In this series, we’ll be giving props to some of the best assistants in college basketball.
For each conference, I polled at least 20 coaches (primarily assistants) and asked for them to name the top assistant coaches in their respective league. Is it a perfect way of determining the elite assistants? Maybe not, but it seems far more accurate than any other method.
I’ve also made sure to include some info on each coach that’s recognized — as well as quotes from both their boss and another assistant in the league.
Kenny Payne, Kentucky | The Mississippi native played at Louisville from 1985-89 and then spent more than a decade playing professionally in 10 different leagues. Payne was an assistant at Oregon from 2004-09, then joined John Calipari’s Kentucky staff in 2010.
“Coaches care about players or they wouldn’t be in the profession, but few coaches like Kenny will put their own career behind the players like Kenny does. In recruiting, if we need to wait on a kid, even if it hurts him, he’ll wait. Some of the best players we’ve signed are because Kenny convinced me to wait and had a great relationship with those players. His reputation as a recruiter was at stake, but he thought it was the right thing to do for the kid. As a basketball coach and a teacher, he could run any program in the country, and I’m disappointed he hasn’t had that opportunity already. He does his job with great integrity and great loyalty to the program and the players. His relationship with our players is second to none. He coaches them as hard as anyone, but they respect him, they listen to him and they learn from him because they know he cares. Simply, he’s as good as they get.” – Kentucky coach John Calipari
“Obviously Kenny is known as a great recruiter, but many people don’t see how he holds guys accountable and pushes buttons to get the best out of them. Kenny is super connected and is at the forefront of what Kentucky is getting done on the recruiting trail. I think it’s truly amazing! He’s got a great way about him.” – SEC assistant
Darris Nichols, Florida | The Radford, Va. native played four seasons at West Virginia (2004-08) and then joined the staff as a grad assistant in 2010. Nichols was an assistant at Northern Kentucky from 2011-13, Wofford in 2013-14 and Louisiana Tech in 2014-15. He’s been with Mike White in Gainesville since 2015.
“Darris is big-time. Coaching, scouting, recruiting, mentoring — you name it, he’s high-level in every aspect. [His] work ethic, integrity, creativity and consistency are elite. A successful head coach when someone’s smart enough to hire him.” – Florida coach Mike White
“Darris is a rising star, a guy who obviously played at a high level and has done a great job recruiting at Florida. I think he’ll be a head coach within a couple years.” – SEC assistant
Desmond Oliver, Tennessee | The Buffalo native was a three-year starter at Dominican College, where he graduated in 1992. He’s had assistant stints at Niagara (1994-97), Texas A&M (1997-98), Cornell (1998-2000), St. Bonaventure (2000-01), URI (2001-04), Georgia (2004-09), Canisius (2009-10) and Charlotte (2010-15) before joining Rick Barnes’ staff in Knoxville in 2015.
“Dez may be one of the hardest-working recruiters I’ve ever been around. He builds relationships, establishes trust and is relentlessly thorough in everything he does.” – Tennessee coach Rick Barnes
“Dez is a guy who has been at a bunch of different stops and has managed to find under-the-radar guys wherever he has been. I think he’s someone who should be a head coach soon.” – SEC assistant
Michael Schwartz, Tennessee | He played two years at Sonoma State before transferring to Texas — where he played for Rick Barnes in 1998-99. He then was a grad assistant at Texas from 1999-2001. Schwartz was a video assistant at Long Beach State in 2001-02, returned to Texas as the video coordinator (2002-04) and went to UTSA as an assistant in 2004-05. He then joined the Miami staff as the director of basketball operations (2005-07), was elevated to assistant (2007-11) and went to Fresno State as an assistant from 20011-15. Schwartz was an assistant at Tulsa in 2015-16 before rejoining Barnes in Tennessee in 2016.
“Mike is one of the sharpest defensive minds in the game. He’s truly elite in that respect, head and shoulders above most of his peers.” – Tennessee coach Rick Barnes
“Mike has been a professional in every stop along the way. He is a colleague that I respect for his on-the-court coaching and off-the-court recruiting.” – SEC assistant
Bill Armstrong, LSU* | The Birmingham native played at UAB from 1998-2001, was a grad assistant at his alma mater in 2001-02 and then was an assistant at Chipola JC in 2002-03. Armstrong was an assistant for three seasons (2003-06) at Birmingham-Southern before spending more than a decade at Ole Miss as the coordinator of basketball operations and then as an assistant. He joined Will Wade’s staff at LSU in 2017.
“He’s the complete package: has great relationships with the players, is very good on the floor with individual development and game prep, and is a great recruiter. He has been in the SEC a long time and you don’t last in this league without being great at building and maintaining relationships — where he thrives.” – LSU coach Will Wade
“Bill is a guy who has worked at all different levels and is one of those guys who works hard and knows what it takes, both recruiting and coaching.” – SEC assistant
David Patrick, Arkansas* | Born in Bermuda and raised in Australia, Patrick went to high school in Baton Rouge and played one season at Syracuse before transferring to Southwestern Louisiana. He played pro for a few years overseas before starting his college coaching career at Nicholls State in 2005-06. He was an assistant at Saint Mary’s (2006-10), a scout with the Houston Rockets (2010-12), an assistant at LSU (2012-16), TCU (2016-18) and the head coach at UC Riverside the past two years before just taking the associate head coach job with Eric Musselman.
“Great [with] X-and-Os, excellent communicator, incredible recruiter and he’s outstanding with player relationships. With his head coaching experience, I can’t imagine there is a better assistant in college basketball.” – Arkansas coach Eric Musselman
“One of the best recruiters out there because he can get guys in the U.S. — and obviously he’s so strong overseas — but now he’s got the head coaching experience. That’s a great combo.” – SEC assistant
*Two-way tie for fifth place.