It appears college basketball’s player of the year battle will be decided between Michigan’s Trey Burke and Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Duke’s Mason Plumlee is still hanging around. Indiana’s Victor Oladipo is gaining momentum and has bypassed teammate Cody Zeller in the minds of many voters.
But what about national coach of the year honors? That’s a pretty tough call right now. Mike Krzyzewski and Duke put together a strong resume and then lost to Miami, 90-63, on Jan. 23. Bill Self has led Kansas to 19 wins, but the Jayhawks just lost to TCU and have their first losing streak since 2006.
"It was the worst team that Kansas ever put on the floor, since Dr. Naismith was there," Self said after KU shot 30 percent against TCU and scored just 13 points in the first half. "I think he had some bad teams when he lost to Topeka YMCA and things like that in the first couple years."
Rick Pitino took Louisville to No. 1 in the polls and then the Cardinals lost three straight. Billy Donovan’s Florida team was being praised as the most efficient team in the nation at both ends of the floor before Arkansas routed the Gators this week.
It’s crazy, and there's still plenty of time for those and other coaches to make a better case. Right now, our award would go to Miami’s Jim Larranaga, who has revitalized his career with the Hurricanes.
We look past the usual suspects and present our top five candidates right now and a list of honorable mentions.
Jim Larranaga, Miami (18-3, 9-0 ACC)
Depending on your age, Larranaga might remind you of your grandfather, your father-in-law, or maybe even good old dad himself. He just has that old school look. No $400 hairstyle. No designer suit. Larranaga looks most comfortable wearing his school’s sweats and teaching in a gym.
The casual fan might turn on the TV and remember Larranaga as the guy from George Mason and the 2006 Final Four. But now he is much more than that. Miami may be the best story in college basketball this year. No one expected the Hurricanes to be a top-10 team. There is a lot of talent on this squad but Larranaga must be credited with bringing out the best in his players, blending them together and overcoming injuries.
When Larranaga was an assistant at Virginia from 1979-86, he made it his goal to become a head coach in the ACC. Miami gave him that opportunity.
"I saw a league going through a transition period," he told Greg Cote of The Miami Herald. "If we were able to recruit well, we could do some damage in this conference. It seemed like an opportunity to come in and succeed very quickly."
He had it right, didn’t he? Most preseason predictions had Miami finishing fourth or fifth in the ACC and sneaking into the NCAA tournament. Right now the Hurricanes look more like a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight team. Who knows, maybe Larranaga’s dream job will take him back to the Final Four.
Sean Miller, Arizona (20-2, 8-2 Pac-12)
It’s not easy replacing a legend, and Miller had a significant mess to clean up when he replaced Lute Olson. Miller seemed like the right guy for the job and he has been, if not more. The Wildcats have returned to their perch as the top program in the Pac-12.
Miller is getting the job done this season with a blend of experience, that magnificent recruiting class he put together and, of course, a transfer (Mark Lyons) who was itching to prove himself in a new environment.
They’ve won some close games and maybe the record is a little better than it should be, but Miller is getting it done. Arizona is a contender for the national championship.
With all the preseason hype surrounding UNLV and San Diego State, the nation didn’t really notice New Mexico until the Lobos defeated Connecticut 66-60 to win the Paradise Jam in November. The Mountain West is competitive and just a little crazy, but Alford’s Lobos have been consistent in league play, and they sit in first place headed into their game at UNLV (17-6, 4-4) on Saturday.
Despite the attractive record, I don’t see the Lobos as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. That’s because those three losses were stunning. South Dakota State beat the Lobos 70-65 in Albuquerque, Saint Louis held the Lobos to 46 points, and then there was that dreadful 55-34 loss at San Diego State.
Alford gets a little bit of everything out of Kendall Williams, one of those guys who could become a big pain for opponents in the NCAA tournament.
John Beilein, Michigan (21-2, 8-2 Big Ten)
The Wolverines lost late Saturday night at Indiana, then had to return home and prepare for Tuesday night’s game against Ohio State. In many ways, that game against the Buckeyes was a must-win for Michigan with road games against Wisconsin and Michigan State next on the schedule. Michigan prevailed in overtime with a controversial no-call at the end, but Beilein was cool, calm and collected in his TV interview immediately after the game.
Sure, Michigan is loaded with talent, especially in the backcourt. That doesn’t always guarantee success. Beilein is dealing with the sons of former NBA players and that isn’t always easy. Egos don’t seem to be a problem on this team, and that’s a credit to Beilein. He has been a winner every place he has coached and has adjusted some of his basic offensive and defensive philosophies to fit this team. A masterful job.
Kevin Ollie, Connecticut (15-6, 5-4 Big East)
The won-loss record here doesn’t match our other four finalists. That’s not the point. Few, if any, first-year coaches have taken over a major program with so many negative odds to work against. Jim Calhoun retired at the last minute, and Ollie was handed a team that had a decimated roster and faced a postseason ban passed down by the NCAA and the Big East.
The Huskies have a chip on their shoulder, and until Wednesday the postseason ban was working as motivation. With nine games remaining, Ollie has a chance to win 20 games in his first season, with a team that is built around guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright -- and burdened by an ineffective frontcourt. Ollie has already been given a well-deserved contract extension and the future looks bright again at UConn.
"This team is never going to be forgotten -- by the fans and by me, especially -- for what they endured and the struggle they endured," Ollie said after an overtime victory over South Florida. "They’re very gifted. With them not even being involved (in the infractions) and for them to play like this, I’ve got a special group. I’ll never, never forget them."
Still in the hunt for national honors: Mark Few, Gonzaga; Billy Donovan, Florida; Dana Altman, Oregon; Brad Stevens, Butler; Travis Ford, Oklahoma State; Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss; Keith Dambrot, Akron; Larry Eustachy, Colorado State; Greg Lansing, Indiana State; Bill Self, Kansas; Rick Byrd, Belmont; Mike Krzyzewski, Duke; Buzz Williams, Marquette.