On Monday night, the Big Ten conference announced the annual postseason honors for men’s basketball. It may come as no surprise that the Coach of the Year winners finished first (Bo Ryan in the coaches’ voting) and second (Mark Turgeon in the media voting) in the conference. Winning basketball games is a good way to get recognized for your coaching prowess. Some Purdue fans were upset that Matt Painter did not get recognized in light of the turnaround that his Boilermakers showed from the end of non-conference play.
After all, this is a team that finished last in the conference last year and was projected to finish toward the bottom again this year. Instead, after a string of embarrassing losses in December made the idea of an NCAA tournament bid nearly a pipe dream, the team got it together and finished in a tie for third place. Surely that is a sign of an excellent coaching job, right?
It is, but there’s a catch. Sure, Painter’s team exceeded expectations, but the expectations became low on his watch. It’s not like Painter inherited a depleted roster this year, as he did when he took over for Gene Keady a decade ago. Since walking into a 9-win season his first year, he had several teams that competed for a regular season title, one Big Ten Tournament winner, and two Sweet 16 appearances. The momentum was there, and for whatever reason (I’m inclined to say recruiting the wrong players for his system, among other reasons), the team slipped. Recruiting is part of the job, so why not reward a coach for having a roster talented enough to win the conference?
I understand that reasoning, but I’m not sure I agree with it. After all, the award is Coach of the Year, not Coach of the Years. The fact that Matt Painter wasn’t doing his job well enough for a few years shouldn’t handicap him now. But they don’t give me a ballot, and I can’t help but think those who reflexively vote for the top-performing teams regardless of expectations make a reasonable argument. After all, there are some coaches who can make a lot of the talent they have (Tim Miles last year), there are some coaches who can bring in talent but underperform (Tom Crean), but the successful coaches in the Big Ten are the ones who can get talented players and make the most of them (Ryan, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta). Matt Painter has shown the ability to do both, but not necessarily at the same time. If he can get both parts of the coaching duties in line, he’ll have plenty of awards to put on his trophy shelf.