockers look like the class of the Missouri Valley and a tough out in March once again.
24. Bobby Hurley, Buffalo. His hiring was splashy but risky: a famous name from a heralded family, but not much on the coaching resume. Son of a high-school coaching legend and older brother to a rising coaching star at Rhode Island, now it’s Bobby Hurley’s turn. A hero on Duke’s back-to-back national champions of 1991-92, he at least inherits enough talent to make a run at a MAC East title.
25. Pat Skerry, Towson. There is a fascinating rebuilding effort going on at a program that was left for dead after the dreadful Pat Kennedy Era. Skerry inherited nothing and went 1-31 his first season. Last year the Tigers roared back, going 18-13 and winning 12 games away from home for the first time since the mid-70s. Keep an eye on this guy.
Just missed the list: John Beilein, Michigan; Buzz Williams, Marquette; Billy Donovan, Florida; Mark Few, Gonzaga; Jim Larranaga, Miami; Mark Gottfried, North Carolina State; Craig “Noodles” Neal, New Mexico; Herb Sendek, Arizona State; John Giannini, LaSalle; Shaka Smart, VCU; Joe Dooley, Florida Atlantic; Eddie Jordan, Rutgers; Michael White, Louisiana Tech; Dave Rice, UNLV; Johnny Dawkins, Stanford; Dan Majerle, Grand Canyon.
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