There are two ways to pick a coach of the year, and neither one is particularly helpful in the Big East this year. Either you pick the one coach who’s team was so overwhelmingly dominant that they clearly did the best job, regardless of whether everyone expected them to win; or you pick the coach who’s team exceeded expectations by the most impressive margin. Unfortunately, option 1 produces a 3-way tie at the top, and there are no stand-out candidates for option 2.
Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, and Jamie Dixon all entered the season with teams predicted to finish in the top 5 nationally, and now, at the end, all three teams still sit in the top 5. Lunardi has all 3 earning #1 seeds in the NCAAs. Those teams were amazing this year, but they were no more amazing than expected, and there’s no conceivable way to break the tie among those three coaches. Option 1 is out.
Option 2 produced an interesting thought experiment for me, as I went through each of the 16 teams in my head and marveled at the accuracy of the Big East’s preseason predictions. In order for a coach to stand out as exceeding expectations, preseason media predictions have to be way off. But that simply didn’t happen this year. Check out the final Big East standings, followed by each team’s predicted finish:
- Louisville (predicted finish: 2nd)
- Pitt (predicted finish: 3rd)
- UConn (predicted finish: 1st)
- Villanova (predicted finish: 5th)
- Marquette (predicted finish: 6th)
- Syracuse (predicted finish: 8th)
- West Virginia (predicted finish: 9th)
- Providence (predicted finish: 10th)
- Notre Dame (predicted finish: 4th)
- Cinci (predicted finish: 11th)
- Georgetown (predicted finish: 7th)
- Seton Hall (predicted finish: 13th)
- St Johns (predicted finish: 14th)
- USF (predicted finish: 16th)
- Rutgers (predicted finish: 12th)
- DePaul (predicted finish: 14th)
Not one team finished more than 2 spots higher than their predicted finish (Syracuse, West Virginia, Providence, and South Florida are those teams). And in reality, none of those teams particularly overachieved. The story of the entire conference can be told through the catastrophic failure of Notre Dame and Georgetown to live up to expectations. As those two teams plummeted from their perches, every one else moved up one or two spots, depending on how they related to where the Irish and Hoyas were supposed to be. The top three teams jostled among themselves as expected, while ‘Nova and Marquette fought for the next tier; and the Orange, Mountaineers, and Friars simply moved up by attrition, in the exact same order as expected. The teams at the bottom of the league moved up a smidgen thanks to Rutgers being even worse than expected.
The big three teams started the season at lofty national heights, and they remain there. Marquette started the year ranked 16/17, and ended ranked 21/21. West Virginia started the year Also Receiving Votes, and ended it Also Receiving Votes.
None of this leaves me with a lot to work with. To demonstrate the slim pickens for COY, I present to you my uncomfortable conclusion that Jim Boeheim deserves serious consideration for the runner up position. Even though I, like many SU fans, have harbored a low-level discontent with Jimmy’s coaching all year long — and was very close to declaring it one of his worst jobs in recent memory — if you compare SU’s finish with its standing at the beginning of the year, the Orange have moved up nationally almost as much as anyone.
But the problem with Jimmy is the route his team took to its current position. When you touch the lofty heights of the top ten, and then you spend an entire month degenerating, it’s hard to feel good that a precarious recovery has left you a little ahead of your position in November. Jimmy deserves credit for holding things together, and eventually righting the ship — when the season could have disintegrated like Notre Dame’s or Georgetown’s — but a reward of this magnitude seems inappropriate.
Only Villanova has consistently, if modestly, exceeded expectations all year long. The Wildcats were picked in the preseason national rankings as 23/25. They finished up at 10/13. That represents a slightly higher climb than SU’s jump from 30/31 to 18/20. More importantly, Villanova is a surprise national power with a flashier overall record of 26-5, and an improbable 13-5 record in conference. They also have an impressive win over Pittsburgh, a sweep of Syracuse, and they tore through the mid-level and lower-level teams in the league. The Cats also dropped 102 points in a win over top ten Marquette when the Golden Eagles were still at full strength. Nova showed consistent improvement over the course of the season, and turned themselves from a grind-it-out, win ugly, defensive squad into a team that was regularly scoring in the 90s and 100s by the latter stages of the season. All this with only one player making the Big East first, second, or third team (Dante Cunningham, 2nd team).
Thus I give you my picks for Big East Coach of the Year:
- Jay Wright
- Jim Boeheim
- Keno Davis