Our writers make their picks for college basketball's Coach of the Year

Yahoo Sports Staff

There’s one question sure to inspire more debate than any other in college basketball this time of year.

“Who should win Coach of the Year?” inevitably leads to an argument since the criteria is as controversial as the candidates.

You can argue for a coach whose team has most exceeded preseason expectations. You can argue for a coach whose team has performed best under the most challenging circumstances. Or you can note that recruiting and developing talent is part of the job description too, and simply pick the coach of the nation’s best team.

With Selection Sunday just over three weeks away, we asked four of our college basketball writers to give their Coach of the Year picks so far. Fittingly, they each chose someone different.

PAT FORDE

  1. Chris Collins, Northwestern

  2. Mark Few, Gonzaga

  3. Jay Wright, Villanova

  4. Tim Jankovich, SMU

  5. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State

It’s hard to go against the undefeated guy, Mark Few. It’s similarly difficult to not pick the defending champion, Jay Wright, who lost two players early in the year and still has his team on course for a potential repeat. I’d love to give some love to Tim Jankovich, the guy who took over for a Hall of Famer and made the team better. And how about Gregg Marshall, the guy whose four-year starting backcourt left and they’re still going to win 25 or more games for the eighth straight year?

All of them have done great work. But Chris Collins has done better.

He has Northwestern — the biggest underachieving program in college basketball history — on the precipice of the Promised Land. The Wildcats (19-7, 8-5 in the Big Ten) will earn their first-ever NCAA bid, locking it up any game now if they haven’t already. And he’s not just overcome program inertia; he’s gotten to this giddy point with his best interior player (Derek Pardon) missing eight games in mid-season and his leading scorer (Scottie Lindsey) out for the last four games — and counting — with mono.

That’s Coach of the Year material. Give it to Collins.

Unless, of course, Northwestern does the incredible (yet still imaginable) and loses every game the rest of the way and misses the Big Dance again.

Chris Collins has Northwestern on the cusp of its first-ever NCAA bid. (AP)
Chris Collins has Northwestern on the cusp of its first-ever NCAA bid. (AP)

JEFF EISENBERG

  1. Sean Miller, Arizona

  2. Mark Few, Gonzaga

  3. Scott Drew, Baylor

  4. Jay Wright, Villanova

  5. Chris Collins, Northwestern

At one point last spring, Sean Miller’s biggest headache appeared to be finding playing time for the glut of promising perimeter players on his 2016-17 roster.

Then one by one, his options began dwindling.

One five-star freshman never made it to campus, opting instead to play pro basketball overseas. Another five-star freshman retired after suffering the third ACL tear of his star-crossed career during an exhibition game. Then there was the endless saga of leading returning scorer Allonzo Trier, whose indefinite suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs dragged into late January and cast a pall over much of the season.

Throw in a high ankle sprain suffered by starting point guard Parker Jackson Cartwright in December, and for four weeks Arizona was down to seven scholarship players, all but three of whom were newcomers. It was enough adversity to waylay most programs, which is why it’s flat-out remarkable that the Wildcats were able to not only survive but thrive.

Arizona is 24-3, ranked fifth in the nation and alone in first place in the Pac-12. The Wildcats are one game in front of an Oregon team that returned the core of its roster from a 31-season and two games in front of a UCLA team awash with talented scorers and playmakers.

You can make a strong argument for many coaches this year, from Gonzaga’s Mark Few, to Baylor’s Scott Drew, to Villanova’s Jay Wright. But if Arizona goes on to win the Pac-12 and earn a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, the coach who achieved the most under the most challenging circumstances will be Miller.

After three Elite Eight appearances at Arizona and one at Xavier, Miller faces increasing pressure to shed the label of best coach never to make a Final Four. It would only be fitting if this is the year he does it.

In a season rife with challenges, Sean Miller still has Arizona atop the Pac-12. (AP)
In a season rife with challenges, Sean Miller still has Arizona atop the Pac-12. (AP)

HENRY BUSHNELL

  1. Mark Few, Gonzaga

  2. Jay Wright, Villanova

  3. Rick Pitino, Louisville

  4. Bob Huggins, West Virginia

  5. Sean Miller, Arizona

I consider Coach of the Year voting in different terms than most. Many look for teams that have outperformed expectations, and simply pick the head honcho at that program. I look for, well … the best coach. Or the coach that has done the best job of building the team he currently has and winning games with that team. I subscribe to the theory that Gregg Popovich should win the NBA version of the award (almost) every year, and the college version of the award goes even further beyond performance relative to expectations, because much of what a college coach does — recruiting and developing talent — determines where those expectations are set.

So imagine this: There’s one team that hasn’t lost a game. It is 27-0. Every other team has lost at least twice. That one team ranks No. 1 in the country in adjusted efficiency margin by more than five points per 100 possessions. And it came into the season outside the top 10 in every major preseason poll or set of rankings.

Then imagine that that team’s eight-man rotation comprises three transfers, two freshmen, one former four-star recruit, one former three-star recruit, and a sparsely recruited center from Poland who came into his fifth season less than a year removed from serious back surgery.

That team is Gonzaga, and Mark Few has built a powerhouse at the small, private, Catholic university in Spokane, Washington. Amazingly, his best team yet at a program built on stability is one that experienced a ton of roster turnover. The Bulldogs rank 319th nationally in minutes continuity, slightly above perennial one-and-done factory Kentucky, and 28 spots lower than any other top-12 team. Few has integrated transfers and freshmen expertly, has spent hours upon hours working with and sticking by Przemek Karnowski, and is an irrepressible choice for Coach of the Year.

Gonzaga is on the verge of finishing the regular season unbeaten for the first time under Mark Few. (AP)
Gonzaga is on the verge of finishing the regular season unbeaten for the first time under Mark Few. (AP)

MATT FORTUNA

  1. Jay Wright, Villanova

  2. Chris Collins, Northwestern

  3. Mike White, Florida

  4. Sean Miller, Arizona

  5. Mark Few, Gonzaga

It is a rite of passage to award coach of the year honors, across all sports, to the guy who has done more with less, who has, as they say, “overachieved.” How else do you explain Jim Tressel never being named the Big Ten’s coach of the year, or Jimbo Fisher never getting the same recognition in the ACC? So Jay Wright will probably not win this award, not after winning the national title in 2016 and boasting a national player of the year candidate this season in Josh Hart.

But look closer at Villanova’s season. The Wildcats lost a starting point guard and four-year captain in Ryan Arcidiacono (12.5 ppg in 2016). They lost another senior leader in Daniel Ochefu (10 ppg, 7.5 rpg). And, essentially, they lost last year’s leading scorer in the title game, Phil Booth, who has missed almost all of this season with left knee inflammation and may not return.

Yet one month before the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats are 25-2 overall and 12-2 in the Big East, ranked No. 2 by both major polls and No. 1 by the selection committee. They have done this without the services of five-star big Omari Spellman (NCAA eligibility issues) and, lately, without senior big Darryl Reynolds (rib injury). The Wildcats are dangerously thin, running roughly a six-man rotation, yet they have not rested on the laurels of last season.

Wright has made sure of that, setting the tone early with tactics such as sitting the forever-famous Kris Jenkins for an exhibition for being a few pounds overweight, or reminding his team how it simply can’t afford to take any nights off — especially in a Big East as strong as this year’s (No. 3 conference RPI).

Despite a number of obstacles, Villanova has a realistic chance of becoming college basketball’s first repeat champion in 10 years, and for that the Wildcats can thank Wright.

Under Jay Wright, Villanova could become college basketball’s first repeat champ in a decade. (AP)
Under Jay Wright, Villanova could become college basketball’s first repeat champ in a decade. (AP)

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