<
>

#Top10Thursday: National coach of the year candidates

This is probably the most difficult list to compile each season. In a year when the top-five in the Associated Press top-25 poll lost 19 games (12 to unranked opponents) by Jan. 22 for the first time in the weekly tally’s history, it’s just a headache.

Before we even get started, you should know that Bob Huggins, Steve Prohm, Roy Williams and Mark Turgeon all barely missed the cut. And a few guys who would have warranted slots on this list as recently as a week ago -- see Andy Enfield and Tom Crean -- are not mentioned.

But they were all considered.

Now, here’s a list of the national coach of the year candidates, ranked in order:

1. Chris Mack, Xavier Musketeers

The Big East is just one giant basketball fire pit. No team is safe. But Mack’s guidance has made Xavier one of the nation’s most complete and potent programs. The Musketeers boast true depth. In Tuesday night’s road win at Providence, five Xavier players recorded double figures and two of them (James Farr and J.P. Macura) did not start. Plus, the team finished 3-0 during the three games that Edmond Sumner missed. Xavier has also assembled a resume that features diversity; road wins over Michigan and Providence; neutral-site wins over Dayton and USC; and home victories over Cincinnati and Butler. All after entering the year unranked in the preseason polls. Ladies and gentlemen, your national coach of the year -- right now -- should be Xavier’s Chris Mack.

2. Fran McCaffery, Iowa Hawkeyes

Calm down, Iowa fans. Yes, McCaffery has a case for the No. 1 slot. This was a hard call for a guy whose team started the year with an exhibition loss to Division II Augustana before squandering a 20-point lead in a loss to rival Iowa State. Since then, however, McCaffery has helped Jarrod Uthoff mature into a Wooden Award candidate while leading the Big Ten’s best on a nine-game winning streak that’s included sweeps of Purdue and Michigan State and a double-digit win over Michigan. How many teams would improve the way Iowa has after losing an all-Big Ten first-teamer such as Aaron White?

3. Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M Aggies

Here’s a guy who put together one of the strongest recruiting classes in school history. And then, under Kennedy, the Aggies rose from unranked afterthought to its current spot as a top-five team and the squad to beat in the SEC thus far. Entering Wednesday's matchup at Arkansas, the Aggies were undefeated in SEC play. Best wins: Gonzaga, Texas and Baylor. Kennedy is showing the college basketball world that basketball matters in College Station too.

4. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma Sooners

Well, he’s coaching the No. 1 team in America. That helps. He’s also turned Wooden Award favorite Buddy Hield into some kind of “X-Men” character who is shooting 52 percent from the 3-point line (this is not a drill, folks) and connecting on 90 percent of his free throws. Oklahoma could win the Big 12 title and spend a few nights in Houston in April. Kruger, the only coach to win an NCAA tournament game with five different teams, still has it.

5. Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's Gaels

We all know Saint Mary’s has a good offense this season. Here’s what you might not know: Saint Mary’s could end the season with the most efficient offense we’ve witnessed in more than a decade. The Gaels have made 46 percent of their 3s and 59 percent of their 2s this season. They have a critical conference win over Gonzaga and sit atop the West Coast Conference alone. Bennett deserves serious consideration for national coach of the year.

6. Dana Altman, Oregon Ducks

Dylan Ennis transferred from Villanova with the idea that he’d start for the Ducks this season before injuries ruined his year. And the mess didn’t stop there for Altman. Oregon players had missed 19 games due to injury ... by mid-December. But Altman’s squad has fought through those challenges and secured a first-place spot in the Pac-12 entering Thursday’s road game at Arizona.

7. Jim Larranaga, Miami (FL) Hurricanes

Miami’s squad fumbled after a surprising win over Duke last year. But this season’s Hurricanes are playing with more poise on both sides of the floor (top-25 in offensive and defensive efficiency). The Hurricanes’ win over Duke on Monday was its third consecutive victory in ACC play.

8. Tom Izzo, Michigan State Spartans

If the race had ended prior to Denzel Valentine's midseason knee surgery, Izzo would own the top slot in this convo after Michigan State’s elevation to the top slot in the polls. Valentine’s evolution into a legit first-round prospect and Wooden Award candidate, along with Michigan State’s growth after a rough start in Big Ten play and victory over Maryland on Saturday, suggests that the Spartans -- who have battled injuries to Valentine, Gavin Schilling, Matt Costello, Tum Tum Nairn and Marvin Clark Jr. -- will continue to rise.

9. Ed Cooley, Providence Friars

Yes, Kris Dunn is great. But he’s a better defender this season. Ben Bentil is averaging 20.0 PPG this year after averaging 6.4 PPG in 2014-15. Cooley has emphasized defense this season and watched the Friars, the only Big East squad to solve Villanova, jump from 48th to 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.

10. Bryce Drew, Valparaiso Crusaders

Drew’s nonconference slate included wins over Rhode Island and Oregon State. The Crusaders, 7-1 in the Horizon League, are ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com. They’ve held their opponents to a 40.7 percent mark inside the arc (fourth in the country). Valpo, led by Alec Peters (17.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG), could battle the top teams in the power leagues.