CJ's Corner: Conference Coaches

We're getting to that point in the season where we again have our full focus on the conference. And it seems that fans are looking a little more closely at the coaching jobs being done in program turnarounds, rather than the players on the rosters. Chris Jaenike has grabbed the opportunity to expand on the topic and ranks for you the Pac-10's coaches. Read on and be enlightened...

T-1. Mike Montgomery, Stanford

Overall Record: 530-242
Record at Stanford: 376-165

In evaluating Montgomery's record at Stanford, fans should keep in mind that he faces a unique set of challenges as the Cardinal head man. No other school in Division I has admissions standards that are even close to being as high as those of Stanford, and the pool of high school players from which he can recruit is but a fraction of the size of the pools from which other Pac-10 coaches can recruit.

Monty was able to succeed relatively early on despite the recruiting hurdles presented by admissions and Stanford's lack of basketball tradition by employing a system that allowed his players to compete against more talented opponents. What has elevated Montgomery to the ranks of the truly elite coaches in college basketball, however, has been his ability to adapt his system to the strengths of the players in the program in a given year. For example, when Brevin Knight ran the show in the mid 90's, Montgomery demonstrated a previously unseen willingness to run isolation plays so that Knight could break down defenders and create. When Stanford's personnel was suited to an inside-outside attack, as in 2000-01, Montgomery's offense utilized the Collins' twins superior post play to force defenses to pick their poison -- play the twins straight up in the post and risk being pounded to death, or double the post and risk a barrage of threes. More recently, Montgomery has tinkered with setting perimeter screens for Julius Barnes (last season) and with pushing the ball in transition (this year).

Montgomery's coaching of defense may be even more impressive than his coaching of the offense. As recently as the '00-'01 season, "zone" was just another dirty four letter word at Stanford. A passive 2-3 zone was in the Cardinal's repertoire, but was rarely used. Of course, who could blame Monty for playing a vanilla man to man defense when his teams frequently played among the best defense in the conference and even set an NCAA record for the lowest opponents' field goal percentage allowed for a season. Nevertheless, Montgomery unveiled a tremendously effective 1-1-3 zone last year that helped the Card to upset victories over Xavier and Florida in the preseason NIT and was employed occasionally during conference play. The approach this season has evolved, and Stanford is now mixing up defenses from game to game and within games. Montgomery will tailor the approach to the opponent and the particular individuals on the court at a given time. The Card's phenomenal defensive showings against Arizona and Kansas were testimonials not only to the players' exceptional efforts but Montgomery (and his staff's) scouting and game coaching.

A couple of years ago, I might have conceded the top spot on this list to Lute Olson, but no more. Montgomery is as good as it gets. Because of Stanford's incredibly restrictive admissions policies, you never know what type of players you'll wind up with at Stanford, but Monty has proved that he can succeed with just about any kind of roster by adapting both the offense and defense to suit his players' strengths and to mask their weaknesses.

T-1. Lute Olson, Arizona

Overall Record: 701-241
Record at Arizona: 509-149

Olson's conference titles and postseason success speak for themselves. His teams' NCAA success alone suggests that "Midnight" Lute should be at the top of this list. However, he's going to have to share the honor with Montgomery.

Like the other coaches on this list, Olson does not have to contend with admissions standards that are more stringent than the NCAA minimums for freshman eligibility. That makes it possible for Olson to recruit as many talented players as any coach in the nation. On the other hand, Olson has had to overcome a different set of obstacles in leading Arizona to the select group of elite basketball schools that contend for conference championships and Final Four births almost every year. When Olson arrived at Arizona, the program lacked the tradition of such storied programs as UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky, the schools that are often mentioned in the same breath as the UofA now. Arizona also lacked many of the other elements that draw recruits to certain programs, such as a good academic reputation (e.g. Duke) or an impressive campus in a great location (e.g. UCLA).

That Olson managed to build the Arizona program almost from scratch without the many advantages enjoyed by other schools makes his record that much more impressive. His ability to continue to recruit well against the other elite teams in the country, despite the inherent advantages many of those schools possess is a testimonial to the respect Olson has earned as a head coach and to the reputation of his program, a reputation he created almost from scratch.

3. Ben Howland, UCLA

Overall Record: 176-102
Record at UCLA: 8-3

That UCLA is just two wins shy of last season's total and is poised to finish in the top three in the Pac-10 despite the loss of Jason Kapono and Ray Young probably says more about Steve Lavin than Ben Howland. The jury is out on how good UCLA is this year (they have no impressive wins, but have managed to go 8-3 thus far), but Howland's performance in his previous gig, as head coach at Pittsburgh, is enough to get him to third on this list. When Howland took over at the aptly nicknamed Pitt, the school had little to recommend it, but sound coaching and recruiting that was impressive given Pitt's reputation, facilities and location helped Howland lead the Panthers to first place finishes in the Big East in '00-'01 and '01-02 followed by a second place finish last year. Such was the revival of Pitt hoops that the school was moved to built a new basketball arena.

Howland's teams are known for playing tough, sound defense and for running a somewhat structured offense. Of course, these concepts are foreign to the Bruins who played under Lavin, so a period of adjustment is to be expected in Westwood.

Given Howland's coaching and recruiting ability (not to mention the inherent competitive advantages of UCLA), it's just a matter of time before the Bruins join Arizona and Stanford in the top tier of the Pac-10 and become a perennially top 10-15 team.

4. Dick Bennett, Washington State

Overall Record: 461-264
Record at Washington State: 8-6

Bennett's return to coaching this season -- particularly to a downtrodden program like Washington State's -- surprised many. Citing exhaustion, Bennett abruptly retired from his job as the Wisconsin head coach just three games into the 2000-01 season, after having led the Badgers to the final four the previous season. Given the reason for his departure from coaching and his impressive resume, which includes an upset win of Cal in the first round of the 1994 tournament with the University of Wisconsin -- Green Bay, Bennett seemed an unlikely candidate to wind up in Pullman. Speculation among some fans is that not only did Bennett miss coaching, but he wanted to set up his son Tony, an assistant on his staff, with an opportunity to succeed him as head coach.

With his sweater vests and disciplined half court offensive sets, Bennett seems almost professorial in his approach to coaching college basketball. That is, until his team commits a stupid turnover or fails to get after it on the defensive end and Bennett erupts like a volcano on the sidelines. Like Montgomery, Bennett built his reputation on teaching sound fundamental basketball. His teams run a disciplined half court offense and usually play straight man to man defense, although he has shown a willingness to throw in some zone, as he did against Stanford at Maples earlier this season. Bennett's Wisconsin teams led the Big Ten in scoring defense in four out of his five full seasons at the helm. It should come as no surprise then, that Washington State is leading the Pac-10 in scoring defense at 56.1 ppg allowed. On the other hand, Washington State is scoring just 56.0 ppg and has had some shockingly bad outings on offense, such as its 46-29 loss to Fresno State.

In short, while Dick Bennett has to be considered an excellent coach, he's not quite in the class of those ahead of him on this list. Had he remained at Wisconsin, he ultimately might have demonstrated the ability to vary his system and/or recruit the kind of talent necessary to take that program to the next level. At Washington State, he now has to start virtually from scratch. If he has the requisite patience to stick around long enough, he might just lead the Cougars back to respectability.

5. Ernie Kent, Oregon

Overall Record: 213-152
Record at Oregon: 123-72

It's tempting to rank Kent higher, but the Oregon head man has demonstrated a truly annoying tendency to boast about his team's chances during the preseason, so for now I'll leave him at fifth. Kent is a solid game coach and strategist, whose preferred style of play is up-tempo. He has earned quite a bit of good will in the Pacific Northwest on the strength of winning the Pac-10 championship two seasons ago, and while Kent deserves much credit for leading the underdog Ducks to that title, that first place finished was sandwiched between underwhelming sixth and fifth place finishes. Last year's squad was barely on the right side of the tournament bubble before winning the Pac-10 tournament thanks to UCLA's late implosion in the semifinals.

It's difficult to rank a coach who has had such an up and down record at the helm of his program, and whether Kent ultimately proves to be successful or not in the long run at Oregon will likely depend on his recruiting. He has managed to recruit a number of guards, including Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks, who fit into his up-tempo system well, but he has failed to land frontline players who can rebound and run the floor effectively. Last year's Ducks, for example, finished last in the conference in rebounding despite having a big, plodding frontline. Kent landed a prize recruit in local combo forward Maarty Leunen, who will help matters, but until Kent reels in some additional frontcourt players who fit his system, it appears that the Ducks will be mired in the middle of the conference standings, and I will be inclined to leave him in the middle of this list.

6. Rob Evans, Arizona State

Overall Record: 174-159
Record at Arizona State: 86-7
8

Rob Evans is another coach with promise but who has had middling results over the past several years, including a couple of fourth place finishes and a sixth and seventh place finish. ASU doesn't have the basketball pedigree that some other Pac-10 schools have, but it has ample facilities and has demonstrated a commitment to the program, so the difficulty of Evans' job probably ranks around the middle of the conference.

Evans' program is likely to rise or fall on the basis of his recruiting. He has proven to be a solid game coach who knows what he is doing on both ends of the floor, but unlike a Montgomery or Bennett, probably won't achieve much better results than you would expect based on the talent in the program. ASU's recruiting has been merely solid under Evans, but if Lute Olson retires in the next couple of years (which would surprise nobody), the Wildcats' loss could prove to be the Sun Devils' gain. The state of Arizona does not produce a large number of talented players, but if Evans can convince the occasional local to stay home and take better advantage of the pipeline of talent from LA, he'll move the Devil's in the right direction.

T-7. Tony Fuller, Stanford

Okay, so the Stanford assistant has only been the "bench coach" for one game this year, but what a game it was! He mixed things up slightly in terms of the allocation of minutes and ensured that Josh got exactly the right amount of work. His sideline demeanor was excellent, and he looked dapper in his pinstriped suit. In short, Fuller did more than enough in that one game to rank ahead of such notable failures as Henry Bibby, Lorenzo Romar and Ben Braun. Tony is also known for such nice touches as his witty banter and singing during chalk talks.

T-7. Eric Reveno, Stanford

He hasn't been a head coach for a single game, but ya gotta put Reveno ahead of the boobs at USC, UW and Cal. Nobody teaches post play better than Rev, and Stanford's remarkable streak of placing its starting post players into the NBA is due in no small part to this Stanford assistant.

T-7. Russell Turner, Stanford

The youngest member of Montgomery's staff, Turner has made it his personal mission to toughen up small forward Josh Childress and improve every aspect of his game. The results speak for themselves.

10. Trent Johnson, Nevada

Okay, so he's not even a Pac-10 coach. But Johnson was an assistant under Montgomery and his name comes up whenever the issue of Montgomery's eventual (and hopefully far-off) successor comes up, so I'm going to include him on my list. When Johnson took over at Nevada, the program had little going for it, but the 'Pack is now a force out West. And if you don't think Johnson ranks ahead of the keystone cops below, just ask the Kansas Jayhawks what they think.

11. Henry Bibby, USC

Overall Record: 123-100
Record at USC: 123-100

With most head coaches, saying that he treats a walk-on player like his own son would be compliment about the coach's character. With Hank Bibby, it means the walk-on might as well be locked up in a basement with the Gimp and a red ball strapped in his mouth.

As for Bibby's coaching, it leaves much to be desired. He is a mediocre tactician who more often than not has failed to take advantage of the talents of his players. USC has as much quickness and athleticism as anyone, but instead of utilizing that ability to disrupt opponents on the defensive end, SC has consistently played soft D while allowing a high field goal percentage. Bibby is an even worse teacher when it comes to offense. His team jacks up long jumper after jumper, despite one of the worst collections of perimeter shooters in the conference. Meanwhile, Rory O'Neil, one of the better post players in the league -- and the Trojans best perimeter shooter -- gets only a fraction of the shots that SC's many "shooting" guards get. Lastly, Bibby's incessant tinkering with different lineups and rotations undermines the Trojenz' consistency and confidence.

Stanford fans might be inclined to object to my criticism of Bibby as a strategist given the way USC completely befuddled the Cardinal with its various defenses all three of the teams' meetings in the '01-'02 season. On the other hand, it hardly seems fair to give Bibby the credit for his squad's 1-2-1-1 press against Stanford when it was Brandon Granville who suggested the strategy while USC was trailing badly in the first of the three games. Were it not for the stroke of genius by the Trojan point guard, the winning strategy probably never would have occurred to Hank.

Bibby has received some good press for his recruiting efforts, but while he's a capable recruiter in terms of selling his program, his recruiting strategy has been terrible. USC is a relatively attractive destination and effectively has no admissions filter for basketball recruits. Despite the large pool from which he can recruit, Bibby has failed to create a balanced roster. He now has about a half-dozen off guards, all of whom were rated highly, but none of whom can shoot. While he arguably has a couple of combo guards, he hasn't had a good, effective point guard since Brandon Granville. To make matters worse, Hank is now recruiting high schoolers who have not achieved qualifying test scores. Given USC's attractiveness, he shouldn't have to take commitments from non-qualifiers, a strategy that will almost certainly backfire on him. If Bibby pulls his head out and recruits a pure point guard and a shooter or two, USC and Bibby could return to respectability. Until then, Hank rates near the bottom of conference coaches.

12. Lorenzo Romar, Washington

Overall Record: 108-112
Record at Washington: 15-24

The Gregory Hines look-alike is more likely to find himself tap dancing before an NCAA investigative committee before he ever reaches the big dance that is the NCAA tournament. The Huskies once again appear to be less than the sum of their parts. With supremely talented point guard Nate Robinson, who has been misused and underused, and several skilled and athletic wings and post players (including one-time Stanford targets Mike Jensen and Hakeem Rollins), U-Dub should be better. If the team doesn't show improvement relatively soon (and doesn't do so without committing any more NCAA violations), Romar can and should be on the hot seat.

13. John Jay, Oregon State

Overall Record: 20-21
Record at Oregon State: 20-21

To be honest, I haven't seen much of Oregon State under John Jay, so I won't even pretend to know enough to comment on him as a coach. Nevertheless, he has to be better than Ben Braun.

14. Ben Braun, kal

Overall Record: 479-321
Record at kal: 146-86

I'm at a loss to explain the Ben Braun phenomenon. The Weenie Nation seems to think this guy is a great coach, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Maybe it's the fact that his predecessor was so bad and so sleazy that it makes Braun look like a genius and a saint by comparison. Maybe it's the fact that the coach before that was run out of town because his players hated him. Maybe it's the fact that kal's overall athletic program has been so mediocre for so long that a man who provides even the faintest glimmer of hope is seen as a savior.

Whatever the reason, Braun has become the Teflon coach of the Pac-10. Despite middling results, the little man from Berkeley has managed to hang on for this, his eighth year at the helm. But closer examination reveals that Braun has accomplished little during that time. Sure, he's won a couple of NCAA tournament games and managed to finish second in the conference two years ago, but that's about it. You'd think he would have accomplished more by now, since his job just isn't that difficult. Kal is one of the better public universities in the country, and has a decent basketball reputation in the West thanks in large part to Jason Kidd. Equally important, Braun can recruit any kid who meets the NCAA minimum requirements for eligibility, so the pool from which he can recruit is as broad as can be. Despite all that, kal is back in rebuilding mode, sitting at 6-7 and gunning not for an NCAA tournament birth but an invitation to the NIT.

Weenies are fond of pointing to kal's highly regarded freshman class as evidence of the imminent rise of the Dirty Golden Bears. What fans tend to ignore is the fact that there is no excuse for Braun having to "rebuild" eight years into his stint in the People's Republic of Berkeley. It's not like a rash of unexpected early exits to the NBA caught kal off-guard. In fact, Braun's two best players last year, Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers, stuck around for four years. The truth is, weak recruiting and worse player development are to blame for the need to rebuild. It's hard to imagine anyone this side of Steve Lavin doing a worse job with the development of players such as the Hughes brothers and Amit Tamir. It's as if Braun and his staff don't know how to teach rebounding, let alone offensive post moves. Could you imagine Montgomery and his staff (particularly Reveno), allowing players with that much size to play so soft? And Tamir has yet to develop a single low post move aside from the annoying chicken-wing move he uses to hook defenders. Even last year's stars, Shipp and Wethers, were disappointments through much of their kal careers. Wethers was a consensus top 100 national player (and top 50 according to some), yet he was underwhelming his first three years under Braun and showed minimal improvement prior to his senior year, which admittedly was impressive given his earlier performances but was no better than you'd expect from such a highly regarded recruit in his fourth year in a program. Shipp was allowed to be lazy and out of shape his first three years at kal, and it wasn't until he motivated himself to get in shape as a senior that he finally lived up to his potential.

Those who point to Braun's recent recruiting success would be well-advised to reserve judgment for another year or two. The current freshman class features players that barely qualified after taking the SAT numerous times. The track record at kal of players who barely qualify is mixed at best, so before handing Braun any awards for his recruiting prowess, let's wait and see how long his blue-chippers stay at kal and how much they contribute. Although the University allows it, it's not at all clear to me that recruiting marginal qualifiers at a rigorous school like kal is a smart recruiting strategy.

Now that the kal football program is on the rise, the Weenie Nation may cast a critical eye on Braun and the basketball program if the ship isn't righted quickly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that alumni are not entirely supportive of the University's admissions policies with regard to basketball players, and if Braun doesn't achieve results by next season, expect the criticism to become more public.


And now for weekly post-season projections...

NCAA Tournament:

1. Stanford. #1 seed in the West if the season ended today.

2. Arizona. #2 seed if the season ended today. The Cats face a big test in Westwood Saturday. They're better than UCLA, but Stanford may have shaken their confidence.

3. UCLA. As expected, the Bruins have made the move up. UCLA's 4-0 start in Pac-10 play could prove misleading, as the Bruins have had several very close calls in a soft early conference schedule, but none of the other mediocre Pac-10 squads seems capable of taking third place.

NCAA Tournament Bubble:

None

NIT Possibilities:

1. Oregon. Loss of point guard Aaron Brooks and loss to Oregon State almost certainly leaves the Ducks out of contention for an invitation to the big dance.

2. USC. High beta team is likely to stay that way the rest of the season.

3. California. Win against Arizona State was huge for Bears, but is it a sign of improvement or were the Sun Devils simply demoralized after the close call against Stanford two days earlier?

4. Arizona State. The bad news: Arizona State is 0-3 in conference. The good news: Gave the best team in the country its toughest test of the season, so potential is there.

5. Washington State. Already matched last season's total of 2 conference wins.

No Chance:

1. Washington. With a 5-7 record, it's hard to imagine the Huskies getting over .500. Loss to UCLA at home could prove to be demoralizing.


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