We’ve already done our Player of the Year Race, but now is time to look at the coaches who have separated themselves for the National Coach of the Year Award after the first month or so of the season. It may not be fair, but generally we’ll go with a group that has outperformed its expectations – instead of the Bill Selfs, Mark Fews and Mike Krzyzewskis of the world.
COACH OF THE YEAR FRONTRUNNERS
1) John Beilein, Michigan – The guy lost three of his top four scorers from a team that went to the national title game and the Wolverines are arguably better this season. They are unbeaten at 10-0 with resounding wins over UNC, Villanova and Providence.
2) Chris Beard, Texas Tech – Beard is somehow sustaining it after losing five of his top six scorers from last year’s team that won 27 games and advanced to the Elite Eight. The Red Raiders are 8-0 and ranked 11th in the country, and he’s doing this at a program that is considered one of the tougher jobs in the country.
3) Chris Holtmann, Ohio State – The guy just maximizes his talent. He did it for three years at Butler, and did it last season – his first in Columbus. The Buckeyes lost their top two players, and have found a way to stay relevant with an 8-1 record that includes road victories over Cincinnati and Creighton.
4) Nate Oats, Buffalo – I can’t imagine the big boys don’t come calling after this season. A high school coach just a handful of years ago, Oats has two NCAA tournament appearances on his resume and the Bulls are 9-0 this season with a win in Morgantown against West Virginia and one in Carbondale against Southern Illinois. UB also knocked off USF in Belfast and pounded St. Bonaventure.
5) Bob Richey, Furman – OK, I know there are some cupcakes on the schedule – but Bob Richey has led the Paladins to road wins over two of the Final Four squads from a year ago: Villanova and Loyola (Ill.). Furman could go into its game in Baton Rouge on Dec. 21 with a 12-0 mark if it can get past UNC Wilmington in Greenville.
MORANT STUMBLES INTO MURRAY
The story goes like this: Former Murray State assistant James Kane was starving, so he grabbed some chips and a drink at the concession stand and poked his head in the back auxiliary gym at the one-day showcase in Spartanburg, S.C.
That’s when he first laid eyes on Ja Morant … and it was love at first sight.
Morant was actually a late addition to the camp, and his name wasn’t even listed on the roster. Kane was there to see future commit Tevin Brown.
“When they called out everyone’s name, I was the only one that wasn’t called,” Morant told Stadium.
But now, don’t be shocked if Morant’s name is called by Adam Silver early in June’s NBA Draft. He’s shot up the draft boards of most NBA teams due to his combination of athleticism, quickness, fearlessness and an ability to score and distribute. A year ago, there were glimpses – but as a freshman playing with seniors Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller, he was considered more of a facilitator, averaging 12.7 points and 6.3 assists while only taking about nine shots per game.
“My job was to get them involved in the game,” Morant said.
Now it’s Morant’s team – and he’s arguably the most talented point guard in the country. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is putting up crazy numbers: 24.2 points, 8.2 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game. His breakout performance came in front of no shortage of NBA execs in Tuscaloosa when he went for 38 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a loss to Alabama.
“He’s the ultimate winner who just makes everyone around him better,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon told me. “He does everything. He’s an elite, elite athlete who combines that with a terrific basketball IQ, a feel and understanding of the game.”
Whether it’s on or off the record, everyone close to Morant also raves about his character. He hails from the same small town in South Carolina as Ray Allen (his father, Tee, played high school ball with Allen at Hillcrest High).
“He’s a phenomenal kid,” McMahon added. “One of his best traits is that he’s confident, yet very humble. He hasn’t changed at all with all the attention he’s getting. If anything, he’s hungrier.”
When Morant committed to Murray, he did it despite the fact that he had a visit set up the following weekend to the in-state school, South Carolina.
“As soon as I got to Murray, I knew it’s where I wanted to be,” Morant said. “A lot of people questioned my decision, but I didn’t care about the name of the school. I just wanted the best fit for me.”
TILLIE LEADS REINFORCEMENTS
Killian Tillie’s target return date is Jan. 5 – which also happens to be the start of WCC play against Santa Clara in Spokane.
“That’s the hope,” Tillie told me in Phoenix before the Zags lost for the first time this season.
Tillie was on crutches and in a boot in Phoenix, after having surgery for a stress fracture in late-October just prior to the start of the season. He suffered the injury early in October, played through it and then decided to have surgery after it didn’t improve.
With Tillie back on the court, it changes the Zags. Remember, the 6-foot-10 junior was the team’s leading returning scorer at 12.9 points per game. He has also been one of the best long-range shooters in the country the past two seasons, making nearly 50 percent of his attempts (56-of-117 overall).
With the emergence of Rui Hachimura as an alpha dog, the ability of both Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins to take and make tough shots, the addition of ultra-athletic transfer forward Brandon Clarke and the continued development of Cory Kispert, Gonzaga could be the favorite to cut down the nets come April.
Remember, the ‘Zags knocked off Duke without Tillie – a potential first-rounder.
Tillie said he has no issue coming off the bench if that’s what Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few decides is in the best interest of the team.
“I’m going to have to adapt with the way we play,” said the native of France. “I don’t care about coming off the bench. I just want to come back and help the team get back to the Final Four.”
Here are 5 other players who will/should help their teams when they return:
1) Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State – He’s been out since the season-opener with a foot injury, and should return to the Cyclones’ lineup in the next week or two. The 6-foot-2 guard is coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 16.7 points per game, and it should be fun to watch him and freshman Tyrese Haliburton together.
2) Phil Cofer, Florida State – He was granted an extra season in the summer, and he’ll improve a Seminoles team that’s already pretty damn good. The 6-foot-8 forward started all 35 games last season and led the ‘Noles in scoring (12.8) and was second in rebounding (5.1). Cofer should be back in the next couple weeks from a right foot injury he suffered prior to the start of the season.
3) Danjel Purifoy, Auburn – The skilled junior forward sat out all of last season and the first nine games of this year due an NCAA investigation. Two years ago, as a redshirt freshman, Purifoy averaged 11.5 points and 4.7 boards. He’ll give Bruce Pearl and the Tigers even more depth. He’ll be back this weekend against UAB.
4 and 5) Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken, Harvard – Tommy Amaker won’t put a timetable on when – or even if they will return. However, if they do, Harvard will have the firepower to compete with just about anyone.
SELF HAD TO BE CONVINCED TO TAKE VICK BACK
Bill Self was heading to Canada to coach the U-18 National Team when he got the call. Self and the rest of the Kansas staff had already come to the conclusion that LaGerald Vick was gone – with both sides basically understanding it was the best move for the senior guard to move on to his professional career.
Self figured Vick was calling about what he needed to do to get his degree, whether he could get closer to graduation before pursuing his professional basketball career – likely in the G-League or overseas.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Self recalled Vick saying. “I want to talk about coming back to Kansas.”
Self was caught completely off-guard and told Vick he needed some time to think about it. There were concerns whether Vick would be completely “bought in” after watching most of the key players from a year ago leave for the NBA Draft. With a talented freshman class that includes wing Quentin Grimes, Self didn’t need Vick.
“I was 100 percent sure he would test the NBA draft process, and 95 percent sure – based on his home situation and everything else – that he would play pro,” Self said.
Vick didn’t get invited to the NBA Daft combine, and he wasn’t blowing teams away in workouts. Then he got the call in early June en route to Canada.
“I told him I wasn’t going to worry about it while I was coaching the Under-18 team in Canada,” Self said.
Self would later talk to his coaches, and revisit the situation with Vick a couple weeks later upon returning from Canada.
“We knew he’d help us,” Self said. “But we also weren’t sure his head would be into it.”
Self flew down and met with Vick and his family, calling the meeting “not great, but OK.” He was honest with Vick on what he wanted, what he needed in order to bring him back for this season. Then came a phone conversation a couple days later in which Self spoke about expectations, and Vick countered with his goals. Self spoke about how he felt Vick could have given more than he had in his first three seasons, especially in the intangible department.
“I told him that whether he liked it or not, he’s going to have to be a leader,” Self said.
“That I needed to bring positive energy and be a leader,” Vick recalled.
It hasn’t been all rosy for Vick. There was 32 against Vermont, 33 in a win over Louisiana and 27 against Stanford. He was Kansas’ best player in a five-game stretch from Nov. 12-Dec. 1, averaging 24.6 points per game and making a ridiculous 28-of-43 shots from deep.
Then he was late to shootaround on the day of the Wofford game on Dec. 4, and has struggled while coming off the bench in the past two games – scoring a total of five points in wins over Wofford and New Mexico State.
“I was impressed with the way he handled it,” Self said. “He told the team he deserved it. It was mature of him.”
JORDAN CAROLINE’S BLOODLINES STRONG
It’s not difficult to see where Nevada’s Jordan Caroline gets his toughness: His father is former NFL lineman Simeon Rice and his grandfather is the late Hall of Famer J.C. Caroline – who led the NCAA in rushing at Illinois and played a decade for the Chicago Bears.
Caroline played quarterback until high school, but loves basketball and said that despite the recent rash of basketball players getting a shot as an NFL tight end, he has no interest.
“I’d rather play basketball overseas,” Caroline said.
Caroline said that he didn’t have a relationship with Rice – who played in the NFL for a dozen seasons and was a member of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team in 2003 – until his junior year of high school. He was raised by his mother, Jayna, and grandfather.
“I wasn’t close with him until recently, but always knew he was my dad,” Caroline said. “I remember watching him in the Super Bowl.”
Now Caroline said he speaks to Rice a couple times per week, and his father even attended the game in Phoenix last week against Grand Canyon.
“I’m tough,” he joked. “But I think he’s tougher.”
As for the toughest player he’s ever gone up against? It’s fellow Illinois native and Tennessee Vols standout Admiral Schofield.
JAX STATE FINALLY RETURNS HOME
Remember the tornado that hit the southeast back in March of 2018, the one that ripped part of the roof right off Pete Mathews Coliseum on the Jacksonville State campus?
It forced the program to be on the road at local high schools, elementary schools, county convention centers and auxiliary gyms on campus for practice, workouts, film sessions and even games.
The positive was that no one was killed, but there was plenty of damage – to the arena, student housing, local stores, neighborhoods and even Athletic Director Greg Seitz’ house.
Jacksonville State will finally return home and play its first game at Pete Mathews Coliseum on Dec. 18 against North Alabama – which happens to be an old rivalry from when both were in the D-2 ranks. There’s a brand-new court, roof, lighting, concourse and there’s still more work being done to the facility.
-I went on a week-long west coast trip and got a chance to see a bunch of good teams (and a couple bad ones), but the highlight was easy: Getting a chance to catch-up with Mark Fisher. Steve Fisher’s son is still on the bench for every practice and home game despite battling ALS, and has as much energy and optimism as anyone I’ve ever been around. His son Max turns 5 soon – and there’s nothing better than Mark showing me a picture of his son and beaming with pride. There’s honestly no better person I’ve ever met in this business.
-Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said that Top 50 freshman Khavon Moore is practicing now, and a decision will be made around Christmas whether he will redshirt this season. Moore is a 6-foot-8 skilled and versatile wing who can play multiple positions and really pass the ball.
-Kansas coach Bill Self told Stadium that Udoka Azubuike’s ankle injury will likely keep him out a few more weeks. “We don’t know. It’s extended. I’d be happy if he’s 100 percent before the first of the year.”
-I’ve been on the west coast for much of the season, and two young(er) coaches who have really impressed me are Utah State’s Craig Smith and San Diego’s Sam Scholl. Smith, 45, spent the past four seasons as the head coach of South Dakota and brings a terrific combination of positive energy and the ability to get his players to give maximum effort. Utah State is 8-2 thus far after being picked to finish near the bottom of the Mountain West. Scholl, 41, is a little more reserved – but has the Toreros off to a 10-3 start (including wins over Colorado and San Diego State). Scholl took over on an interim basis at the end of last season when Lamont Smith was suspended, and got the full-time gig after the season ended. The players rave about his preparation, trust and character.
-If you don’t follow Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) on twitter, you should. He puts out a ton of interesting, unique content. A recent post was a graph that showed the most successful (and least successful) coaches in games decided by fewer than five points. A minimum of 50 close games were needed to qualify and the coach with the best mark was Robert Morris’ Andy Toole – who had this to say when being notified that he ranked number one: “I was actually more surprised than anyone to see where I was ranked. My staff and I always try and make sure we are prepared and making good decisions late-game. We also have been fortunate to have some tough players who were capable of making big plays! I think most coaches would agree you remember the ones you got wrong and try to learn from them!”