April 01, 2018

My Six Favorite Pac-12 Coaches

By Warren Grimes

I have watched with interest the strategies and demeanor of head coaches over the past few seasons. Not every coach wins the Good Housekeeping award.

Louisville Coach Jeff Walz would not be on my favorite list. His success is beyond dispute, but his court demeanor seems loud, aggressive, and at times even obnoxious. A good coach is also a role model.

I have come up with a list of six Pac-12 favorites, with one additional coach in the honorable mention category.

That leaves out the coaches from five schools: Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Washington and Washington State. The coaches from these five schools are relatively new (and in WSU’s case not yet appointed). Any of them might make the favorite list in the future.

Honorable Mention

June Daugherty came close to being an honorable mention selection. I’ve long considered her a class act. She had seniority after coaching first at Washington and then at WSU. Unfortunately, she struggled to get her teams into the Big Dance, fought health issues, and was terminated by WSU at the end of this season.

Mark Trakh, with two runs at the USC job, deserves honorable mention. I was disappointed when Trakh was fired after the first run. His team had a string of injuries, but had nonetheless performed at top-half-of-the-conference level. Trakh moved on to New Mexico State, where his coaching brought the school to the Big Dance and a near upset win over Stanford. The AD at USC must have had a “whoops, we goofed” moment, and asked Trakh to come back. This year, Trakh’s USC team had a very good out-of-conference record, then stumbled against top conference opponents. Playing with a reduced roster, USC still scared the daylights out of most of the conference heavies. USC should be back next year with a deeper roster. Trakh has taken Pepperdine, USC, and New Mexico State to the NCAA tournament, so he knows how to get it done.

The Top Six

Number 6 - Cori Close has a solid resume. She has proven herself an excellent recruiter. A few years back, she brought in the nation’s top recruiting class headed by Jordin Canada and Monique Billings. That class has now finished its four-year run with an Elite Eight appearance in the tournament. During those four years, UCLA was consistently one of the top teams in the conference, playing high pressure defense and fast break basketball that caused headaches for any opponent. Close would have been higher ranked if she had brought home a conference championship, a conference tournament championship, or a Final Four appearance. She has come up short on this count. But Close has some exciting recruits for next year. The story is ongoing.

Number 5 - Lindsay Gottlieb has a final four appearance and a conference championship on her resume. That was in 2013, when a second-seeded Cal team busted its way through to the Final Four. She has also recruited some excellent players. Her teams have not performed consistently against top opponents, but have, more often than not, been among the top four teams in the conference. This year, Cal seemed well positioned for a run in the conference and NCAA tournaments. Those hopes were thwarted when Kristine Anigwe was sick/injured and played sporadically in the Pac-12 tournament and not at all in the first round loss in the NCAA tournament. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Anigwe does not have a head injury or some other malady that would halt her very promising career.

Number 4 - Charli Turner Thorne, a VanDerveer protégé, has long been one of my favorites. She is second in conference seniority. With some consistency, Thorne’s teams have outperformed their preseason ranking. They have (my opinion) outperformed what their incoming talent would suggest. Her teams play with teamwork and intensity from the first day of the season, pulling off upsets, but occasionally faltering toward season’s end. This season, that faltering was evident, but ASU came back with an upset victory over OSU in the conference tournament, guaranteeing an NCAA bid. Her teams are regulars in the NCAA tournament, but have not broken the Final Four barrier.

Number 3 - Kelly Graves, Oregon’s well respected and relatively new coach, had already built an impressive record while coaching at St. Mary’s and Gonzaga. Now he has some serious talent, coaches in one of the top conferences in the country, and has an opportunity to attain elite status. His team won the conference and the conference tournament championships this year, garnered a #2 seed in the NCAA, and played to seed, losing to #1 seed Notre Dame in the regional final. Last year, Oregon entered the tournament with a #10 seed, and scored three upsets on the way to the Elite Eight. Will Graves be able to lead his talented team to a Final Four? Three of his colleagues (VanDerveer, Rueck, and Gottlieb) have been there. Graves must do this to be considered an elite coach.

Number 2 - Scott Rueck deserves his number 2 rank because of his amazing turnaround with the OSU program, winning the conference and the conference tournament titles and taking his team to one Final Four, two Elite Eights, and three consecutive Sweet Sixteens. He has achieved this despite losing a “best” player from his squad in each of the last two seasons (last year he lost his two best players). Rueck will confront that challenge again this year with the graduation of Marie Gülich, but it’s hard to bet against Rueck. This year they had an upsetting NCAA run, starting as a #6 seed but besting #3 Tennessee at home and then #2 Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen. Watch out for Rueck!

Number 1 - Tara VanDerveer is a role model, a legend, and the conference coach with the longest and most impressive resume. She does almost everything well — recruiting, motivating, strategizing, innovating — you name it. One of my favorite things about VanDerveer is how she consistently gets the most out of her teams at season’s end. She has some great new players coming on to replace Brittany McPhee and Kaylee Johnson.

Breaking News! Next year’s Stanford team is likely to shoot free throws better than this year’s version. And the same may be true for three-point shooting.

Three of the team’s best shooters will be back: Alanna Smith, Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington. Add to that the impact of incoming freshmen Jenna Brown and the Hull twins, all of whom are proficient shooters, and you have exciting potential. The biggest player development challenge facing Stanford next year may be finding a proficient offensive and defensive presence in the post to supplement Alanna Smith. That presence probably has to be found among Nadia Fingall, Maya Dodson, Alyssa Jerome, and Shannon Coffee. Each is an entirely different player. I look forward to seeing how the puzzle pieces will fit together. VanDerveer is really good at solving basketball puzzles.

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