By Jesse Kramer
1. Jim Larranaga, Miami-FL
Wherever Larranaga goes, Cinderella follows. The 63-year-old famously took the George Mason Patriots to the 2006 Final Four as a No. 11 seed, and he also won a NCAA tournament game with the Patriots in 2011, his final year in Fairfax, VA.
Under Frank Haith, Miami was a team destined for mediocrity. The Hurricanes never finished better than fifth in the ACC, and they made the NCAA tournament only once.
When Larranaga came to Miami last season, he took the Hurricanes to fourth place in the ACC and an NIT berth. This season, they are 22-3, 13-0 ACC and ranked No. 2 in the nation.
If the NCAA tournament started today, Miami would be a No. 1 seed and a national title favorite.
2. Jim Crews, Saint Louis
Jim Crews inherited the toughest situation in all of college basketball. Yes, Saint Louis was in the NCAA tournament last season and six of its seven leaders in minutes played, but the program was dealt a tragedy. Head coach Rick Majerus left the team over the summer with a heart condition, and he then passed away in December.
In Majerus’ place, Crews has led Saint Louis to a 21-5 start (10-2 in the Atlantic 10), and people are starting to consider the Billikens a potential Final Four team. With their win at Butler last night, they are lead second place by a full game.
3. Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
Connecticut is ineligible for the postseason, yet Ollie, a first-year head coach who took over for the retired Jim Calhoun, has the Huskies giving it their all every night. They are exceeding expectations, sitting in sixth place in the Big East, and they have wins over Michigan State, Notre Dame and Syracuse.
To get a group of college kids to play this hard and care this much while knowing that there will be no reward in March is something that cannot be undermined.
4. Bruce Weber, Kansas State
It’s not often that a coach gets fired from a BCS school and gets immediately hired by a different BCS school.
Weber was fired from Illinois after an embarrassing 2011-12 campaign, and Kansas State was happy to grab him. There was some skepticism surrounding the hire since Weber had made the NCAA tournament only twice in his final five years with the Illini, but that skepticism is gone now that the Wildcats are 21-5 and 10-3 in the Big 12. Although they were swept by Kansas, they are tied with the Jayhawks for first place in the Big 12, and they are ranked No. 13 in both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll.
5. Larry Eustachy, Colorado State
Much like Weber, Eustachy took over for a program that was in the NCAA tournament last season and returned a bunch of key pieces. But still, Colorado State was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West in October, behind San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico.
Through 11 conference games, the Rams are only one game behind New Mexico for first place, and they will get a shot at the Lobos on Saturday afternoon.
The Rams are nationally ranked for the first time in 59 years (No. 22 in the AP Top 25, No. 21 in the USA Today Coaches Poll), and they are the only Mountain West team ranked in the top 15 on KenPom.
6. Buzz Williams, Marquette
Marquette was picked to finish seventh in the Big East, and entering Saturday it is tied for first place with Syracuse and Georgetown. The Golden Eagles are ranked in the top 20 in both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll.
Williams has consistently had Marquette had the top of the Big East in his five years with the program. Aside from a ninth-place finish in the 2010-11 season, the Golden Eagles have finished in fifth place or better every year. This year is looking like no exception.
7. Mark Few, Gonzaga
Few has been among the most successful coaches in college basketball since he took the helm at Gonzaga in 1999, but he hasn’t experienced success quite like this since the 2004-05 season, when the Zags went 26-5 and defeated three top-15 opponents but were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
As good as Few’s teams have been, he has never reached the Elite Eight. This year, he has the best team in the west.
With Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos, this could be Few’s best chance to make it to the final weekend of the college basketball season.
8. Dana Altman, Oregon
Oregon was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12, and with four games left the Ducks are tied for first place. Until point guard Dominic Artis went down with a foot injury, the Ducks were clearly the best team in the league. Since then, they are only 4-4, which has hurt Altman’s chances at winning the award.
9. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
When Josh Gasser tore his ACL in the preseason, Wisconsin was left without a point guard and figured to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten.
But after struggling in non-conference play, Bo Ryan’s Badgers are now in third place in the Big Ten, only two games out of first place. They beat Indiana at Assembly Hall, knocked off Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State at home, and swept Illinois.
10. Tom Crean, Indiana
Crean deserves consideration because of how he continues to take Indiana’s program back to great heights. Right now, the Hoosiers are looking like the team to beat as we head to March. They are in position to win the Big Ten, which is the toughest league in college basketball this season, and they are the only team that appears to have locked up a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.