Richard Pitino didn't out-coach Fran McCaffery, and vice versa

Minnesota's guy named Big Ten Coach of the Year

Purdue head coach Matt Painter and Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery talk before their teams’ men’s basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 12, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Purdue head coach Matt Painter and Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery talk before their teams’ men’s basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 12, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

OK, this isn’t an Iowa writer saying Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery should have been the Big Ten men’s basketball Coach of the Year.

But it is an Iowa writer saying you could make an argument for McCaffery. It’s a writer saying sports, like many other fields, has a lot of awards with murky criteria, if any at all.

Monday night, the Big Ten gave its Coach of the Year honor to Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, and understandably so. His team leapt from 2-16 in the Big Ten and 8-23 overall last season to 11-7 and 23-8.

That’s night turning into day. Going from rotten to good is the surest route to a Coach of the Year award in any sport at any level.

But you could also have argued on behalf of Northwestern’s Chris Collins. The Wildcats are 10-8 in the Big Ten, 21-10 total, and are headed to the NCAA tourney for the first time ever. The Wildcats were 8-10, 20-12 a year ago, so it isn’t as if they made a quantum leap in that regard.

However, going from zero NCAA berths to one? Posting Northwestern’s first winning record in league play since 1968? That’s jumping over the Grand Canyon.

The coach of the Big Ten’s regular-season champion is Purdue’s Matt Painter, whose guys merely went 14-4 in the league, 25-6 overall. But since the Boilermakers were a preseason top 15 team, he’ll get less credit for coaching acumen than he should.

Surpassing lower expectations always cuts more ice with Coach of the Year voters than setting up higher expectations and then meeting and even exceeding them.

I think Maryland’s Mark Turgeon deserves a lot of credit for his team going 12-6. His starting lineup was very young, yet the Terrapins had the same record this season as last year when they had current NBA players Jake Layman and Diamond Stone to go with Melo Trimble.

Iowa was 10-8 in the Big Ten this year. Had a game official recognized a timeout Hawkeye guard Brady Ellingson called for late in regulation of Iowa’s double-overtime loss at Minnesota, maybe the Hawkeyes would have won that game and they’d be 11-7 to the Gophers’ 10-8. But there are a lot of maybes over an 18-game schedule.

McCaffery’s team was projected to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings. They were so much better in March than they were in November and December. They won at Maryland and Wisconsin within a week. They have just two upperclassmen in their rotation.

I’m not saying McCaffery did a better job than Pitino, Collins, Painter or Turgeon. I’m not saying any of them did a better job than him. I’m not saying any of those five did a better job than Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell, who guided the Scarlet Knights to a 14-17 overall record this season in his first season there. It’s a far more competitive club than it was last season.

Indiana’s Tom Crean was the consensus Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2016. That and a buck-fifty won’t get him a cup of Joe at a Bloomington Starbucks today. The hunch here is Crean can still coach.

Phil Jackson was NBA Coach of the Year once. He coached 11 NBA championship teams. Coaches in the 2000s with as many career COY honors as Jackson include Byron Scott, Mike Brown, Scott Brooks and Avery Johnson.

I’m sure Jackson is content to keep his 11 rings and let those Coach of the Year plaques stay scattered across the NBA.


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