As the college hoops season draws ever nearer to the month of March, some coaches have their programs firing on all cylinders while others are just out there trying to function. Even teams with legendary coaches like Bill Self, Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski are finding that the struggle in January is very real. But a few coaches have found the formula for success – here is a look at what they are doing right.
Fran McCaffery, Iowa
Experience is on McCaffery’s side and his stats speak for themselves: 19 seasons as a head coach, seven NCAA tournament appearances, three NITs and 347-252 (.579) record. All that wisdom has translated into major success at the University of Iowa, where McCaffrey has been head coach since 2010. He has made the Hawkeyes relevant again.
After an NIT runner-up finish and 25-win season in 2013, which matched the second-most victories by a Hawkeye team in program history, McCaffery coached the Hawkeyes to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2014 and 2015. McCaffery guided Iowa to first-in-division finishes in the Big Ten each of the past three seasons, including a top three finish in 2015.
This year, the team, which is 16-3 overall, 7-0 in the Big Ten and is ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, isn’t the only thing that is lit. McCaffery’s antics have become well known and well documented on the internet, prompting their own alert system – The Francon.
— Emily Van Buskirk (@Emilnem) January 22, 2016
McCaffery’s emotions may run wild, but his adjustments are on point, like the zone press he threw at the Boilermakers to effectively shut down Purdue in Iowa’s 70-63 victory earlier in the month. Oh and he coached the Hawkeyes to victory over Michigan State twice in two weeks. So there’s that.
Dana Altman, Oregon
The Oregon men’s basketball program has been through the ringer the past couple of years, with head coach Dana Altman shouldering much of the criticism and reproach due to incidents off the court. But on the court, Altman has proven himself again and again.
Altman is one of only six active coaches in Division I with 18 consecutive winning seasons. He was the 2013 National Coach of the Year and a two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year. He has also won more games in his first five seasons than any coach in Oregon history. Altman is 123-57 in Eugene, and 533-300 in 26 seasons as a head coach at the Division I level in stints at Oregon, Creighton, Kansas State and Marshall.
This season is no exception. The Ducks are currently 16-4 overall, 5-2 in conference play and they are coming off a sweep of the Los Angeles schools which sets them up at the head of the Pac as they are tied for first place with Washington.
The Ducks were picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason poll, but Altman had other plans. Oregon is No. 7 in the RPI rankings with nine wins over teams ranked in the RPI top 50, which is the most in the nation. Now, the Ducks are ranked No. 23 in the nation.
Bryce Drew, Valparasio
While the Crusaders might not strike you as a top team, don’t ever sleep on Valpo and the Cinderella upset powers they posses. Head coach Bryce Drew is a living Valparaiso legend – he hit a buzzer-beater in the first round of Valpo’s 1998 NCAA tournament run.
His dad was coach of the Crusaders for 22 years, as was his brother for a year and now under Bryce, the Crusaders are poised to make another run.
This will be Drew’s fifth year at the helm. He has coached the Crusaders to three Horizon League championships, two NCAA tournament appearances as well as one in the NIT. He has won two Horizon League Championship Tournaments and was named Horizon Coach of the Year in 2015. Drew’s record at Valpo is 110-45 (710) overall, 56-17 (.767) in conference play. This season, the Crusaders are 17-4 overall, 7-1 in conference with losses at Oregon, Ball State, Belmont and Wright State. Valpo is tied for first with Wright State, however the Crusaders lead the league in scoring defense (60.0), FG% defense (37.1) and rebounding margin (9.8).
Pat Chambers, Penn State
It has been a struggle for Chambers to build his program in football-minded Happy Valley, but the Nittany Lions have seen steady improvement since his hire in 2011. There have been flashes of Chambers’ vision as Penn State pulls off an upset here or there, but there has been no sustained success in terms of postseason play. The progress in State College has certainly been measured in baby steps to this point, but that could all be about to change.
If we told you that Penn State had a top-15 recruiting class, you would automatically assume that we're talking about football, and we wouldn’t blame you. You may be surprised to learn we are talking about basketball as Chambers has managed to put together one of the best recruiting classes in the nation for 2016.
The current commitments for 2016 include three four-star recruits and one three-star player. The class is led by Tony Carr, a point guard out of Philadelphia and top-50 recruit. Joining Carr will be two of his Roman Catholic High School teammates, small forwards Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick. Philadelphia is on every school’s recruiting radar and is an ultra-competitive market. Not only is the city home to six Division I schools, but nationally recognized programs such as Syracuse and Arizona recruit very well there. It speaks volumes of Chambers that he was able to get this group to Penn State.
Next year’s class could prove pivotal for Chambers and the Penn State program. He has shown that he can convince kids to come to Penn State from Philadelphia, and will need to continue to do so. If next year’s class can perform, then Chambers can start to sell winning and exposure to his potential recruits and his job becomes that much easier. Chambers may not be that far away from making Penn State basketball a Big Ten contender.
Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
Kevin Ollie didn’t wait long to make an impact for the Huskies. He guided UConn to a 20-10 record in his first season, a season in which they were ineligible for postseason play. After a 32-8 campaign the following year, Ollie and the Huskies took advantage of their return to the Big Dance and won the National Championship.
Inheriting a team that was on probation and winning a national championship the following year is an impressive feat. Ollie has yet to have a losing season in Storrs, and it doesn’t appear he will have one anytime soon. The Huskies look to be a bubble team this year, but will be bolstered by a top-20 recruiting class next season.
That class is led by point guard Alterique Gilbert. Ollie has already shown an ability to get the most out of his guards, and a Gilbert-Ollie partnership looks to be a productive one. As Ollie and the Huskies reload, the 43 year old could be one of the hottest coaches on the market in a few years.
Tony Bennett, Virginia
Bennett has built Virginia into a national powerhouse. The Cavaliers are coming off back-to-back 30 win seasons and ACC regular season championships. So far postseason success has eluded Bennett and the Cavaliers, but they look poised to make another run this season with a chip on their shoulder.
Despite some surprising early season stumbles, Virginia has also scored some impressive victories. They play intense defense that allows them to hang with any team in the country. They will be in the mix in what has become a wide open ACC, and should yet again enter the tournament with a fairly high seed.
While the focus will be on avenging the disappointments of the past two NCAA tournaments, the future is bright beyond the 2015-16 season. An incoming class ranked in the top-5 that includes 4 top-100 recruits will help ease the loss of senior Malcom Brogdon as the Cavaliers look to continue to build on what Bennett has started. A relatively young coach at 46, Bennett is another coach whose stock is on the rise.
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