A game Wednesday between No. 3 Purdue and No. 14 Ohio State has shaped up as a bellwether for the Big Ten regular-season race. And as a result it will also pit the top contenders for conference coach of the year.
Even though a preseason media poll conducted by The Dispatch and The Athletic pegged Michigan State as the unanimous Big Ten favorite, coach Matt Painter has led the Boilermakers to 19 straight wins and the top spot in the standings despite losing last season’s player of the year, Caleb Swanigan, to the NBA. Purdue was picked to finish second in the media poll.
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, have wildly outperformed expectations under first-year coach Chris Holtmann. Picked to finish 11th, Ohio State is nationally ranked for the first time in three years and, with a win, would move into first place in the conference.
So which coach has done the more impressive job? It’s an interesting debate.
"It’s probably more an art than anything in sports," said Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News college basketball writer and Big Ten Network studio analyst. "There’s less science to that then about anything else you could have."
Both present compelling cases. Purdue, a veteran-laden team, entered the year ranked No. 20 in the preseason Associated Press poll and took its only two losses while playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
"Senior teams are very difficult to coach sometimes because they’ve been there, done that," ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "They’ve heard your voice, and keeping their attention and focus during the season (can be hard). They’re great to coach, but they’re tricky to coach too. You have to connect with them, keep things fresh and challenge them. His ability to communicate and trust in the relationship is really important."
That trust has enabled Painter to get the most out of Isaac Haas and Dakota Mathias, Greenberg said, while also getting Carsen Edwards to better learn when to pick his spots to be aggressive without making him feel his freedom to create is being diminished.
"I think Matt’s ability to communicate, the trust he’s built with his team, the accountability that they have, the freedom they play with and how well-defined and respected their roles are is amazing," he said.
Similar things can be said for Holtmann, who has "probably the Big Ten player of the year" in Keita Bates-Diop, Greenberg said, while getting surprising growth out of Jae’Sean Tate, C.J. Jackson and Kaleb Wesson, among others.
"The most amazing thing about what Chris has done is that he looked at this team and saw its possibilities," DeCourcy said. "He didn’t see limitations and didn’t say, ‘Can’t wait to get this over so I can get my guys.’ He looked at this team and saw potential and over a very brief period of time he worked out how to accentuate its potential."
In 2015, DeCourcy said the Sporting News named Kentucky’s John Calipari its coach of the year in an award annually given out at the end of the regular season. The Wildcats were undefeated at 31-0.
"We said, ‘Well, you can’t do any better than win every game,’ so we gave it to John Calipari and we were criticized by a lot of people," he said. "Why not this guy, who wasn’t supposed to be very good? They won every game, that’s why. You have to build the culture that has that success. I do think that that person is too often easily dismissed."
Wednesday night’s winner is obviously not guaranteed the award. DeCourcy was quick to mention Nebraska’s Tim Miles as a viable candidate for the turnaround the Cornhuskers have displayed after he was listed as being on what DeCourcy calls "the most vulgar thing we do in the media" — the hot seat.
But the result might start to tip the scales one way or another.
"There’s a lot of great coaches in that league and that award is a team award as much as a coaching award because having a great team enables you to win games and accomplish great things," Greenberg said. "I think what will really determine the coach of the year is you look at Purdue and you say all right, how did you perceive them and did they exceed your expectation? Then how did you perceive Ohio State?"
Adam Jardy is a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch.