Back by popular demand (or at least an absence of protest), I present my annual Most Intriguing Lists previewing the season in college basketball. First up, the 25 Most Intriguing Coaches:
1. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin. Broke the Final Four barrier last year, and came within a basket of playing for the national title. Vindication for a system and philosophy that some thought was passé and would never succeed at the highest level. Now, at age 66, can he take it a step farther with a loaded team and win a national title? Might be his best chance – might be his last really good chance.
2. John Calipari, Kentucky. Has assembled the most talented roster of the 21st century, and perhaps beyond. Maybe the tallest team ever, too. Now he will try to play platoon basketball with 10 (or more) stars. Calipari will be at his blowhard best (“We’re trying to do something never done in college basketball”) and paranoid worst (“We are going to have to be mentally tough enough to not be sabotaged”). It will not be dull.
3. Roy Williams, North Carolina. Hall of Famer is under unprecedented fire as the gory details of UNC’s academic scandal are dragged out for public consumption. Williams has doggedly defended his reputation, but an NCAA investigation is underway and it’s conceivable that his first national championship banner, won in 2005, might ultimately come down from the Dean Dome rafters. Williams is 64 and has endured some health issues in recent years; some wonder whether this might be his final season before a 2015 retirement. What’s gone underreported this tumultuous fall: Ol’ Roy’s team should be quite good.
4. Tom Crean, Indiana. Has the makings of a season on the brink for the seventh-year coach of the Hoosiers. A disappointing 2013 NCAA tournament ouster was followed by a disappointing ‘13-14 season, which was followed by a disastrous off-season, rife with legal issues and transfers and suspensions and a player being seriously injured when struck by another player’s vehicle. It will be up to a short, inexperienced team to restore the fan base’s faith in Crean.
5. Sean Miller, Arizona. The dreaded title now belongs to him: best coach without a Final Four. It was passed down by Bo Ryan, who beat Miller by a single point in the regional finals last year. He’s only 45, so Miller is a long way from Gene Keady/John Chaney territory – but still. Another powerful recruiting class gives Miller another strong chance to break that barrier, with a team that should dominate the Pac-12.
6. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke. With McDonald’s All-Americans everywhere, Coach K has his most talented team in a long time – certainly more talented than the 2010 national champions. But the Blue Devils have slipped back into NCAA tournament underachiever mode, losing in the first round two of the last three years to teams seeded 14th and 15th, and being blown out in a 2011 Sweet 16 game as a No. 1 seed. If Duke doesn’t make the Final Four it would be a five-year absence, which would tie the longest stretch of Krzyzewski’s gilded tenure.
7. Rick Pitino, Louisville. He’s won championships in the America East, SEC, Conference USA, Big East and American Athletic Conference – why not the Atlantic Coast Conference, too? The Cardinals arrive in a new league with a team that should be capable of competing for the title immediately. Watching a fourth Hall of Famer knock heads with Krzyzewski, Williams and Boeheim will only make America’s best league better.
8. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse. Speaking of Hall of Famers, his second season in the ACC begins under an NCAA cloud. Boeheim and the Syracuse administration went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions at the end of October to respond to allegations of major violations. By customary NCAA timetable, a COI ruling should come down mid-season – and if there are penalties, it could directly affect this year’s team. To say nothing of Boeheim’s legacy and interest in continuing coaching through any sanctions that may be applied.
9. Bruce Pearl, Auburn. One of the true characters in the game returns from forced NCAA exile, coming back to the league he left in 2011. Dates to remember: Jan. 31, Pearl goes back to Knoxville; Feb. 21, Pearl takes on rival John Calipari. Auburn may not be good right away, but it won’t take long for that to change – provided Pearl recruits within the rules. The drab SEC will be a much more entertaining league with him back in it.
10. Kevin Ollie, Connecticut. Came out of nowhere to win the national title in his second season as a head coach. The last coach to win a title with less college head-coaching experience: Steve Fisher at Michigan in 1989, as an interim coach. The last full-time coach to win a title with less experience: Ed Jucker at Cincinnati in 1961. What do you do for an encore, Kevin?
11. Mark Few, Gonzaga. Consistent winner, consistently committed to a school that doesn’t have all the advantages – and a consistent NCAA tournament underachiever. Some analysts say this is the year for Few and the Zags to break through and finally make the Final Four. Of course, this is the third or fourth time that’s been said. And before making the Final Four, there is the hurdle of making the Sweet 16 – Gonzaga hasn’t done that since 2009.
12. Chris Holtmann, Butler. He was an anonymous assistant minding his own business until Oct. 2, when Butler announced that he’d be taking over as interim coach while Brandon Miller is on a medical leave of absence. The Bulldogs struggled mightily in their first year in the Big East, going 14-17 – their worst record since 1993. And that was with their head coach. Can Holtmann keep a proud program afloat in uncertain times?
13. Tommy Amaker, Harvard. His Crimson crashed the AP preseason Top 25. Last time an Ivy League team was ranked preseason: 40 years ago. How do he and his team handle uncharted territory?
14. Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech. Made arguably the most eyebrow-lifting move of any coach in the offseason – narrowly beating out Frank Haith to Tulsa and Cuonzo Martin to California – by leaving Marquette for Virginia Tech. The Hokies have been to four NCAA tournaments since 1986; Marquette has been to four in the last five years. But Williams is being well-compensated to take over an ACC cellar dweller that has lost 58 games the last three seasons, and his obsessive, chip-on-the-shoulder personality should play well there and with recruits. Virginia Tech will be better with Buzz; it’s just a matter of how much better and how long it takes.
15. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State. Fresh from authoring one of the great seasons in recent college hoops history, Marshall will see how much momentum can be gained from a 35-1 masterpiece that ended in heartbreak in the round of 32. The loss of star Cleanthony Early is significant, but Marshall may have the nation’s best backcourt returning in Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker. The Shockers won’t go to the tournament undefeated again, but they will be good.
16. Kelvin Sampson, Houston. Scarred by scandal at both Oklahoma and Indiana, he gets a third chance at a dormant second-tier program that would love nothing more than to rekindle its glory days from 30 years ago. Few doubt Sampson’s ability to coach; plenty doubt his ability to coach within NCAA rules. If he can successfully abide by the rulebook, Houston will be an AAC contender soon enough.
17. Larry Brown, SMU. Quite possibly the best coach in college basketball, and quite possibly the best coach on the planet not named Gregg Popovich. At age 73, Brown worked his customary quick-fix magic by taking the Mustangs to the brink of an NCAA tournament bid last season (and frankly, they were robbed and should have been in the field). This year he lost his star point guard to China before ever playing a minute of college ball, but don’t discount SMU as a likely tournament team. Last time Larry coached in the Big Dance, he won it all in 1988 at Kansas.
18. Dana Altman, Oregon. Fortunate to still have a job after seeing his roster crumble due to recruiting bad actors and players with shady connections. Altman’s straight-and-narrow reputation has crumbled with it, and now we’ll see whether he can repair the damage and return the Ducks to contender status despite a serious shortage of experience and depth.
19. Tony Bennett, Virginia. In a league of coaching giants with oversized personas, which guy is the defending regular-season ACC champion? Understated Tony Bennett, the methodical tactician whose defense will suffocate and frustrate everyone. Bennett doesn’t whine like Boeheim, glare like Krzyzewski, aw-shucks like Williams or wisecrack like Pitino, but he’s in line to be the leading coach of the next generation in the ACC.
20. Rick Barnes, Texas. Went from fighting to save his job going into last year to a trendy dark horse Final Four pick going into this year. His work in 2013-14 with less talent than usual was some of his best, good enough to make the NCAA tournament again after a one-year hiatus. Now Barnes has replenished his roster sufficiently to contend in the Big 12 – unless the Longhorns return to their underachieving pattern of previous seasons.
21. Donnie Tyndall, Tennessee. Cagey coach has progressed from Morehead State to Southern Mississippi to Tennessee – where his past may now come back to haunt him. Southern Miss reportedly is under NCAA investigation for potential violations during Tyndall’s tenure there, and Morehead State was given two years’ probation in 2010 for violations that occurred on Tyndall’s watch. Tennessee may not have gotten the coach with the NCAA issues it wanted (Bruce Pearl), but it has got another one now.
22. Richard Pitino, Minnesota. Has his father’s wit, playing style and mannerisms down cold. We’ll see whether he becomes as big of a winner as Rick. Pitino The Younger won the NIT title in his first season at Minnesota and has the backcourt to contend for an NCAA tourney bid this year.
23. Steve Masiello, Manhattan. Would have, could have and should have been the coach at South Florida right now – if only he had gotten his college degree at Kentucky as his resume stated. After an embarrassing job snafu, Masiello now has his degree and is fortunate to have retained the position he tried to leave at Manhattan. Will the episode hinder Masiello’s career trajectory, or will he again be a coach in demand come March?
24. Mark Turgeon, Maryland. He was the hire that was supposed to return the Terrapins to not just the NCAA tournament, but title contention – Final Fours, or at least Sweet 16s. Instead, he’s going into Year Four still in search of a Big Dance bid. Turgeon built big winners at Wichita State and Texas A&M, but it’s been slow going at Maryland. And now comes a transition to a new league.
25. Michael White, Louisiana Tech. Amid the generally barren landscape of potential Next Big-Time Coaches in college hoops, White stands out. The 37-year-old has gone 56-15 the past two years at a program with scant basketball tradition, and has a veteran team returning that could crash the top 25 and earn the school’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1991. Remember the name.
Just missed the list: Kim Anderson, Missouri; Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette; Bill Self, Kansas; Archie Miller, Dayton; Larry Krystowiak, Utah; Johnny Dawkins, Stanford; Tim Miles, Nebraska; Billy Donovan, Florida; Shaka Smart, VCU; Frank Haith, Tulsa; Bob McKillop, Davidson; Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State; Cuonzo Martin, California; Danny Manning, Wake Forest; Steve Alford, UCLA.