It is pretty easy to spot the best coaching jobs simply by looking at the top of the polls. John Calipari, Jamie Dixon, Jim Boeheim and Bill Self would be at the top of any list of the best coaching performances of the season.
But a great coach once told me that some of the best coaching jobs in the country each year are done by coaches that get their teams to .500 with less, and make lesser talent competitive. This season, there are quite a few coaches who have done great jobs outside of the intense spotlight. Here are a few of the best ones in my judgment:
Tony Bennett, Virginia: Bennett has taken a proud Virginia program back to its roots of chest-to-chest defense. His “pack” defense is really just gap protection D, which emphasizes help and the protection of the paint and limiting opponents to one difficult shot. Virginia does not play to high possession totals right now, but will in time. Bennett has also brought ball security to Charlottesville, as the Cavaliers do not turn the ball over. Bennett is the real thing, and Virginia is now competitive under his leadership.
Frank Martin, Kansas State: No team I have seen plays harder than Martin’s Wildcats. Kansas State plays pressure defense, gets out in passing lanes and does a really good job of getting into you and taking away what you want to do. Without Martin’s insistence upon playing so hard and so together, none of it would work. He is trusted by his players and they respond to his challenges. Nobody expected K-State to challenge Kansas and Texas in the Big 12, except maybe Martin.
Johnny Dawkins, Stanford: The second year of any tenure is usually the toughest. The lagging recruiting of the last regime can hit then, and it is sometimes a season to simply weather the storm. In the preseason, Stanford was picked 10th in the Pac-10, and that was with Josh Owens, the dynamic interior athlete. He is gone for the season after not being medically cleared, but Dawkins has done a masterful job to make the Cardinal competitive by scaling back his defense and opening up his offense. Landry Fields has never been the best player on his team at any time in his life, yet he may be the best player in the Pac-10 under Dawkins. With only two reliable scorers in Fields and Jeremy Green, Stanford is 4-3 in the league heading into two road trips to Arizona and Los Angeles. If the Cardinal can steal a few on the road, which no Pac-10 team has been able to do, they can make some noise in a quiet league. With a top 10 recruiting class on the way, Dawkins has a bright future.
Gary Williams, Maryland: How is it that Williams takes so much heat? He has been the most competitive guy against Duke and North Carolina that the ACC has seen, and this season, Williams has the Terps right at the top of the league. He has good guards and has developed his young big guys. Maryland has a top-10 offense and the identity of a blue-collar team that looks out for each other. When many teams are struggling to find an identity, the Terps have one under Williams. He has done another great job.
Mike Davis, UAB: The Blazers lost player after player, yet Davis has made UAB a top-20 team because of a greater emphasis on defense. With Elijah Milsap and Howard Crawford, Davis has two hard-working and good players that have embraced defense and a more controlled approach. The Blazers are not an up-and-down team that tries to outscore you -- they try to simply beat you with good, hard-nosed defense. So far, it’s working.
Fran Dunphy, Temple: After doing such a great job at Penn, many wondered whether Dunphy would be embraced at Temple. No worries, because Dunphy is a great teacher and great coach who takes the long view and puts the kids first. He has molded a top-10 defense that limits opponents to one shot and plays hard without fouling. In other words, Temple is disciplined. The Owls do the right thing at the right time, and do it to the best of their ability. With Juan Fernandez as a better-shooting Pepe Sanchez -- and Ryan Brooks and Lavoy Allen contributing in many ways -- Temple is very dangerous. Remember, Dunphy’s squad is the only one this season that has figured out Villanova.