A surprising list charging toward national coach of the year

Matt Painter might win the Big Ten and earn a No 1 NCAA tournament seed. The Purdue coach might just be the coach of the year, too. Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire

The conversation for national coach of the year never feels as sexy or provocative as the Wooden Award race most seasons.

And, throughout history, it has resembled Michael Jordan's pursuit of regular-season MVPs. Many coaches who've led championship-level squads have failed to win the award in their best years.

Mike Krzyzewski has five national titles, and he could win another one this season, months before the nation's best recruiting class arrives, with R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson and Tre Jones. But he has never won the Associated Press college basketball coach of the year award.

Well, Coach K can ask Cliff Ellis (1999), Larry Eustachy (2000) and Matt Doherty (2001) where they stashed their national coach of the year awards in the years they won them.

This season's candidate pool features an interesting mix of new faces and established winners. But the front-runner is clear.

1. Matt Painter, Purdue Boilermakers
Few teams could lose a player like Caleb Swanigan, last season's consensus All-American and Big Ten player of the year, and experience the undeniable defensive and offensive gains that have turned Purdue into the league's best team and a serious contender for a Final Four run. Yes, Painter retained the nucleus of Purdue's Sweet 16 squad -- sans Swanigan, selected in the first round of the 2017 NBA draft -- but they'd averaged 1.15 points per possession with the big man on the floor compared to 1.03 PPP without him last year, per hooplens.com. Yet, Painter has led a team without a lottery pick to the No. 1 slot in adjusted net efficiency, per ESPN Sports Analytics. The Boilermakers, who haven't lost since the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, also entered the week shooting a nation-leading 43.7 percent from the 3-point line while playing top-five defense. If the race for national coach of the year ended today, Painter would win.

2. Bruce Pearl, Auburn Tigers
This is a controversial nod. But it's also one you must consider. Auburn is one of four schools that lost an assistant (Chuck Person) in connection to the FBI's ongoing probe of a bribery scandal. Then, the NCAA ruled Austin Wiley ineligible for the remainder of the season, while Danjel Purifoy is still sidelined as the school awaits a final decision on his status. The families of both players are allegedly connected to Person and the FBI investigation. Perhaps this alone should disqualify Pearl from any postseason accolades. But if we're just talking about basketball, then only a fool would reject Pearl's place on this list. Wiley and Purifoy, who combined to average 20.3 PPG last season, have not played one possession in 2017-18. And Pearl's squad is sitting atop the SEC with one-loss Florida. Plus, it will face the Gators and Kentucky only one time apiece this season. The Tigers did not receive one vote in the preseason polls, and they might win the SEC after Pearl molded this 16-win group from a year ago into a respectable, top-50 defensive unit and effective offense that's controlling the offensive glass. Yeah, there is a dark cloud over his program. Still, Pearl remains a contender.

3. Tony Bennett, Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia is Virginia. Bennett's squad leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. But Bennett is a victim of the "he does the same thing every season" syndrome attached to successful coaches. He's orchestrating one of his most impressive efforts at Virginia after losing multiple transfers in the offseason. Last year, he made the smart decision to redshirt talented freshman De'Andre Hunter (8.0 PPG). Kyle Guy (15.3 PPG, 43.1 percent from beyond the arc) has accrued All-American numbers. And the Cavaliers have held nine opponents under 50 points this season. That's why Bennett is a strong contender in the race for national coach of the year.

4. Chris Holtmann, Ohio State Buckeyes
Imagine getting hired in late June -- long after your colleagues have identified top recruiting targets -- and then starting the season with just eight scholarship players on your roster in your first year with your new team. Welcome to Holtmann's world, which also included a blown lead and overtime loss to LaVall Jordan, his replacement at Butler, in November's PK80 tournament. But Holtmann started the Big Ten slate with an 8-0 record, and he's now fighting for an improbable league title and high seed in the NCAA tournament. And somehow, he has helped Keita Bates-Diop (19.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 38 percent from the 3-point line entering the week) evolve into a Wooden Award candidate. Holtmann has been through a lot. But he's also making Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who dismissed Thad Matta and hired Holtmann, look good.

5. Rick Barnes, Tennessee Volunteers
In 2015, Texas fired Barnes and hired Shaka Smart. Insiders knew, however, Barnes would find a good job in the near future if he wanted one. Now in his third season at Tennessee, Barnes is reminding all that he's the same guy who led the Longhorns to the Final Four in 2003, as well as three Elite Eight appearances, and won Big 12 coach of the year four times. Last year, his Tennessee squad finished 3-7 after Jan. 31. Then he lost two of his top three scorers in the offseason. But his team's résumé in 2017-18 already includes wins over Purdue and Kentucky. The Vols are smarter and more efficient (38.3 percent from beyond the arc) this year. And if this continues, they'll earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament since Cuonzo Martin led the program to the Sweet 16 in 2014.

6. Jay Wright, Villanova Wildcats
This feels like 2016. Jalen Brunson (19.0 PPG, 5.2 APG, 49 percent from beyond the arc) looks like Josh Hart, who is now giving the Los Angeles Lakers quality minutes off the bench. And Omari Spellman, who redshirted last season because of academic issues, is in shape and playing a Draymond Green-like role for a Villanova squad that boasts double-digit wins over Gonzaga (16 points) and Xavier (24 points) and entered the week first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com. We expect Villanova to compete with the best. This year, however, Wright has led his squad to a collection of definitive wins, and Wildcats now look like the team to beat in college basketball.

7. Bill Self, Kansas Jayhawks
Maybe you think he should be higher. Or, depending on what you expected from Kansas, off the list. But a multitude of early developments suggested Self's magical run in the Big 12 -- the Jayhawks have won 13 consecutive league crowns -- would finally end. The loss to Washington State in Kansas City. Both Arizona State and Texas Tech won at the Phog, where Self had suffered just 10 losses during his tenure prior to this season. Five-star recruit Billy Preston, now headed overseas on a pro contract, never played a minute because of an NCAA investigation surrounding the vehicle he was driving during an on-campus accident. Self has limited frontcourt depth. But if you look at the Big 12 standings, you'll see the Jayhawks at the top of an elite conference. Again.

8. Chris Beard, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech's lopsided loss at Iowa State on Saturday was more proof that the Big 12 is a strong league with eight potential at-large squads. Beard's team is still in the hunt for the conference title but must regain its mojo after its 1-3 stretch in its past four games. The Red Raiders' opponents have made just 44.1 percent of their shots inside the arc (No. 20 in the country). And they beat Kansas in Lawrence. Thus far, Beard has exceeded expectations overall with this group.

9. Brad Brownell, Clemson Tigers
Before the season, Brownwell sat in a room in Charlotte on ACC media day and responded to questions from reporters about his uncertain future at Clemson. Per reports, he nearly lost his job after last season, the sixth consecutive season Clemson had missed the NCAA tournament under Brownell. And his buyout was split in half, reduced to $1.7 million, after he signed a recent extension. But Brownell is soaring right now. Despite losing Jaron Blossomgame from last year's squad, Clemson started the season with a 16-3 record, one shy of the 2016-17 campaign's win total. But the season-ending knee injury suffered by Donte Grantham, the team's No. 2 scorer at 14.2 PPG, in Saturday's win over Notre Dame could interrupt Clemson's momentum.

10. Bob Huggins, West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia entered the season without three of its top four scorers from a year ago. Esa Ahmed, last season's No. 2 scorer behind Jevon Carter, missed the first half of the season because of NCAA eligibility issues. But Huggins' squad still won 15 games in a row after losing its season opener against Texas A&M. The aggressive Mountaineers are the only team in America with a win over Virginia. Huggins faced a difficult offseason and still positioned his team to compete for a great seed in the NCAA tournament.