Earlier this year, a top mid-major coach said he worried about the way his peers might be treated in a season unlike any in the past.
“I don’t want guys to get fired if they struggle because of the pandemic,” he told ESPN.
It’s a fair concern. This season, coaches have had to focus on everything but coaching their teams. There have been delays and pauses. The last-minute schedule changes have shaped the season, too. And the uneven schedules in league play have made teams difficult to evaluate.
Always concerned about the physical condition of their players as the NCAA tournament approaches each season, coaches must now worry about the mental fatigue so many athletes have endured during this unique year.
These non-basketball factors make the determination of a conference coach of the year an impossible task. We don’t know what these coaches have had to face behind the scenes. But they’ve all been asked to keep their teams together amid one of the sport’s most challenging chapters.
Some of the candidates on this list are obvious. They’ve either substantially exceeded expectations or put together a dominant run to back the positive preseason projections. Others have impressed while navigating extensive pauses and other off-court challenges. Some have found the right rhythm in the final month of the season and shifted the trajectory of their programs.
The bottom line is that any coach who is leading a Division I program right now deserves praise.
The following list, however, features the candidates we believe are among the best.
Before Gregg Marshall resigned in November amid an abuse scandal, seven players had transferred, positioning Wichita State as the most chaotic program in the country. That’s why this award belongs to the interim head coach Brown, who had led his team to a first-place spot in the American Athletic Conference after Thursday’s 68-63 win over Houston. Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright should have sprinted onto the court and handed him a new contract after that win.
The longtime head coach told ESPN he’d go into his office and sit alone wondering what was next as his team tried to navigate its first pandemic-related pause over the summer, months before another pause in December and then a subsequent disruption in its schedule after games in February were delayed because of pauses for opponents. Yet he has remained one of the top coaches in America, proven by the evolution of Quentin Grimes, a former five-star prospect who has found himself under Sampson, and his team’s push for a top-two seed.
Along with the three-week pause his team endured prior to Tuesday’s 69-53 loss to Georgia, the former Wofford coach has also dealt with opt-outs (Cartier Diarra left the team after four games), off-court issues (Tyrece Radford missed four games after an arrest) and injuries (Jalen Cone missed Tuesday’s game with an ankle issue). But Young’s team — picked to finish 11th in the ACC in the preseason media poll — can still compete for the league crown with a strong finish.
Your favorite coach’s favorite coach, Hamilton and his squad sit atop the ACC standings, despite losing Patrick Williams (fourth pick) and Devin Vassell (No. 11) to the 2020 NBA draft. Florida State entered the week with an 8-1 record in its last nine games, a mark fueled by the emergence of NBA prospect Scottie Barnes (10.3 PPG) and the leadership of M.J. Walker, who had connected on 50 percent of his 3-point attempts in ACC play entering the week.
America East Conference
Front-runner: John Becker, Vermont Catamounts
Although his team was barred from competition until league play began four days before Christmas due to COVID-19 regulations in his state, Becker has put together another memorable run through the America East and shares the conference title with UMBC after the rivals split a pair of matchups last week. Plus, he has helped Ryan Davis (42 percent from the 3-point line) emerge as a strong conference player of the year candidate a year after losing Anthony Lamb, who won the award in back-to-back seasons.
Top competition: Ryan Odom, UMBC Retrievers
The 46-year-old’s squad bounced back from last year’s sub-.500 season by winning a slice of the America East regular-season championship after holding conference opponents to a 44.1 percent clip inside the arc, the No. 1 mark in the league per KenPom. A lot of that progress has come in practice, where Odom has clearly addressed last year’s woes at the free throw line (64 percent) to improve to this season’s 71 percent clip.
Atlantic 10 Conference
Front-runner: Mike Rhoades, VCU Rams
Picked to finish ninth in the league after ending the 2019-2020 with a 2-8 tally in his team’s last 10 games of the year, Rhoades instead entered the week with his team in first place at 10-3 in the conference. While the most pressing storyline with this team is the status of Nah’Shon Hyland (19.2 PPG), who missed Tuesday’s 67-65 win over Saint Louis with a foot injury, Rhoades impressed this season by exceeding the odds and putting his team in the at-large conversation.
Top competition: Mark Schmidt, St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Schmidt’s program entered the week with a shot to end the season with a league title as his team leads the conference in offensive rebounding rate and defensive efficiency inside the arc, while also enjoying a NET ranking in the 30s. All of this after being forced to go with nine scholarship players for the last month after Anthony Roberts, a transfer from Kent State, and Justin Winston, a consistent starter last season, both left the team.
Atlantic Sun Conference
Front-runner: Scott Davenport, Bellarmine Knights
Last summer, Bellarmine, a former Division II power located in Louisville, Kentucky, accepted the Atlantic Sun’s invitation to join their league and commence the four-year transition to NCAA tournament eligibility. What did Davenport and Bellarmine do with that invitation? They kicked in the door, ate all the food in the house and decided to snatch the league’s title in Year 1 — a feat the program can complete with a win over Liberty on Saturday that will follow a lengthy pause — when it’s not even eligible to win the Atlantic Sun’s automatic berth in the conference tournament.
Top competition: Ritchie McKay, Liberty Flames
The lie about college basketball is that a bunch of teams in recent years have successfully emulated the Golden State Warriors with an uptick in 3-pointers and a sexier style. Many have done it, but few have done so successfully or efficiently. That’s why McKay’s approach stands out: his squad is the only program that’s top-10 in 3-point attempts percentage (48.9 percent of his team’s overall field goal attempts) and top-30 in 3-point accuracy (38 percent) on KenPom.
Big East Conference
Front-runner: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall Pirates
Willard faced adversity this season with Harvard transfer Bryce Aiken (22.2 PPG in the 2018-19 season) missing 10 games and now potentially out for the season with a knee injury. But Willard’s team has remained a contender in the Big East, outplaying the fifth-place slot projected in the league’s preseason poll. Overseeing the maturation of Sandro Mamukelashvili — Seton Hall has made 53 percent of its shots inside the arc and held opponents to 0.95 points per possession with the big man on the floor, per hooplens.com — has been one of Willard’s top achievements.
Top competition: Jay Wright, Villanova Wildcats
Wright is one of the few coaches in the country who managed to quickly reboot his program following a lengthy pause. Despite not playing from Dec. 23 to Jan. 19, Wright’s squad won five of its next six games, a burst that commenced another run to the top of the Big East standings, this time with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl leading five Wildcats players averaging double figures this season.
Big Sky Conference
Front-runner: Todd Simon, Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Simon has enjoyed one of the more remarkable journeys for a head coach after spending time at Findlay Prep, where he coached some of the top prospects from America and Canada, to a spot as a UNLV assistant and then interim coach before accepting the job at Southern Utah. His tenure started in 2016-17 with a six-win season but this year, the Thunderbirds have a chance to win the Big Sky title after they were picked to finish seventh in the league’s preseason poll.
Top competition: Ryan Looney, Idaho State Bengals
By the end of his first season in 2019-2020, five players had entered the transfer portal and created massive turnover. The Bengals were picked to finish 10th out of 11 Big Sky schools in the league’s subsequent preseason poll. Instead, Looney’s squad entered the week at 7-3 in a top tier slot in the Big Sky standings after playing the best defense inside the arc in league play (41.6 percent clip allowed).
Big South Conference
Front-runner: Kevin McGeehan, Campbell Fighting Camels
Last year, McGeehan’s squad finished in a tie for 10th in the Big South and then lost three of its top five scorers from that team. That’s why its top-three spot in the standings entering the week — the Camels were picked to finish 10th in the league’s preseason poll — and its 37 percent clip from the 3-point line, a top-40 mark nationally, have been the most impressive developments in the conference.
Top competition: Pat Kelsey, Winthrop Eagles
The only blemish on Kelsey’s team’s record this season is the result of a subpar four-minute stretch at the end of Winthrop’s 57-55 home loss to UNC Asheville last month. Yes, Chandler Vaudrin (12.3 PPG) and the Eagles were picked to win their second consecutive Big South title, but this 17-1 run in league play, if sustained, would be the most impressive run since Winthrop finished 14-0 in the 2006-07 season under Gregg Marshall.
Big 12 Conference
Front-runner: Scott Drew, Baylor Bears
Sure, you can make the case that Drew’s team, which has been a top-five squad in the AP poll for 25 consecutive weeks and has lost just three games since Nov. 8, 2020, is just living up to the expectations and not necessarily exceeding them. But Drew’s program isn’t just beating good teams — please ignore Tuesday’s 77-72 sluggish win over Iowa State after a three-week pause — they’re stomping them, placing the Bears in a legitimate conversation about duplicating the undefeated season orchestrated by the 1975-76 Indiana squad.
Top competition: Bob Huggins, West Virginia Mountaineers
It’s cool to watch Huggins adapt at 67 years old, transitioning from his “Press Virginia” days to a balanced group that’s second in offensive efficiency in league play (41 percent from the 3-point line) on KenPom — with a 5-1 record in its past six games entering Thursday’s road game against Baylor. If we’d told you before the season Oscar Tshiebwe would play only 10 games and Huggins’ squad would still be in second place in the Big 12 — a prestigious position when the No. 1 team hasn’t lost a game in more than a year — you’d probably doubt that reality, but Miles McBride and Derek Culver have helped the squad thrive without the NBA prospect who transferred to Kentucky.
Big Ten Conference
Front-runner: Juwan Howard, Michigan Wolverines
He’s not just the Big Ten’s coach of the year. He’s also in a strong position to win national coach of the year honors. Michigan didn’t just hire the Fab Five standout to boost recruiting after losing John Beilein to the NBA. Athletic director Warde Manuel also brought Howard back to help develop talent, his specialty as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat. Howard’s work with Hunter Dickinson (15.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.6 BPG) and his overall success this season are proof that Manuel made the right choice.
Top competition: Chris Holtmann, Ohio State Buckeyes
With his team’s 89-85 victory at Iowa on Feb. 4, Holtmann’s Buckeyes became the fourth team in Big Ten history to beat four AP Top 25 teams on the road in a single season. Holtmann has positioned his squad to secure a top seed in the Indianapolis one-site NCAA tournament, but he’s not doing it with the sexy names — see: Duane Washington Jr. (15.6 PPG) and E.J. Liddell (15.9 PPG) — who have anchored some of the other contenders in college basketball.
Big West Conference
Front-runner: Mike Magpayo, UC Riverside Highlanders
The first-year coach’s season has included COVID-19 cancellations and the birth of his first child in November, all after he was named acting head coach when David Patrick resigned in July. His team entered the week in third place — picked to finish fifth before the season — and it is doing it with shooting, as his team has six players who’ve made at least 39 percent of their 3-point attempts. The Highlanders are also second in both offensive and defensive efficiency in league play on KenPom.
Top competition: Joe Pasternack, UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
The former Arizona assistant is coaching a team that hasn’t lost a game since Dec. 28, a 12-game rally that’s placed the Gauchos atop the Big West standings. Pacific transfer Ajare Sanni, the league’s top 3-point shooter in league play at 48 percent, has blossomed under Pasternack’s staff.
Colonial Athletic Association
Front-runner: Mark Byington, James Madison Dukes
In one of America’s best efforts, Byington has taken James Madison, which will host the CAA tournament at its new arena as the No. 1 seed, from worst-to-first in the league’s standings in his first season on the job. Athletic director Jeff Bourne made the perfect hire for a team that’s hoping Matt Lewis (19.7 PPG) is available for the postseason after missing time recently due to a knee injury.
Top competition: Bill Coen, Northeastern Huskies
James Madison isn’t the only compelling storyline in the conference. Coen’s Northeastern squad was picked to finish seventh in the conference but finished second in the standings behind the Dukes, even though Notre Dame transfer Chris Doherty has missed seven games this season.
Front-runner: Eric Konkol, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Picked to finish seventh in the league’s preseason poll after losing top scorer DaQuan Bracey and two other players who finished top-five in points per game last year, Konkol’s Bulldogs entered the week in third place at 10-4 in conference play. The quick rise of freshman Kenneth Lofton (10.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG) is a credit to Konkol and his staff.
Top competition: Rick Stansbury, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
We all knew Charles Bassey‘s potential. But Stansbury helped Bassey evolve into one of America’s top players, who not only helped this team compete for a Conference USA championship but also anchored big wins over Memphis and Alabama.
Front-runner: Mike Davis, Detroit Mercy Titans
After back-to-back sub-.500 seasons, Davis will lead a dangerous team into Thursday’s Horizon League tournament after finishing third in the standings (they were picked to finish ninth). The Titans are 10-2 in their last 12 games. Davis’ son is one of the top players in America (Antoine Davis is averaging 23.3 PPG). And, overall, Davis led a team that finished second in offensive efficiency in league play.
Top competition: Dennis Gates, Cleveland State Vikings
You could see that Gates, a former Florida State assistant in his second year as Cleveland State’s head coach, was implementing his principles and culture when the Vikings battled Ohio State in a 67-61 nonconference loss this year. That tenacity continued in the conference season, when Gates’ squad forced more turnovers per possession than any team in league play — and went from 7-11 in conference play to 16-4 this season.
Front-runner: Rick Pitino, Iona Gaels
COVID-19 created massive disruptions for Pitino’s program, which played 13 games overall before ending its regular season after nine league games. The Gaels have a small sample size and they never faced Siena, which also had three losses in league play entering the week, but we know Pitino’s squad is first in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency. In Pitino’s first season, the Gaels also swept Monmouth, which entered the week in third place.
Top competition: Cam Maciariello, Siena Saints
Since Jan. 19, 2020, Maciariello’s team has lost just four conference games. But this difficult year has included multiple setbacks, some related to COVID-19. Jalen Pickett (7.8 PPG through nine games) is one of a handful of key players who have not played the full 12-game slate for a Siena team that entered the week tied with Iona in first place.
Front-runner: Tod Kowalczyk, Toledo Rockets
Picked to finish sixth in the league in the preseason poll, Kowalczyk’s team has a lot of similarities from last year’s squad, with Marreon Jackson (1.7.3 PPG) as its anchor and a rate of 3-pointers at a clip that would make James Harden’s former Houston Rockets squad proud. But an uptick in attempts and efficiency has opened up the floor for Kowalczyk’s squad, which has made 57 percent of its shots inside the arc in league play.
Top competition: Rob Senderoff, Kent State Golden Flashes
Senderoff’s squad lost Mike Nuga (17.8 PPG) to a knee injury in late January but had amassed a 5-1 record in its last six games without him entering the week. A team that was picked to finish seventh in the league’s preseason poll is still alive in the MAC regular season title hunt.
Front-runner: Will Jones, North Carolina A&T Aggies
Entering his first season as head coach after taking over last season as an interim head coach, Jones continues to act as the steadying force for the Aggies. His team is top-three in both offensive and defensive efficiency in MEAC play after entering the week in first place with a 5-1 record.
Top competition: Robert Jones, Norfolk State Spartans
After Wednesday’s rout of Delaware State, Jones’ squad has gone 9-3 in its last 12 games. The Spartans also lead the league in turnover rate.
Missouri Valley Conference
Front-runner: Porter Moser, Loyola Chicago Ramblers
If Moser’s squad had made a run to the Final Four in 2018 and disappeared in the subsequent years, it would not have changed the magnitude of the achievement. But three years later, Porter is still coaching one of America’s best (Cameron Krutwig is averaging 15.0 PPG), leading the No. 1 defense in college basketball on KenPom and locked into a tie for first place with Drake. And it has a case for NCAA tournament inclusion even without the automatic qualifier.
Top competition: Darian DeVries, Drake Bulldogs
After his team was picked to finish seventh in the preseason media poll, DeVries’ squad won its first 18 games and its first nine games in MVC play in one of college basketball’s most captivating runs. But the injury bug has arrived. ShanQuan Hemphill (14.1 PPG) and point guard Roman Penn (11.2 PPG) could both miss the rest of the season with foot ailments.
Mountain West Conference
Front-runner: Niko Medved, Colorado State Rams
Medved’s 11-3 record in league play — entering the week — is real. It includes splits with San Diego State, Boise State and Utah State, the other three teams that comprise the Mountain West’s top four squads in the standings. His team, led by David Roddy (38 percent clip from the 3-point line), has made 58 percent of its shots inside the arc in league play.
Top competition: Steve Alford, Nevada Wolf Pack
Picked to finish sixth in the league’s preseason poll, Alford’s team still has an outside shot at the Mountain West championship after winning six of its last eight games. And he’s done it with new faces. Desmond Cambridge Jr. (15.3 PPG) and Warren Washington (9.4 PPG), two of Nevada’s top three scorers, are both transfers.
Front-runner: Bashir Mason, Wagner Seahawks
Mason is just 37 years old but he’s coaching like a veteran by leading the Seahawks to the top spot in the Northeast Conference after winning nine games in a row, a far cry from the eighth-place finish projected in the preseason poll. Under Mason, the Seahawks are a tough outfit that leads the league in offensive rebounding rate.
Top competition: Joe Gallo, Merrimack Warriors
In case anyone questioned last year’s Northeast Conference title run in the program’s first official year as a Division I program, Gallo’s squad has made another push for a league title in a wild season, despite losing its top three scorers from a year ago.
Ohio Valley Conference
Front-runner: Casey Alexander, Belmont Bruins
A 24-1 record and an 18-0 start in Ohio Valley Conference play is enough to give Alexander the league’s coach of the year title. But it’s the dominant flair of the Bruins’ season that seals it. Fourteen of his league victories have been double-digit wins for the program.
Top competition: Preston Spradlin, Morehead State Eagles
Spradlin’s squad couldn’t beat Belmont but it has been the league’s second-most-dominant program in league play. Winning 14 of its last 15 games under Spradlin, Morehead State was picked to finish in the bottom half of the league’s standings entering the season.
Front-runner: Andy Enfield, USC Trojans
He has helped Evan Mobley play his way into a top-three slot in the NBA draft, if you believe the mock drafts, and his team has been a defensive force around the rim. Before the season, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford were all viewed as superior to USC, which went 14-2 in its past 16 games. But Enfield’s squad will finish the regular season with a chance to win the Pac-12 title.
Top competition: Mick Cronin, UCLA Bruins
Cronin, the reigning Pac-12 Coach of Year, took the momentum from last year’s memorable finish to compete for the league’s title again in his second season with the program. He lost Chris Smith (12.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG) after eight games due to a season-ending knee injury, but he has turned to multiple players, including Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang (13.8 PPG), to carry the load.
Front-runner: Ed DeChellis, Navy Midshipmen
The former Penn State coach has found a home with Navy, where he’s working toward his fourth season of .500 or better basketball in the last six years. His team beat Georgetown in the nonconference season before launching a 10-1 campaign in league play, and it wrestles with Colgate for the league title entering the final weekend of the season.
Top competition: Matt Langel, Colgate Raiders
At the mid-major level, a coach’s ability to develop a player is their most important asset. The Colgate team that’s won 10 games in a row and enjoyed the top 3-point defense in America has been fueled by the growth of Jack Ferguson (12.1 PPG) and Jordan Burns (17.1 PPG), a pair of players who’ve both made more than 40 percent of their 3-point attempts this season.
Front-runner: Nate Oats, Alabama Crimson Tide
When Nate Oats publicly questioned Mike Krzyzewski’s concerns about competing in a pandemic, it appeared that the second-year coach had made an incredible career blunder. But Oats’ reputation has recovered, and it appears he will get the last laugh after all and an unexpected SEC title, too. With Herb Jones and John Petty Jr., Alabama can play fast, it can play small and it can guard any opposing crew in the country. Oats is on the short list for national coach of the year, too.
Top competition: Mike White, Florida Gators
Losing Keyontae Johnson, who collapsed in a game against rival Florida State in December, was not just the loss of one of the SEC’s top players, but it also impacted his team emotionally in ways that no other team can understand this season. Florida is 6-2 in its last eight games, a mark that includes a double-digit loss to Arkansas earlier this month after a two-week pause due to COVID-19 protocols.
Front-runner: Lamont Paris, Chattanooga Mocs
After winning 22 games in his first two seasons, the former Wisconsin assistant is now two victories from his second consecutive 20-win season — after his team was picked to finish seventh in league play in the preseason poll. His team entered the week with a 6-1 record in its previous seven league games.
Top competition: Jay McAuley, Wofford Terriers
They’re letting it fly at Wofford, where 3-pointers have accounted for 52 percent of McAuley’s overall attempts this season, per KenPom. But the Terriers are also top-four in offensive and defensive efficiency in league play too.
Front-runner: Joe Golding, Abilene Christian Wildcats
One of three one-loss teams in the Southland entering the week, Abilene Christian has arguably been the league’s most balanced team under Golding. The Wildcats are first in turnover rate and also first in defensive efficiency. And they were 11-1 in their last 12 games entering the week.
Top competition: Jason Hooten, Sam Houston State Bearkats
In the league’s preseason poll, five teams received first-place votes. Not Hooten’s Bearkats, who had amassed a 14-1 record in their last 15 games entering the week. Zach Nutall (19.0 PPG), proof of the time Hooten and his staff have invested in this team, is better in most key categories this season.
Front-runner: Todd Lee, South Dakota Coyotes
Picked to finish fifth in league play, Lee’s squad entered the week in control of the conference title race. Winning its first nine games and playing the league’s best defense inside the arc in league play has helped.
Top competition: Billy Donlon, UM Kansas City Kangaroos
Conference tournament championships sometimes go to the hottest team in the league. That’s why UMKC, which is 6-1 in its last seven games and 7-5 overall in league play under Donlon, is a dangerous team entering the postseason.
Sun Belt Conference
Front-runner: Terrence Johnson, Texas State Bobcats
The league’s preseason poll picked Texas State to finish fifth out of six teams in the league’s West division, probably a response to Danny Kaspar’s resignation following accusations of racial abuse. In his first year as an interim head coach, however, Johnson has impressed by leading his team to the top of the conference and giving it a chance to seal a league title with wins over Louisiana Monroe this weekend. Nothing interim about this effort.
Top competition: Richie Riley, South Alabama Jaguars
In a season full of pauses, it has never been more important for coaches to know how to adjust and regain their mojo midseason. With Michael Flowers (20.7 PPG) & Co., Riley has found a way to steady the ship after a 2-5 start in league play. His squad will enter this weekend’s back-to-back against Georgia State on an eight-game winning streak.
Front-runner: Byron Smith, Prairie View A&M Panthers
Smith’s squad is undefeated in league play, as it has leaned on Cam Mack, a SWAC Player of the Year candidate. It is also a monster on defense, forcing turnovers on 29 percent of its conference opponents’ possessions. TCU committed 14 turnovers in a nonconference win over the Panthers.
Top competition: Wayne Brent, Jackson State Tigers
With top performer Tristan Jarrett leading his team, the Tigers have won their first seven SWAC games under Brent. They won’t see Prairie View A&M in the regular season, so we’ll have to wait to see if the two teams face one another in the conference tournament title game.
Front-runner: Bryce Drew, Grand Canyon Antelopes
He has made the most of his opportunity in the WAC and proven that he can still coach at a high level with a team that started 7-1 in league play. The Antelopes are second in offensive and defensive efficiency in league play. And Asbjorn Midtgaard (14.5 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG) has gone from a player who couldn’t find minutes at Wichita State to a WAC Player of the Year candidate under Drew.
Top competition: Mark Madsen, Utah Valley Wolverines
Madsen was known for his reserve role on some of the Los Angeles Lakers championship teams before stints as an NBA assistant. But he’s also teaching the skills he’s learned as a player and a coach for a team that’s made 56 percent of its shots inside the arc in league play and entered the week with a 6-3 record in league play.
West Coast Conference
Front-runner: Mark Few, Gonzaga Bulldogs
Sure, you could say that a team with Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs should look as dominant as Gonzaga has this season in league play. But it’s also easy to forget how difficult it is to win every game for three months — in a pandemic. The Bulldogs haven’t lost focus and they continue to look like a favorite or co-favorite with Baylor to win the national title and possibly duplicate Bob Knight’s greatest feat. This Gonzaga squad has scored 100 points or more five times this season.
Top competition: Mark Pope, BYU Cougars
After winning 24 games in his first season at BYU with a collection of seniors, Pope has turned to another veteran group and Purdue transfer Matt Haarms (11.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.8 BPG). They’re now helping Pope push for his first NCAA tournament berth.