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Friday, February 24, 2012
Crowded field for coach of year race


For years, the Academy Awards conflicted with March Madness, so it was great when the show moved to February. Sure, some folks think the Oscars are bloated and phony and over-the-top, and thus unwatchable. But … those are pretty much exactly the same reasons that I love to watch the show.

I've seen six of the Best Picture candidates, but nine are nominated, and I'm not going to get to all of them before Sunday. Or ever, in the case of "War Horse." Young man separated from his beloved horse, then both must go through the ravages of World War I? No thanks. I teared up enough at the reunited Muppets singing "Rainbow Connection" again.

So what does the Academy Awards show have to do with the coach of the year race in women's basketball? Nothing, really. It's just that the Oscars are Sunday, and I enjoy making these forced links to one of the few areas of pop culture in which I still attempt to stay current.

Perhaps I should connect a coaching award to the Best Director nominees. But there are only five of those, and I have six coach nominees. Plus, some of my forced links are just to movie titles, not actually to what the movie was about. I really couldn't cheat that same way with using the names of the directors.

So here we go, by alphabetical order, with the Best Picture candidate the nominee represents (if only in my own mind). Then at the end, the Oscar winner … er, my pick right now for coach of the year.

Geno Auriemma, Connecticut: "War Horse"

Geno Auriemma
Auriemma
Just because I won't see this movie doesn't mean I wouldn't vote for Auriemma. No matter what happens to UConn -- it has to face injuries and graduation the same way everybody does -- Auriemma's Huskies keep persevering, just like Joey the War Horse.

Auriemma lost a three-time Wade Trophy winner in Maya Moore to graduation. His top returning scorer was Tiffany Hayes (13.7 ppg last season), who never really had to fill a leadership role before.

He has needed to run a four-guard offense much of the time because of personnel, and that has required convincing 5-foot-11 Kelly Faris to play like she's about five inches taller. Because Auriemma is such a good maestro, he has been able to pull this off. Of course, it also has a lot to do with recruiting the type of player who will not balk at being placed out of her comfort zone.

Auriemma has a lot of talent, true. But who brought that talent there? How many teams could lose a player such as Moore, yet still have lost only three games going into late February and be on track for a No. 1 seed again?

Jim Crowley, St. Bonaventure: "Moneyball"

Jim Crowley
Crowley
This is the easiest link of all. Crowley really did read the book "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane; it subsequently was turned into a Brad Pitt movie.

The book helped inspire Crowley to develop the system that has the Bonnies currently at 26-2 overall and 13-0 in the Atlantic 10.

It's too simplistic to say Crowley's emphasis is on taking care of the ball. But limiting turnovers is one of the principal tenets for a program that's on its way to its first NCAA tournament berth. St. Bonaventure went to the WNIT last year.

The Bonnies now have won 20 games or more for four consecutive seasons, and this one is shaping up as the best of all in Crowley's 16 years at St. Bonaventure. He signed a contract extension this past summer to remain at the school through 2017.

Tina Martin, Delaware: "The Help"

Tina Martin
Martin
You think you have no chance to sign the player who's not just best in your state, but possibly best in the country. She's off to "the" powerhouse up north. But guess what? She comes back home and starts playing on the volleyball team at your school.

You can barely contain yourself, but you don't pressure her at all. You want it to be so that when Elena Delle Donne does decide on her own to return to hoops, she will be comfortable with you and her new team.

Martin navigated that very well, along with balancing having a megatalent alongside the right kinds of players to "help" her.

You can't win with one player in basketball, no matter how good she is. Martin has put together the right mix of personalities, along with figuring out how best to maximize Delle Donne's ability, for the 25-1 Blue Hens.

Katie Meier, Miami: "The Descendants"

Katie Meier
Meier
Meier played at Duke from 1985-90, having to miss a year rehabbing a knee injury. She then played overseas at a time when cellphones and email were still a few years away from being commonly used. So she experienced the slightly "older" era of women's basketball from which today's game has descended. But she also has a strong link to the present era as one of the still-rising stars in the coaching ranks.

She can trace her love and skill for basketball back to her late father, whom she never met, as he died in a plane crash four months before she was born. Gerry Meier played at DePaul, and those who knew him say his daughter looked and played a great deal like him.

Miami's rise under Meier has been fueled by guards Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson, but they lost a major contributor when forward Morgan Stroman went down with an Achilles injury on Jan. 19. Even so, Meier has put the Hurricanes in position to potentially win the ACC.

Kim Mulkey, Baylor: "The Artist"

Kim Mulkey
Mulkey
I actually know some folks who don't really watch women's hoops at all, except to see Mulkey. For her interesting apparel, sure, but also for the demonstrative pantomime and facial expressions that make it seem as if she could have been on the silver screen, circa 1925.

Mulkey as a silent-movie star? Admittedly, it's hard to imagine her or any coach being totally quiet on the bench. But the actors in silent movies weren't necessarily "silent," either. Audiences just couldn't hear them.

Nobody ever has that problem with Mulkey, especially not referees. But even if you did mute the sound on your TV during a Baylor game, Mulkey would entertain you.

"The Artist" appears to be the Best Picture favorite, and it should be: It's got two lovable leading characters (three if you count the dog) who must go through various difficulties to be together. The most basic, simple movie plot ever? Yes, but this amazing, sweet -- and silent -- film makes it seem fresh.

Baylor looks to be the favorite for the NCAA title. The Lady Bears have a ton of talent, led by Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, but somebody has to recruit it and orchestrate it. That's Mulkey.

Tara VanDerveer, Stanford: "Midnight in Paris"

Tara VanDerveer
VanDerveer
Coaches always have to look forward; they can't dwell in the past -- no matter how rosy that past might look in retrospect.

We're now approaching the 20-year anniversary of Stanford's last NCAA title. It seems kind of weird that it has been so long, considering the Cardinal have been in the Final Four the past four years. But indeed, when Stanford beat Western Kentucky in Los Angeles for the 1992 title, it was not only the most recent for VanDerveer, but also for the entire West Coast.

In the event that you haven't seen "Midnight in Paris," I don't want to reveal much of the plot, except to say that it concerns the way we can sometimes revere the past to the degree of missing what's in front of us.

VanDerveer has been the guiding hand behind one of the most consistently competitive women's hoops programs in the nation, one that -- as mentioned -- has carried the Pacific Time Zone flag.

The Cardinal lost starters Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen to graduation. But once again Stanford is steamrolling the Pac-12 and in line for a No. 1 seed.

Others worthy of mention: "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

Have to admit I didn't much care for this film -- the words contrived and manipulative come to mind -- but I chose the title to represent some of the folks who will have a loud cheering section for coach of the year and were close to making my ballot, too.

UTEP's Keitha Adams: The Miners are 25-2 overall and 14-0 in Conference USA.

Green Bay's Matt Bollant: Another coach hit by graduation, the Phoenix are 14-1 in the Horizon League and 24-1 overall.

DePaul's Doug Bruno: Few coaches have lost as many players to injury this season -- including star Keisha Hampton -- as Bruno. Yet the Blue Demons are 20-8 and still in the upper half of the Big East.

Gonzaga's Kelly Graves: Courtney Vandersloot has gone to the WNBA, but the Bulldogs are atop the West Coast Conference again at 13-2 and are 24-4 overall.

Florida Gulf Coast's Karl Smesko: He has the Eagles soaring in the first season they are eligible for the Division I NCAA tournament. They are 25-2 overall and 17-0 in the Atlantic Sun.

Penn State's Coquese Washington: In a difficult year for her university, she has led the Lady Lions to their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2004.

And if I had to vote right now, the winner would be …

Tina Martin, whose Delaware team has maintained its chemistry and its success thus far.