As the ACC regular season winds down, a clear heirarchy has developed in the race for the ACC Coach of the Year. The man sitting atop the ACC standings, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, has the best chance to take the hardware. But a couple coaches looking straight up at Bennett still have a chance of supplanting him with strong finishes in the coming weeks. Who are our top three favorites for ACCCOY?
Tony Bennett – Virginia
For plenty of folks around the ACC, Bennett is the only choice for ACC Coach of the Year this winter. Taking command of a team picked to finish sixth in the ACC in the media’s preseason voting, all Bennett has done has led Virginia to the mountaintop – the No. 1 ranking in the country.
Although UVa’s style of play has drawn plenty of critics from the regional and national media alike, the truth is that nobody really wants to play Virginia, especially in John Paul Jones Arena. UVa’s intense defense leads the nation in the KenPom.com national defensive rankings. The Cavaliers do not score a lot of points, but they’re an efficient offensive team. They lead the ACC in free throw shooting, and are in the top five in 3-point shooting.
Despite a recent setback at home to Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers opened the season 24-2 overall, and 13-1 in ACC play. With only four regular season games left to play, UVa held a three-game lead over second place Clemson and Duke, with tiebreaker victories over both the Tigers and Blue Devils. The Cavaliers are poised not only to win the ACC regular season title, but to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that could have them playing through Charlotte and Atlanta on a possible path to the Final Four. Bennett has done all this with only one McDonald’s All-American – Kyle Guy.
Brad Brownell – Clemson
If there’s anyone in the ACC who can take the distinction of Coach of the Year away from Bennett, Brownell deserves a close look. Despite a multi-year extension in the offseason, Brownell came into the 2017-18 season needing to win. Mission accomplished. Through 26 contests, the Tigers sat at 20-6, with a near-perfect 13-1 record at Littlejohn Coliseum.
After making the NCAA Tournament in Brownell’s first season of 2010-11, the Tigers haven’t been back since. But they’ll be back this March, as the Tigers were sitting 9-4 in the ACC standings, tied for second place with Duke, through 13 league games.
Clemson is a well-balanced team that can win in a variety of ways. The Tigers are allowing the third-fewest points in the ACC defensively. Offensively, the Tigers rank in the top five in the league in shooting percentage, 3-point shooting percentage, and free throw percentage.
It all adds up to a resurgent season that has given Clemson fans renewed faith in Brownell’s direction of the Tiger program. And with only two key players – Donte Grantham and Gabe Devoe – graduating out, Clemson could be one of the preseason favorites to win the ACC regular season title in 2018-19.
David Padgett – Louisville
Padgett is a darkhorse at best to supplant Bennett and Brownell as ACC Coach of the Year. But given the way Padgett has come into a near-impossible situation at Louisville following Rick Pitino’s preseason termination, Padgett could earn a vote or two. At 18-9 and 8-6 in ACC play through 27 games, the Cards are set up well to once again return to the NCAA Tournament.
The Cards are a talented team that some considered a Final Four contender before Pitino’s firing. But Padgett had to bring this squad together amidst tremendous adversity. With an uncertain future, U of L fans should appreciate this team’s ability to play through all the distractions, and emerge once again as one of the ACC’s better teams. The Louisville job probably won’t be the final destination for Padgett. But he’s proven this winter that he’s ready to be a high-major head coach.