First, we gave you the 25 most intriguing players for the 2012-13 college basketball season. Now, the 25 most intriguing coaches. No coaches in sports get more attention than college hoops coaches, but these are the guys who actually merit watching:
1, Ben Howland, UCLA. Boom or bust for Ben, it’s all on the line this year. He could have a return to the Final Four with a hyped freshman class and a solid returning nucleus. Or he could have an under-investigation superstar who cannot play and an overhyped team that busts and takes him down with it. Or anywhere in between. For a coach who seemed to have the world by the tail five years ago, this may be the season that defines him.
2. John Calipari, Kentucky. Merely trying to do the impossible, replacing his top six players with a bunch of freshmen and defending the national title. This group doesn’t seem as special as last year’s freshman class – but do you want to bet against Cal right now? Regardless what happens, he will make the show bigger than life along the way.
3. Mark Gottfried, North Carolina State. How’s this for a second act: a guy who was fired at Alabama now finds himself in possession of a team that could overthrow the Tobacco Road dynasties of Duke and North Carolina, guiding the Wolfpack to a prominence it hasn’t enjoyed since Jim Valvano was in Raleigh. This is a team – and a coach – dealing with an entirely new set of expectations. How do they handle it?
4. Tom Crean, Indiana. Established himself long ago as a great coach, taking Marquette to the 2003 Final Four. Established himself last year as the man who could bring Indiana back to prominence, after years of wandering in the NCAA sanction-induced wilderness. But now can he take the next step and go all the way, with the weight of a state starving for glory weighing on every dribble?
5. Rick Pitino, Louisville. To the disappointment of his critics in blue, a Cinderella Final Four run last year proved Pitino hadn’t lost it after all. Now, armed with his best college team since the 1996-97 Kentucky squad, he takes legitimate aim at becoming the first coach to win national titles in two different locations. But along the way, he might need to beat arch enemy Calipari for the first time as coach of the Cardinals.
6. Roy Williams, North Carolina. Coming off a major off-season health scare, Williams returns to a rebuilding effort after losing four key players to the NBA. Ol’ Roy always has talent, but this will rank among his biggest coaching challenges at Chapel Hill.
7. Kevin Ollie, Connecticut. Retiring legend Jim Calhoun handed his protege a great program in terrible shape. Players went pro, players transferred – and the team is ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to academic underachievement. Ollie was the hand-picked replacement – but is he the adminstration’s guy, or the retired coach’s guy? Every game will be a mini-referendum on his fitness to lead for the long term.
8. John Beilein, Michigan. A guy who does everything his own way finally joined the mainstream when it came to recruiting, and now has the best talent of his well-traveled career. Can Beilein harness that talent and take Michigan back to Fab Five-Era heights, making his first Final Four in the process?
9. Larry Brown, SMU. The landslide winner for weirdest hire of the year, will septuagenarian Brown make this odd move pay off? The man certainly knows basketball. But he’s been gone from college for ages and was famously impatient with pro players – how is he going to handle the modest assemblage inherited here?
10. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse. A pillar of the Big East is on a farewell tour with the conference, as the Orange prepare to skedaddle to the ACC. And there could finally be movement on that lingering NCAA investigation into drug-testing failures within the basketball program, first reported last March by Yahoo! Sports. Could the combination of those two things make this Boeheim’s last season in Syracuse? If so, he’s got a good team to go out with.
11. Thad Matta, Ohio State. He’s done everything in Columbus but win a national title. This year’s team could be good enough to do that – is Matta a good enough coach? Memories of the Buckeyes blowing a late lead in the Final Four against Kansas haven’t gone away, but Jared Sullinger has. Will Ohio State be just as good without him?
12. Sean Miller, Arizona. Many people think Miller is the next big coaching star in college hoops. Making his first Final Four would solidify that reputation, and this team should have a chance. If UCLA has Shabazz Muhammad, it should be a battle between the Bruins and Wildcats in the Pac-12. If not, Arizona may be the team to beat in that league.
13. Jim Crews, Saint Louis. Rick Majerus’ health problems have given Crews – a Billikens assistant who previously was the head coach at Evansville and Army – another chance. Once upon a time, more than 20 years ago, Crews was considered an up-and-coming coach. It didn’t quite work out that way, but now he gets an opportunity to prove himself anew with a talented team as Majerus takes the season off to convalesce.
14. Greg McDermott, Creighton. This might be the most anticipated season in school history. Add in the fact that the coach’s son is the star player, and you have a bit of pressure for Dad to deal with. But if both McDermotts can deal with it, Creighton could have a Butler-type season – crashing the Top Ten and contending for its first Final Four berth.
15. Frank Haith, Missouri. He brilliantly dismissed doubts about his fitness for the job by guiding the Tigers to one of their best seasons in school history – then rekindled the doubts with a nightmarish NCAA tournament loss to Norfolk State. Now, Haith takes a cast of transfers into a new league with a chance to win big and dismiss the doubters all over again.
16. Danny Manning, Tulsa. On the 25th anniversary of his brilliant season carrying Kansas to the national title, Manning begins his first season as a head coach. There aren’t many all-time greats who went on to become successful coaches, but Tulsa is gambling that Manning bucks that trend and gets a proud mid-major back to prominence.
17. Steve Fisher, San Diego State. He’ll turn 68 before the Final Four – and will have his best chance of getting back there since the (vacated) Fab Five runs of 1992 and ’93. If the frontcourt can develop well enough to complement an excellent backcourt, we’ll be paying more attention to the Aztecs than we ever have.
18. Dave Rice, UNLV. He was a low-profile BYU assistant until landing this job a year ago, and since then Rice has been on the fast track. The Runnin’ Rebels won 26 games last year and made the NCAA tournament, and Rice scored a major recruiting coup by signing 6-foor-8 forward Anthony Bennett. Plugging him in alongside Pitt transfer Khem Birch and returning star Mike Moser gives UNLV one of the most physically imposing front lines in the nation, and a chance for a return-to-glory season.
19. Bob Huggins, West Virginia. Takes his sweat suit and his scowl to a new league, where it’s likely the Mountaineers will be underrated as usual. Bad mistake. Nineteen of Huggins’ last 20 teams have made the NCAA tournament, so expect this one to do the same thing out of the unnatural Big 12.
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20. Bill Self, Kansas. Last year’s national runner-up season gave Self the backup Final Four needed to put to rest any second-guessing of his NCAA tournament resume. This team lost a lot from that team – but so did that team from the loaded group in 2010-11. Expect Self to once again win the Big 12 with a young but talented group.
21. Mike Brey, Notre Dame. He’s a perfect fit at Notre Dame, but a deep NCAA run is still lacking from his time there. This will be one of Brey’s best teams. For a program that has a long history of basketball underachieving (one Final Four, in 1978), it’s time to make a statement.
22. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke. Fresh from a second Olympic gold medal, Krzyzewski tackles the chore of making the Blue Devils better than they look on paper. Duke is always good, but this Duke team looks a cut below special. And given the competition on Tobacco Road, that could be a problem. Discount Duke and K at your own peril, however.
23. Tom Izzo, Michigan State. In a career full of great coaching jobs, last year ranked among the best for Izzo. He likes the makeup of this year’s team, even after losing All-American Draymond Green. Izzo has nothing left to prove, but you know he doesn’t see it that way and would love to disrupt the preseason Big Ten hierarchy of Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan.
24. Shaka Smart, VCU. Word is the Rams look great in preseason and could have a shot at reprising the glory of 2010. With another good season, Smart’s name could be in play at UConn and other big-time programs with potential openings in 2013.
25. Brad Stevens, Butler. The ultimate mid-major overachiever program finally stumbled a bit last year, failing to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Expect a sneaky, smart, tenacious return to prominence this year under Stevens, the sneaky, smart, tenacious young coach.
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