The Big 12 is considered to be one of the best conferences in college basketball. Loaded from top to bottom with teams that contend annually for the NCAA tournament, the coaches who lead the squads also boast impressive resumes.
This list ranks the coaches based on one question of criteria: If I was choosing a Big 12 coach to hire for my team today, combining all factors such as experience, tournament success, age, etc., how would I rank the 10 coaches I have to choose from?
4. Shaka Smart, Texas
Entering first year at Texas, 163-56 (.744) in six years overall
After yet another year of underachievement, Rick Barnes was fired as the head coach of the Texas Longhorns. His replacement is a man who has made as many Final Fours in five seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University as Barnes did in 17 years at Texas. Expectations are high in Austin, but realistically, how high should they be behind their new coach?
At 38, Smart is the youngest coach in the conference by a full five years. He leaves VCU having never won fewer than 26 games in a season; his teams have made the NCAA tournament five straight times. The first of Smart’s tourney berths was easily his most well-known; he took the Rams from the First Four to the Final Four by winning five straight games against teams from power conferences. #11 VCU became just the third double-digit seed to make the Final Four, and they’re the only team in NCAA tournament history to get there by having to win five games instead of four. The Cinderella run immediately made Smart a popular candidate for several power-conference jobs, but he dodged offers for four seasons before finally agreeing to leave VCU for Texas.
Everybody knows about VCU’s run in 2011, but aside from that, have Smart’s teams actually done anything? In both 2012 and 2013, the Rams advanced to the Round of 32 before falling. The Rams have been upset by a double-digit seed in the first round of each of the last two years. Since the groundbreaking upset of Kansas in the 2011 Elite Eight, Smart’s teams have lost five of their last seven NCAA tournament games. He has continued to win games to get VCU into the tournament, but the hype Smart is getting seems high considering he’s only made one Sweet 16.
Smart’s teams run the “havoc” style of defense that features heavy pressing. They’re very good in transition on offense with an up-tempo pace. He inherits a roster that’s very long, tall and athletic, and he’ll benefit greatly from the pool of local Texas recruits. Smart is expected to push the Longhorns to new heights, but his lack of NCAA tournament success aside from one season keeps him out of the top three on this list.
3. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
82-49 (.626) in four years at Oklahoma, 561-353 (.614) in 29 years overall
If this list was based purely off of choosing a Big 12 coach for one season, Kruger would have placed second. Like West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, he’s being docked in these rankings because of his age. The 62-year-old Kruger is the second-oldest coach in the Big 12, and as he enters his 30th season, one has to wonder how much longer he’ll have the desire to coach.
Kruger is, in all facets of the game, a terrific basketball coach. He’s the only man in NCAA Division I history to lead five different schools to not only an NCAA tournament appearance, but a Sweet 16 berth. He’s posted a winning record at all of the major schools he’s been: Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, and Oklahoma. His current position has been arguably his most impressive turnaround; the Sooners finished 10th in the Big 12 in both 2009 and 2010 before hiring Kruger. In his four seasons, Oklahoma has finished 8th, 4th, 2nd, and 3rd. Like he did with the other four programs he ran, he’s turned the Sooners into a consistent winner and NCAA tournament threat.
1994 remains Kruger’s lone Final Four berth; he took the third-seeded Gators to the national semifinal game, where they fell to Duke. In 16 NCAA tournament appearances, his teams are a mediocre 16-16 overall. If there’s a downside to Kruger’s college career, it may be how he’s proven capable of improving a team, but not quite enough to reach the elite level. In 29 seasons, his teams have posted a winning record 22 times, yet have only won regular-season conference titles twice.
His calm, controlled demeanor lead to few blowout losses, and his teams seem to always feature terrific shooters who lead fast-paced offenses. Overall, Kruger is a terrific coach, but his best attribute may be his high floor/low ceiling pattern. You’re not in danger of going 8-22 with him in control, but you probably won’t go 35-5, either.
2. Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State
115-56 (.673) in five years at Iowa State/overall
None of the coaches ranked from 10-2 have more upside than Fred Hoiberg. In five years at Iowa State, he’s already won 115 games, made four NCAA tournaments, and claimed two Big 12 tournament championships. His resume is similar to Texas’ Shaka Smart minus the Final Four berth, but Hoiberg ultimately takes home the #2 ranking because of his current upward trend and ability to contend in a much more difficult conference.
Hoiberg is one of the most intriguing coaches in basketball because of his pro-style offense. Because of his scheme, he’s annually speculated to be in contention for NBA jobs. His teams live off of transition opportunities and, as a result, are much less reliant on the three-point shot than they were in prior years. Now 42 years old, Hoiberg’s coaching career is only beginning; he figures to be on pace to eventually become one of the nation’s best coaches.
The downside of Hoiberg’s resume is largely due to his lack of experience, but his four NCAA tournament wins are the second-fewest among any Big 12 coach. He is one of just three Big 12 coaches who has yet to make an Elite Eight appearance. His last two teams have lost in to lower-seeded opponents in March, with the most stunning upset coming with 2015’s loss in the round of 64 to a 14-seed. Before Hoiberg is able to be considered one of the best coaches at the Division I level, he needs to experience more success in the tournament with the Cyclones.
The Cyclones were among the worst teams in the conference for over a decade before Hoiberg arrived in 2011. By his fourth and fifth years, the Cyclones were making appearances in the AP Top 10. His 2015-16 team appears to be his best squad yet, as many preseason polls suggestions have the Cyclones as a top-five team for next year.