Top coaches: Biggest surprises

June, 2, 2014
Jun 2
11:00
AM ET
ESPN.com has decided to rank college basketball’s top coaches. On Monday, Nos. 50-25 were announced. Some might think that a few coaches were too high or too low, and there were some surprises in this batch of rankings.

Here are a few surprises from the initial set of rankings:

[+] EnlargeFerrell/Crean
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTom Crean has proved he can recruit but has gotten criticism for his in-game coaching.
Tom Crean (unranked): Well, the Indiana coach failed to crack the top 50. And that’s surprising -- maybe. Under Crean, Indiana has reached the Sweet 16 in two of the past three years and won the Big Ten regular-season crown in 2012-13. He’s also responsible for restoring a program that fell short of a lofty legacy as it endured the post-Kelvin Sampson era sanctions. All of that after he led Marquette to the Final Four in 2003. That should count for something. But perception matters, and the perception that Crean has failed to alter is one that sees him as more of a recruiter than an X’s and O’s guy. A 4-15 record overall against Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, one of the game’s great X’s and O’s coaches, only magnifies that notion. Crean had two future top-five NBA draft picks in 2012-13, but he couldn’t advance beyond the Sweet 16 with Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, even though that Hoosiers squad spent a chunk of the season with the No. 1 slot. It exited the Big Dance after shooting 33.3 percent and committing 18 turnovers against Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Last season, Indiana went 7-11 in the Big Ten and failed to reach the NCAA tourney. Yes, Crean had a lot of inexperienced players on that team, but that shouldn’t happen when one of the league’s top athletes (Yogi Ferrell) and a future lottery pick (Noah Vonleh) anchor your roster. Still, Steve Alford has two Sweet 16 appearance in his entire career, and just one since 1999. And Fran McCaffery finally turned Iowa into an NCAA tourney team last season. Not sure how those guys are ranked in the 30s and Crean can’t even crack the top 50. It’s interesting.

Buzz Williams (No. 38): Marquette entered last season as the favorite to win the title in the (new) Big East’s first season. The Golden Eagles fell short of those expectations when they finished sixth and missed the NCAA tournament. Not the best regular season for Williams, who left to fill Virginia Tech’s opening a few weeks ago, but Marquette was coming off a shared league title in a much tougher version of the conference. The Golden Eagles split that 2012-13 crown with a Louisville team that won the national championship that season and a Georgetown team that looked like a Final Four squad before Dunk City ruined those plans in the opening round. Marquette made five consecutive NCAA tourney appearances (2009-2013) under Williams. That run included two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight run in 2013. Nothing against Colorado's Tad Boyle (No. 34) and Nebraska's Tim Miles (No. 32) -- both good coaches -- but they can’t match that. Seems too low for Williams.

Archie Miller (No. 26): Miller is no longer just Sean Miller’s brother; he has his own legacy now. Last season, he not only led Dayton to its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2009 but also guided the program to its first Elite Eight appearance in 30 years. It was an impressive feat. The Flyers won 26 games as Miller became one of the hottest young coaches in the game with that memorable tournament run. But No. 26 in the rankings? It’s only Miller’s third season as a head coach. Although he's done more in three seasons than other coaches with lengthier résumés have achieved in their careers, longevity has to be a factor, and it’s too early to know whether Miller will continue this success in the coming years. Plus, he has to turn Dayton into a consistent contender for the A-10 crown. He definitely has the tools to get there, but No. 26 might be premature.

John Thompson III (No. 46): Georgetown struggled in the new Big East last season. After losing key pieces from the previous season, the Hoyas finished seventh in league play. Plus, the 2012-13 Georgetown team lost in a major upset to Florida Gulf Coast in the Big Dance. But the program also has won or shared three Big East championships and reached the Final Four in 2007 and the Sweet 16 in 2006 under JTIII. Those achievements seem ancient now, though; Thompson has amassed a 2-5 record in the NCAA tournament since that Final Four appearance. That’s why JTIII barely cracked the top 50 in these rankings. But again, he has a résumé that surpasses what some of the coaches ranked ahead of him have.

[+] EnlargeScoochie Smith and Archie Miller
Rich Graessle/Icon SMIDayton's 2014 NCAA tournament made Archie Miller a bigger name in coaching circles, but now he has to back it up.
Dana Altman (unranked): These rankings emphasize a coach’s overall impact on a program. A few weeks ago, Altman dismissed three key players after a rape investigation. One of those players, Brandon Austin, had been involved in a previous rape investigation at Providence that Altman claimed he had no knowledge of when he recruited Austin. The bottom line is that Altman should have been better informed. Oregon has had four consecutive seasons of 20 wins or more under Altman, but the Ducks also have dealt with a bunch of off-the-court drama that has marred his highs. The revolving pool of transfers also doesn’t convey a sense of stability in Eugene, Oregon. He’s falling. Maybe he shouldn’t be out of the top 50, but he’s definitely falling.

Scott Drew (No. 50, tie): Drew is one of the most polarizing coaches in college basketball. Ask other coaches or media folks about him, and they’ll probably express an extreme view. The people who think he’s a bad coach think he’s a really bad coach. The folks who think those critics are just haters believe that he’s flawless. The truth, as it is with any coach, is somewhere in the middle. But here’s the reality: Drew turned Baylor into a player on the national scene after a major scandal nearly crippled the program before his arrival in 2003. Drew’s talent hasn’t always matched his team’s results. Last season, Baylor began Big 12 play with eight losses in 10 games, but the Bears recovered and reached the Big 12 tournament championship game and the Sweet 16. Drew has guided Baylor to four NCAA tourney appearances and two Elite Eight berths. Baylor had reached the NCAA tournament only four times before his arrival. He’s certainly guilty of missed opportunities and in-game coaching errors, but Tubby Smith (No. 39), Jim Crews (No. 29) and Ed Cooley (No. 41) can’t match his achievements over the past six seasons. An argument, a strong one, could be made that Drew deserves a higher ranking.

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