The annual Coach of the Year debate is always an interesting one in college basketball, if only because the criteria is perpetually unestablished and at issue.
Who deserves more credit: the coach of the nation's best team with the nation's best players, or the coach of the squad that nobody expected to fare this well? If the two are the same then there isn't an issue, but this rarely seems to be the case.
The case against the coach with the best team is relatively straightforward: he doesn't have to do as much actual "coaching" as anyone else. Also, if the award is automatically given to the team ranked No. 1 at the end of the season, then why even have a panel of voters?
On the other side, there's the issue of remembering that the award is for the "Coach of the Year" and not the "Overachieving Team of the Year." The emphasis on the latter is the reason why Billy Gillispie currently has an SEC Coach of the Year trophy stuffed in a box somewhere in his cluttered garage (I'm guessing) while John Calipari has still yet to receive the honor.
The easiest to thing to do is to go with each philosophy's most extreme choice, and either vote for the coach of the No. 1 team in the country or the coach of the highest-ranked team that began the season outside the Top 25. A more dedicated voter, however, will consider a multitude of factors like injuries, off-the-court issues, game management and utilization of talent.
I spoke with The Nation's Dan Wolken about this question Tuesday night, and he said that ultimately it comes down to an issue of who you "feel" has done the best job.
With less than a month to go before Selection Sunday, here are the guys I "feel" have been the best in college basketball this season:
1. Frank Haith, Missouri
Had Haith's hiring not been almost universally lambasted by the national media, I don't think there's any question that he would be the runaway favorite right now. Nobody likes being wrong.
Haith inherited a team that appeared to be a borderline Top 25 squad, and that was before its lone established post presence - senior forward Laurence Bowers - was lost for the season with an ACL tear in October. As it stands, the Tigers are 23-2 (10-2) and would be one of the four No. 1 seeds if the NCAA Tournament started today.
2. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
This isn't your standard "best team, best players" scenario, because while just about everyone thought the Orange would be good this season, I'm not sure anyone believed they would only have one loss come mid-February. Even in a down year, a 17-1 record in the Big East is an absurd accomplishment, and that's what Syracuse is four winnable games away from doing. Boeheim is really doing it without next-level talent; Kris Joseph, Fab Melo and Dion Waiters all have NBA potential, but I have yet to see a single mock draft projecting any of them to be taken in the first round this spring.
Then there are the off-the-court issues. The Penn State scandal was arguably the biggest news story in all of 2011, so when a similar incident surfaced with Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine in November, more than a few folks wondered how the Orange could possibly put the distractions to the side and live up to their preseason expectations. The fact that they've surpassed them is astounding, and Boeheim has to receive his fair share of the credit for that.
3. John Calipari, Kentucky
The easiest thing to do with Calipari is to say, "look at all the pros he has on his team, all he has to do is pick five guys to put on the floor and then sit back and watch the show." And that's exactly what voters have done since he's been at Kentucky. When you look at the way that teams with similar talent like Baylor and Connecticut have folded their tents at times this season, it becomes apparent that this attitude isn't a completely fair one.
Keeping future millionaires focused and motivated on performing to the best of their abilities isn't always an enviable job, but there hasn't been one game this season where Kentucky has quit or appeared disinterested. You, me and Barry Pepper could have led the Wildcats to 20 wins by now, but not everyone could have them at 25-1, and even fewer could have made it happen in such impressive fashion.
4. Steve Fisher, San Diego State
Fisher lost four starters - including lottery pick Kawhi Leonard - from last season's Sweet 16 team, and yet here the Aztecs are ranked 15th, in command of the Mountain Weest race, and owners of a sparkling 20-4 record. Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin have emerged as elite scorers, but Fisher has led this team to 20 wins with essentially no frontcourt. For most of the season, the 6-foot-4 Franklin has been forced to play power forward.
5. Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Everyone knows the Spartans are a top ten team capable of getting to the Final Four once again, but almost no one can name their entire starting five. This is why Izzo is Izzo, and why he deserves serious consideration here for the umpteenth time in his career.