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Insider

Underrated coaches, omissions in Top 50

6/2/2014
AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

I will admit it. I am sensitive to coaching lists, as well as "who’s hot" and "who's on the hot seat" articles. After spending 23 years as a college coach, I understand, uniquely, how hard the job is and how circumstances, real and imagined, can affect how coaches are viewed.

I've also seen how just one key win can propel a coach into the fans' and media's consciousness, and one heartbreaking loss can turn a guy into "someone who can't coach." Every coach on the Top 50 list has lived both sides.

This month, ESPN is unveiling a Top 50 college coaches list, and I have been asked to weigh in on it, with particular regard to coaches ranked too low, in my judgment, and coaches I believe have been wrongly omitted. To me, these coaches deserve a slot (or a higher slot) on the list.

Tom Crean, Indiana Hoosiers

Rank:
Not ranked

In 2008, Crean took over a decimated Indiana basketball program that returned 36 total points -- from two walk-ons. In the first three seasons, the losses continued to pile up. But two years ago, it turned around for Crean and the Hoosiers, and Crean, like Baylor's Scott Drew, was rightly praised for orchestrating one of the best rebuilding jobs in recent NCAA history.

Only four years after Crean arrived, he was named 2012 ESPN.com National Coach of the Year for leading Indiana to the Sweet 16. In 2012-13, Indiana won its first outright Big Ten championship in 20 years, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and saw two of its players, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, taken in the first four picks of the 2013 NBA draft.

With Oladipo and Zeller gone, however, the Hoosiers limped to a 17-15 record this past season, even with likely lottery pick Noah Vonleh on board, so it is understandable that many have jumped off the Crean bandwagon. But it still surprises me.

If incoming freshman James Blackmon Jr. performs as advertised, he'll team with junior Yogi Ferrell to form one of the nation's best backcourts this season. That should help make Crean look smart again.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah Utes

Ranked:
Not ranked

Because this list is based on recent performance, Larry Krystkowiak would have been a prescient choice, particularly because I believe he's on the rise. If you study Krystkowiak's career and, especially, what he has done in three years at Utah, putting him in the Top 50 is not a big leap.

Krystkowiak, who led Montana to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances before leaving to coach the Milwaukee Bucks, has laid a solid foundation in Salt Lake City, including winning 21 games this past season. With a returning core of very good players who were not necessarily highly recruited, the Utes are ready to compete with most of the best programs in the Pac-12 next season.

A key to the Utes' success in the past, especially under legendary coach Rick Majerus, has been wrestling away some of the state's top recruits from BYU, and Krystkowiak has more than held his own in that regard. Current Utah junior Jordan Loveridge, the 2012 Utah 5A Player of the Year in high school, has become a cornerstone of the program.

Recruiting out of state has gone well for Krystkowiak as well. California juco transfer Delon Wright, brother of the NBA Trail Blazers’ Dorell Wright, is a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate. The Utes also will have three international players on their roster next season.

Krystkowiak, who played for Mike Montgomery at Montana and was a solid journeyman NBA player for nine seasons, has instilled a toughness in the Utah program that mirrors his playing style. I guarantee he has the respect of his peers.

Mike Lonergan, George Washington Colonials

Ranked:
Not ranked

There are five Atlantic 10 coaches on this Top 50 list but no Lonergan. I get it. He is not yet a household name. But coaches know coaches, and Lonergan has the utmost respect of his peers.

Lonergan, who led Catholic University to a Division III national championship and nine NCAA appearances, is no Johnny-come-lately. He led Vermont to four postseason appearances in six seasons in Burlington. In 2011, he returned home to Washington, D.C., to attempt to rebuild George Washington -- and he has.

Picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic 10 preseason polls, the Colonials won 24 games, finished tied for third in a league that sent six teams to the NCAA tournament and returned to the tournament for the first time in seven seasons.

If you want to look to the future, four of the Colonials' top six scorers return this season as juniors, including guards Kethan Savage and Patricio Garino. Plus, a five-man recruiting class arrives to add depth. Lonergan's star will continue to rise and, at some point, he will get his due.

Scott Drew, Baylor Bears

Rank:
50th (tied)

I have been accused of being president of the Scott Drew Fan Club, and I make no apologies. He should be much higher than 50th on this list.

Drew is in the midst of, arguably, one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in NCAA basketball history these past 11 seasons. Baylor had very, very little basketball success before he arrived. And he took over after one of the worst scandals in NCAA history.

The job he has done the past seven seasons has been remarkable. In addition to averaging more than 24 wins a season, he has taken the Bears to two Elite Eights, a Sweet 16 and an NIT title. Only a handful of coaches have accomplished more in that time.

This past season, after starting Big 12 Conference play 2-8, Drew's team won 10 of its last 12 to reach the conference tournament finals. In the NCAA tournament, after smoking Creighton and Nebraska, the Bears were defeated by Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.

The Bears will rebuild this season but will not drop as far as people think. And they will continue to recruit well under Drew. That should be understood by now.

Five for the future 50

They might not stand out as omissions from this year's rankings, but down the line, they'll be deserving of a spot on the list. Here are five coaches headed to the Top 50 list in the near future:

Michael White, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

White has rebuilt the Bulldogs' program, winning 74 games in his first three seasons, and is already one of the hottest young coaches in the country. He returns the top four players from a 29-win NIT team.

Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

Underwood’s first season as a head coach was magical, as he led the Lumberjacks to a 32-win season and an upset of VCU in the NCAA tournament. The former Kansas State guard, who worked under Frank Martin at Kansas State and South Carolina, is well on his way to much coaching success.

Tod Kowalczyk, Toledo Rockets

When he arrived in 2010 after a successful stint at Green Bay, Kowalczyk inherited a Rockets program decimated by NCAA violations and APR issues. In his first season at Toledo, he won four games. Three years later, however, the Rockets won 27 and have a large part of their nucleus returning for 2014-15.

Chris Collins, Northwestern Wildcats

Is there a better fit for a Big Ten coaching job in Chicago than Chris Collins? The former Duke assistant coach and player is as Windy City as Polish sausage at a Cubs game. And he is convincing local talent to stay home and give the Wildcats a chance.

Ron Hunter, Georgia State Panthers

Hunter is a grinder who is not afraid of taking tough jobs and polishing up programs, as we know from the terrific job he did during his tenure at IUPUI. This past season, he led the Panthers to a 25-win season and 17-1 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. This season, Hunter returns former Kentucky Wildcat Ryan Harrow, and Hunter's son, R. J. Hunter, is a future first-round pick. Add in a couple high-level transfers, and Hunter should put another strong team on the floor in 2014-15.