Saturday’s showdown between UNLV and San Diego State isn’t just pitting arguably the top two teams in the West Coast against one another.
It’s also the second meeting this season between two head coaches who are in elite company this season as legitimate contenders for National Coach of the Year honors.
Here’s a look at the company the two are keeping these days in the race for one of college basketball’s most prestigious awards.
Dave Rice — UNLV (1st season) — 21-4 overall, 5-2 Mountain West
Some nationally might throw out the argument that Rice is not winning ‘with his own players,’ which, in reality, is a poor stance at best.
Yes, Rice inherited an incredibly deep and talented roster when Lon Kruger left for Oklahoma last April. But he and his staff have implemented an offensive system that those players have thrived in, and in a short period of time, it’s taken the program to another level, both on the floor and on the recruiting trail.
The fact is that once he took over, the transition was as smooth as anyone could have asked for, which is no easy feat for any first-year coach. No players transferred, no one complained and everyone bought in.
Steve Fisher — San Diego State (13th season) — 20-3 overall, 6-1 Mountain West
Whether you buy into the Aztecs at this point as a national contender or not, there is no denying the results Steve Fisher’s team has posted, which are nothing shy of impressive.
After losing four starters off of last season’s team that won a school record 34 games and notched the program’s first ever NCAA tournament victories, it felt like it would be a down year on the mesa, or at least a transition year before a major infusion of talent via the prep ranks and other Division-I programs hits next season.
Instead, the Aztecs have won 20 games for the seventh straight season and, at the mid-way point in the Mountain West schedule, are all alone in first place. Last year, they did it with one of the nation’s best front courts. This season, a guard-heavy lineup is doing it again. Fisher has the program on as solid of ground as its ever been on, and winning with this year’s limited roster is almost more impressive than what the Aztecs did a year ago.
Frank Haith — Missouri (1st season) — 22-2 overall, 9-2 Big 12
Much like Rice, Haith took over at his new post with a loaded roster at his disposal.
And just like Rice has at UNLV, Haith has pushed all the right buttons. Missouri overcame a season-ending injury to Laurence Bowers before the season, which depleted an already-thin front court, and the Tigers adjusted accordingly. At the moment, they might have the best backcourt in the country.
Also like Rice, Haith has been a hit with recruits, and he has a chance to keep Missouri rolling for years to come.
Bill Self — Kansas (9th season) — 19-5 overall, 9-2 Big 12
This certainly seemed like the season in which Kansas’s 7-year run as Big 12 regular season champs was going to be snapped.
A trio of key incoming freshmen being ruled academically ineligible before the season left Self with his most depth-challenged roster in his time at Kansas. But the Jayhawks have made the most out of what is arguably one of the nation’s best starting fives, highlighted by junior forward Thomas Robinson — frontrunner for national Player of the Year honors.
They’re tied with Missouri atop the Big 12 standings with seven games to go, already own two wins over Baylor and their lone remaining meeting with Missouri will be at home. Extending that streak to eight is looking like more of a reality at this point.
John Calipari — Kentucky (3rd season) — 24-1 overall, 10-0 SEC
Say what you will about Calipari — And many people say plenty — but to win at the level he does with as much roster turnover as he has to deal with each season is impressive. And none of his freshman-led conquests have been as impressive as this one.
The Wildcats are a buzzer-beater at Indiana away from being 25-0 right now, and are rolling through SEC play. Freshman center Anthony Davis is as talented a shot-blocker as college basketball has seen in the last decade, and he’s the likely No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft. Freshman wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is as versatile as they come, and he’s surrounded by a handful of veterans who make this roster diverse and deadly.
Kentucky is also doing this without elite-level point guard play.
Calipari’s team will ultimately be judged by what it accomplishes in March, but this team combined with a season in which college basketball is lacking elite teams gives him his best shot his first national title since narrowly missing out at Memphis in 2008.
Jim Boeheim — Syracuse (36th season) — 24-1 overall, 11-1 Big East
Syracuse’s success this season based on its talented and vaunted 2-3 zone comes as a surprise to no one.
But the fact that the Orange have won like they have and not been distracted by the Bernie Fine mess that hovered over the program at the start of the season is a major credit to Boeheim, whose list of credentials at Syracuse is seemingly endless.
Mike Brey — Notre Dame (12th season) — 15-8 overall, 7-3 Big East
Notre Dame lost senior forward and leading scorer Tim Abromaitis to a torn ACL in late November after suffering two crushing losses at the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo. Two weeks later, they were 5-4 and the outlook was grim.
Now, the Irish are rolling through the Big East and look like a mortal lock to land in the NCAA tournament field yet again, with big home wins over Syracuse and Marquette coming during a current five-game winning streak.
This year could have turned into a disaster for Notre Dame. It hasn’t, largely because of one of the most impressive coaching jobs performed this season.
Tony Bennett — Virginia (3rd season) — 19-4 overall, 6-3 Big East
Playing a slowed-down style that has regularly bothered its opponents, Virginia is winning big for the first time since the mid- to late-1990s.
Becoming consistently relevant in the ACC hasn’t been easy with Duke and North Carolina running the show, but Bennett, in a short period of time, has set the Cavaliers up for success for years to come.
Winning one of his two games left against North Carolina certainly wouldn’t hurt Bennett’s Coach of the Year profile.
Steve Prohm — Murray State (1st season) — 23-1 overall, 11-1 Ohio Valley
The balloon that was Prohm’s Coach of the Year candidacy deflated some on Wednesday night, when the Racers dropped their first game of the season at home to Tennessee State.
Still, what he’s done as a first-year, first-time head coach stands out, and if the Racers can win out in the OVC and win the league tournament, thus entering the NCAA tournament still with only one loss, his shot at the honors could still be there. But wiggle room is minimal, given Murray State’s schedule.
Nevertheless, a nice story.
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