Top 10 veteran college basketball coaches next in line to win the NCAA Tournament for the first time


The biggest dangling question from the unprecedented halt to the 2019-20 college basketball season: who would have won the 2020 NCAA Tournament?

Would it have been a coach who finally broke through and won his first title? You know, in a given year, there’s a good chance of that. 

Dating back to 2005, of the 15 national championship-winning coaches in that span, seven of them (Roy Williams, Billy Donovan, Bill Self, John Calipari, Kevin Ollie, Jay Wright, Tony Bennett) were first-time winners. So who’s most likely to be next? Our friends on the college football side at CBS Sports recently put together their list of the five most likely names, but I’m going to double that for college basketball given the sport’s much larger postseason structure and propensity for more unpredictability. 

To narrow down the candidate pool just a bit, I wanted to highlight accomplished coaching veterans who are still highly regarded but have yet to take the biggest crown. There are two pieces of criteria. The first is you need to have been a head coach for at least a decade at the D-I level. True vet status. (So this eliminates an obvious candidate: Texas Tech’s Chris Beard, who otherwise easily makes the list.) The second criterion: you need to have an Elite Eight at minimum on the résumé. I wanted all 10 coaches to have at least flirted with a Final Four, if not outright made at least one national semifinal. 

When compiling the list, approximations on how many years each coach has left on the bench were also taken into consideration. The capsules below also include how many end-of-season top-25 finishes at KenPom.com each coach has. It’s a wider net to show how many times these coaches have had indisputably good/tournament-level teams in their careers. Pomeroy’s data dates back to the 1996-97 season. 

10. Matt Painter, Purdue

Age: 49
Career record: 362-179 (.669) 
NCAA Tournament record: 15-12 (.556) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 8

Weird timing for Painter, as this story lands on the heels of him losing two players he absolutely did not expect to lose for next season: Matt Haarms, who is off to BYU, and Nojel Eastern, who is off to … a school not yet determined. Eastern’s transfer just became known Tuesday. But the relatively young Painter is considered a top-shelf X’s-and-O’s mind. If he wants, he’s got at least two more decades of coaching in him. There could easily be a year in which Purdue finds lightning in a bottle and makes it to a Final Four. From there, anything can happen. Remember, Purdue has had multiple four-year runs of goodness-or-greatness under Painter (2008-2011, 2016-19), and surely another such era will arrive. The Boilermakers are never going to land a top-10 recruiting class, but they’ll be in the mix to compete for a Big Ten title more years than not. 

9. Sean Miller, Arizona

Age: 51
Career record: 405-147 (.734) 
NCAA Tournament record: 19-11 (.633) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 9

Miller’s ongoing situation plays into his ranking. Obviously things have changed so much for him in the course of three years. If this list was created in May 2017, Miller easily could have be placed No. 1 or No. 2. But Arizona is yet to receive its notice of allegations from the NCAA, and though the school has backed him fully to this point, there is no 100% guarantee he can keep his job by the time the NCAA is done with handing down punishments. I think he will hold on to it, but I need to account for the possibility he won’t. Aside from all that, Miller’s transparently had a strong coaching career, making 11 NCAA Tournaments, including four trips to the Elite Eight, more than any other coach on this list. Arizona is almost always going to have one of the two best recruiting classes in the Pac-12 while he’s there, which goes a long way to keeping his chances of eventually winning it all pretty decent. Coaching at one of the 10-15 best programs in college basketball has its advantages.

8. Bob Huggins, West Virginia

Age: 66
Career record: 808-343 (.702)
NCAA Tournament record: 33-24 (.579) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 17

Past accomplishments can’t explicitly predict future results, but Huggins’ résumé demands he be included, now at 66 and with more years as a head coach than any of the other nine candidates. He’s the top combination of the longest-tenured and most accomplished coach on this list. Huggins’ age keeps him from landing any higher, but he’s still going to have a chance — even if it’s a small chance — so long as he’s at West Virginia. Here’s a fact for you: Huggins is the only coach on this list to make multiple Final Fours. Next season’s squad will surely be top 25-caliber. His teams are normally tough and he’s had six teams be a No. 5 seed or better since getting to West Virginia in 2007. 

West Virginia v Texas Tech

Bob Huggins is 66 but he should have one of his best teams since he got to WVU for 2020-21.
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7. Leonard Hamilton, Florida State

Age: 71
Career record: 579-431 (.573)
NCAA Tournament record: 12-10 (.545) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 5

Hamilton’s the youngest-looking 71-year-old this planet’s ever known, and here’s to hoping he’s still killing the game and strutting the sidelines into his 80s. He saunters just past Huggins, despite being five years older, because Hamilton’s been better overall the past four seasons and is bringing in stronger recruiting classes. The Seminoles have been a factor in the ACC four seasons running and don’t show any signs of dropping off. So long as FSU is turning out NBA draft pick material, which is now happening annually, FSU deserves to be in the conversation as a national title hopeful, broadly speaking. In the past 10 years, the only coaches with a higher win percentage in the ACC than Hamilton are Roy Williams, Tony Bennett and Mike Krzyzewski. 

6. Dana Altman, Oregon

Age: 61
Career record: 669-346 (.659)
NCAA Tournament record: 15-14 (.517) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 3

That KenPom stat is stunning, but of course Altman spent a big chunk of his career at Creighton, in the Missouri Valley Conference. Hard to break into the top 25 there. Because of Oregon’s boost from Phil Knight and Nike, Altman’s got a good enough shot to one day get this done. Oregon keeps getting five-star recruits, so it’s not that hard to envision this program working its way to a national title. The Ducks have made the NCAAs every season since 2013 except one, and for sure would have been in the 2020 field had we been able to get an NCAA Tournament. Altman’s coaching acumen isn’t often discussed or revered in media circles, but coaches who scheme against him will tell you that he’s pretty high up there — as in, top 25 out of 353 head coaches in the game — and he’s still got a decade of ball left in him. 

5. Rick Barnes, Tennessee

Age: 65
Career record: 707-375 (.653)
NCAA Tournament record: 24-24 (.500) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 14

Barnes’ only Final Four came at Texas in 2003, when he lost to Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony (opening the door for Jim Boeheim to win his first and only title). You likely noticed the Volunteers are building a strong presence in the SEC under Barnes. Thanks to good coaching and improved recruiting, Tennessee has a healthy shot to operate as a top-25 program indefinitely under the coach with almost 36 years to his name as a head man. A new wave of studs is coming. Tennessee has the No. 4 recruiting class for 2020, its best class in history. UT was a No. 2 seed and No. 3 seed the past two NCAA tourneys. He’s taken Providence, Clemson, Texas and Tennessee to the NCAAs. Barnes’ 707 dubs are No. 2 on this list to Huggins. A key for Barnes has been hiring the right staff, and though he’s had to make changes due to assistants getting Division-I head jobs, Tennessee is still managing to grapple for No. 2 in the league behind Kentucky

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff

Tennessee’s program has been elevated under Rick Barnes, who has the best class in team history incoming.
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4. Bruce Pearl, Auburn

Age: 60
Career record: 356-175 (.670)
NCAA Tournament record: 15-10 (.600) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 4

I recently had a coach tell me, unprompted, “You know who’s a really, really damn good coach? Bruce Pearl.” Pearl taking Auburn to the 2019 Final Four is an achievement that hasn’t been complimented enough. Auburn made the Final Four. In basketball! I think part of this is due to Texas Tech making it to Minneapolis the same season, then getting one game further, so the commentariat’s bandwidth could only devote so much acknowledgement to the Tigers after TTU was an even more unlikely story. Plus, Pearl’s ripe for cynicism, so I get it. And hey, Auburn is still subject to NCAA sanctions due to former assistant coach Chuck Person’s rule-breaking tied to the FBI probe. Pearl is helping his cause going forward by landing the likes of Isaac Okoro, who could be a top-five pick this year. Final Fours and lottery picks beget more success, and Pearl’s got as much stamina as any man listed here. 

3. Scott Drew, Baylor

Age: 49
Career record: 361-220 (.621) 
NCAA Tournament record: 11-7 (.611) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 6

Here we have the youngest coach on the list. Drew is notably listed high because Baylor will be a top-three team next season if Jared Butler and MaCio Teague both return, which I expect to happen. The immediate future obviously plays a factor into this ranking; if you’re a top-10 team for the season ahead, then your odds should increase. Drew has made two Elite Eights and would have objectively had a healthy chance at a third in 2020. Next season’s team could be the best in school history … after last season’s team holds that claim. Times are nice down in Waco, Texas. Drew is high on energy, optimism and encouragement. It can be infectious, and I’d wager he’ll, at the very least, make a Final Four at some point. 

2. Chris Mack, Louisville

Age: 50
Career record: 256-115 (.690)
NCAA Tournament record: 11-9 (.550) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 5

It’s kind of surprising that Mack’s already half a hundred, but he’s obviously in a prime spot to win a national championship. Forget what may or may not happen with any NCAA sanctions looming over the program — Mack’s likely to settle in for years and years and build Louisville into a national title contender with some regularity. Any hurdles in the short-term aren’t going to clip Mack’s prospects in the big picture. The Cardinals should play at eye level with Kentucky for the most part of the next decade, which incrementally helps in recruiting, which helps the overall objective. Mack has a near-flawless coaching record in regard to the NCAA Tournament: he’s only missed it once since he became coach at Xavier a little more than a decade ago. If you have Mack, you’re going to the tournament. And if you’re Louisville, the chances only increase. 

markfew.jpg

Mark Few has made the NCAA Tournament every season as coach at Gonzaga.
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1. Mark Few, Gonzaga 

Age: 57
Career record: 599-124 (.828)
NCAA Tournament record: 31-20 (.608) 
Top-25 KenPom finishes: 14

The irrefutable top pick. Few’s the only coach on this list to make the NCAA Tournament every season of his career — which is the last 20 seasons; that’s a joke — and has the best win percentage, easily, of all men listed. He’s also the only coach on the list to make a national title game, which I took into account. Gonzaga has long been capable of reeling in top-20 recruiting classes, and it’s also become a destination of desire for high-end transfers. It also has an edge in international recruiting. The Zags continue to schedule ambitiously under Few, which enables the program near-annual chances to land top-four seeds in the NCAA Tournament, something that’s happened nine times in Few’s term and it would have been 10 with a 2020 tournament. Helping his chances/odds further, Gonzaga is in position to be the No. 1 team in college basketball in the preseason — that would be a program first — if Joel Ayayi, Corey Kispert and Filip Petrusev all return. I don’t know how long Few intends on coaching, but if he decides to go well into his 60s, I do think Gonzaga wins a national championship by then. 





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