I think we hand out awards too early.
By the time we reach the Final Four, the meaningful ones have already been distributed. Just doesn’t make sense to me.
Wouldn’t a player or coach sway voters if he led his team to the final stages of the NCAA tournament? What if a candidate for a major accolade is clutch in March/April? Yes, the regular season matters, but maintaining that success when it matters -- in March and April -- is significant, too.
That said, I’d like to offer my thoughts on the national coach of the year race, post-Final Four.
National Coach of the Year (in order)
Rick Pitino, Louisville. Yes, that glorious run to the Big East tourney title and Final Four represented only a slice of the entire 2011-12 campaign for Pitino’s squad. But when it counted, he led an undersized, oft-injured squad to New Orleans. The Cardinals finally showcased their potential. The program endured multiple injuries throughout the season and, based on Selection Sunday projections, weren’t supposed to make it to the Superdome. But Pitino pulled off one of his greatest coaching performances in the final weeks of the season and deserved national coach of the year honors.
John Calipari, Kentucky. I know, he had a multitude of great players. But that’s not a guarantee for success. Give Calipari credit for the development of his young crew. Anthony Davis was a much better player in April than he was in November. Ditto for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. He had to find a way to help Terrence Jones mesh with a new rotation of NBA-bound freshmen. Not easy. And the Wildcats won the crown. After they acquired the No. 1 slot, the Wildcats lived up to the hype and won the national title -- the first one-and-done crew to achieve that feat since the NBA instituted its age limit. Plus, they were dominant on their run to New Orleans and survived every attack from Louisville and Kansas to win it all.
Bill Self, Kansas. He didn’t have his usual roster of All-America players this season and he still managed to win another Big 12 title and reach the national title game. I think Self deserved strong consideration for national coach of year based on the development of the Jayhawks. Thomas Robinson possessed vast potential, but he only showcased a sliver of it in 2010-11. This season, he was a versatile athlete who could score in a variety of ways and defend multiple positions. Tyshawn Taylor was reckless at times, but he was also one of the most explosive players in America. And Jeff Withey left New Orleans as an NBA prospect following a strong NCAA tournament. Self and his staff helped Withey go from questionable transfer to a premier big man at the collegiate level.
Frank Haith, Missouri. I still think Missouri’s head coach deserves strong consideration for national coach of the year. Few knew what to expect when he took over the program. And the Tigers certainly overachieved in his first season. They made a run at the Big 12 regular-season title and won the conference’s tournament championship. He did it with just seven players, no true center and a completely undersized squad. Kudos. But the first-round exit in the NCAA tournament really left a bad aftertaste. The loss to No. 15-seed Norfolk State diminished what the Tigers accomplished during the regular season. I thought they were the most capable squad in that region -- many did -- and they didn’t win a game.
Tom Crean, Indiana. Crean could lead the Hoosiers to the Final Four next season. But this past season, he earned props for his program’s turnaround. The Hoosiers won three Big Ten games during the 2010-11 season. And this year, they finished in the top tier of the conference and reached the Sweet 16. I think the Hoosiers would have defeated 95 percent of the teams in the field with their performance that night against Kentucky. They scored 90 points and still lost by 12. But that margin said more about the eventual champs than it did about the Hoosiers. Crean could win the award next season but he was in the running for national coach of the year honors during the 2011-12 campaign, too.
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati. Cronin didn’t get the praise he deserved during the regular season. But he certainly deserved national coach of the year consideration. The brawl with Xavier in December could have ruined far more than a season. It could have a ruined a program. But Cronin made the right moves with suspensions and other reprimands of players involved. And then, he helped his team re-focus on its season. The Bearcats finished 12-6 in the Big East, lost to Louisville in the Big East tournament final and reached the Sweet 16, where they lost to Ohio State. That’s a remarkable rally.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse. Syracuse played through two stretches without defensive standout and potential first-round pick Fab Melo. But the second Melo-less stint was certainly the most impressive one. The Orange reached the Elite Eight without their most significant defender. With Melo available, the Orange might have stopped Jared Sullinger from dominating inside (19 points) during their loss to the Buckeyes. Still, Boeheim’s coaching prowess was critical throughout the year. Many predicted an early exit for Syracuse when the team lost Melo prior to the NCAA tournament. Didn’t happen. This is the same team that had to overcome the loss of an assistant coach following sexual assault allegations.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State. Izzo had Draymond Green and a supporting cast with potential. But the Spartans didn’t have the overall talent that past Spartans teams had enjoyed. And still, Izzo took a squad that relied on one player as much as any team in the country and earned a No. 1 seed and a share of the Big Ten title. They also won the conference tournament. I think Izzo had one of the most balanced supporting casts in the tournament. The Spartans had a unique chemistry that really carried them all season. And it started with Green. But you have to credit Izzo for allowing Green to lead. He really gave his senior star the freedom to be a coach on the floor and help mold the team. That says a lot about Izzo and his coaching philosophy. The Spartans didn’t fulfill their potential. That loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16 was nasty. Overall, however, the Spartans’ season warranted national coach of the year consideration for Izzo.
Shaka Smart, VCU. After leading the Rams to the 2011 Final Four, Shaka Smart lost most of his starters. This season’s squad had one senior in Brad Burgess. But the Rams still competed for the CAA title, won the CAA conference tournament and beat Wichita State in the second round. Plus, they nearly upset the Hoosiers in the third round of the Big Dance. That’s why Illinois tried to lure him to Champaign. The Rams were the only CAA rep in the NCAA tournament. But the league was very competitive, especially at the top. So VCU’s road to the postseason wasn’t an easy one, especially without a veteran team. But Smart pulled it off. Again.
Thad Matta, Ohio State. Yes, the Buckeyes blew a late lead against the Jayhawks in the Final Four. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. Still, this team didn’t look like a national title team a month or so prior to the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes struggled in February. They didn’t seem to be focused enough or mature enough to reach the Big Easy. But Matta did a commendable job of steering the program in tough games down the stretch. The Buckeyes were obviously talented. Matta, however, had to really become the catalyst to help them develop the chemistry necessary to go after the title. It started when he kicked his team out of practice before a crucial matchup against Wisconsin. And from there, he kept the Buckeyes balanced and centered on the same goal.