We’re already reaching the midpoint of conference play in men’s college basketball as the calendar flips to February, which means awards season is just around the corner. Purdue’s Zach Edey appears destined to win National Player of the Year honors, but the race for National Coach of the Year is wide open. Here’s a look at the five top candidates for this year’s award, with a first-year coach at the head of the list.
1. Jerome Tang, Kansas State
After 19 years as Scott Drew’s right-hand man in Waco, Tang finally got his first head coaching opportunity this year and has thrived. Tang has led a Kansas State team that finished ninth in the Big 12 a season ago, returned just two scholarship players and was picked 10th in the preseason to conference title contention and a top-10 national ranking. Landing Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson late in the summer accelerated the turnaround, and Johnson has played like an All-American in what’s likely to be his lone season in Manhattan. But even without Johnson, Tang deserves credit for the incredible improvement from point guard Markquis Nowell and for identifying under-the-radar talent like defensive wizard Nae’Qwan Tomlin.
Even if the Wildcats come up short of the Big 12 crown, they’re well positioned for a high seed in the NCAA tournament. Since 2010 under Frank Martin, K-State hasn’t gotten better than a No. 4 seed, and topping that mark in Tang’s first season would be one of the most impressive first-year coaching jobs in a long time.
2. Matt Painter, Purdue
Painter lost a top-five NBA pick in Jaden Ivey and another star in Trevion Williams in the offseason, yet has the Boilermakers as the clear No. 1 team in the country in early February. Painter reworked his roster to optimize dominant center Zach Edey, allowing Edey to emerge into the frontrunner for National Player of the Year by surrounding him with shooting and elite role players. He’s gotten more mileage than anyone could have imagined from a pair of underrecruited freshmen in Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer, who’ve played with poise beyond their years and proved the recruiting rankings wrong many times over with their play since November. After being outside the preseason top 25, being the best team not just in the Big Ten but also the country might be Painter’s best coaching job yet in his 18 years in West Lafayette.
The biggest thing that could play against Painter is that Edey is such a favorite for National Player of the Year. The men’s Coach of the Year and Player of the Year awards have gone to the same school just twice since 2000.
3. Shaka Smart, Marquette
Picked ninth out of 11 teams in the Big East’s preseason poll, Smart has Marquette at the top of the conference and in the top 15 nationally in just his second season in Milwaukee. What’s more, he has done it despite losing star forward Justin Lewis late to the NBA draft last spring.
Smart originally made a name for himself in coaching with his “Havoc” defense at VCU. While Marquette’s defense is excellent at forcing turnovers, what has really caused this year’s team to take off has been the nation’s top-ranked offense on KenPom. The Golden Eagles are a joy to watch because of how they share the ball, with an elite point guard in Tyler Kolek and one of the nation’s best passing bigs in Oso Ighodaro. Smart’s player-development prowess has been on full display with this group after he bet big on internal improvement from the likes of Kolek, Ighodaro and forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper, all of whom have made huge strides from last season. If Marquette wins the Big East, Smart has as good a case as anyone for this award.
4. Dusty May, Florida Atlantic
Before May arrived at FAU five years ago, this program was seen as a dead-end job. The Owls had finished over .500 in just five seasons in their Division I history, made the NCAA tournament just once and had endured seven straight seasons with 18-plus losses. But May has brought real life to the program, finishing over .500 in his first four seasons in Boca Raton before this season’s breakthrough. FAU just had a 20-game win streak snapped, is ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll and is well positioned to get an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament should it slip up during conference tournament week.
It’s no surprise that May is earning buzz for bigger jobs this spring. The Owls’ success is unprecedented, and a strong finish would make him a very real candidate for National Coach of the Year.
5. Nate Oats, Alabama
For a second time in three years, Oats has Alabama at the top of the SEC. At the midway point in conference play, the Tide are a perfect 9–0, the only team from a power conference that still has an undefeated record in league play. Alabama is in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament thanks to a résumé that features a road win at Houston and a 6–3 record in Quad 1 games.
Oats built one of the deepest teams in the country with both elite high school talent and top transfers, adding the nation’s most productive freshman in Brandon Miller for some scoring punch while also solidifying the point guard spot with Ohio transfer Mark Sears. This group is balanced, defends extremely well and has so many different weapons offensively. The Tide have Final Four potential, and Oats deserves his flowers for getting the most out of this ultra-talented group.