NCAAB
June 30, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

The Best College Basketball Coaches Under 40, Ranked

Let’s face it, the world of college basketball coaching is an old man’s game. The likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams are still hanging on to be at the forefront of the sport. Even coaches like John Calipari, Dana Altman and Bob Huggins are no spring chickens. Plus, it appears that all of these coaches have no immediate plans to retire. 

Nevertheless, a younger generation of coaches is coming. Scattered throughout the college basketball landscape is a slew of young leaders who all have the potential to be the coaching stars of tomorrow. Although not all of them will be destined for greatness, the profession tends to be both humbling and unforgiving with a few bad seasons being enough to throw you off the horse. However, it’s worth taking a look at the current crop of college basketball coaches who are under 40 because many of these guys are coaches to watch closely in the years to come.

10. Richie Riley, South Alabama

Few fans pay much attention to South Alabama, but they might want to as long as Riley is coaching the Jaguars. When he was 33, Riley got his first head coaching job at Nicholls State. In his second season, his team won the Southland regular-season title, taking Nicholls State from 8th to 1st in only one year, while winning Coach of the Year honors in the conference.

It was a similar story at South Alabama. During Riley’s first season, the Jaguars were 17-17 and finished 8th in the Sun Belt. The next year, they were 20-11 and finished second, winning eight in a row to close out the regular season before the Sun Belt Tournament was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.

At both stops, Riley has worked quickly to turn things around. It won’t be long until a major program has him do the same for them.

9. Will Wade, LSU

It’s almost hard to believe that Wade is just 37 because he’s been a head coach since 2013 and has already led three different programs. He won Southern Conference Coach of the Year honors in his first season at Chattanooga and his star has been on the rise ever since.

Wade led VCU to the NCAA Tournament in both of his seasons with the Rams, winning the Atlantic 10 regular-season title in 2016. It then took Wade only one mediocre season until he was able to work his magic at LSU.

During the 2018-19 campaign, the Tigers won the SEC regular-season title outright, finishing ahead of two top-10 teams, before advancing to the Sweet 16. Keep in mind that he took over right after Ben Simmons left the program.

Unfortunately for Wade, he was suspended for LSU’s Sweet 16 run in 2019 after he said some shady things on an FBI wiretap. Nevertheless, Wade is one of the most successful young coaches in the country and is on his way to making LSU a basketball powerhouse in the SEC.

8. Bob Richey, Furman

In anyone’s wildest imaginations, nobody would have ever believed that Furman would ever be ranked in the top 25. But it happened under Richey’s watch early in the 2018-19 season after the Paladins started the season 12-0, including upset wins over reigning national champion Villanova and Loyola, who was in the Final Four the previous season.

The season ended with Furman going 25-8 and playing in the NIT. This past season, the Paladins were 25-7 and likely headed for another NIT appearance. Whether he stays at Furman or not, Richey is likely to be coaching a top-ranked team again at some point in the future.

7. Jamion Christian, George Washington

Christian is another young coach who’s already made three different coaching stops. He was an assistant at VCU under Shaka Smart, and so his teams implement a form of the “havoc” system that put the Rams on the map.

He helped Mount St. Mary’s score two NCAA Tournament berths in his six seasons there, including a rare 20-win season for the Northeast Conference program. Granted, Christian’s George Washington squad was just 12-20 during the 2019-20 campaign in his first season with the Colonials. But he took over a team that was 9-24 the previous year.

Given his past success, Christian will get George Washington into the top tier of the A-10 sooner or later.

6. Wes Miller, UNC Greensboro

Miller’s story as a player is one of the more remarkable in recent memory. He played one year at James Madison before transferring to North Carolina as a walk-on. Miller eventually became a solid role player under Roy Williams before pivoting into a coaching career.

Miller took over as UNC Greensboro head coach in 2011 and endured five straight seasons of finishing .500 or below. However, Miller has turned things around, taking the Spartans to a postseason tournament in four straight years. That stretch included two regular-season Southern Conference titles and a trip to the 2018 NCAA Tournament where the Spartans gave Gonzaga a 68-64 scare in the first round.

After a 23-9 campaign in 2019-20, Greensboro has won over 20 games in four straight seasons, serving as strong evidence that Miller is a coach on the rise.

5. Andy Toole, Robert Morris

While Toole will turn 40 in September, meaning he’s coached the last game of his 30s, he’s already closing in on 200 career wins after 10 seasons at Robert Morris. It’s been shocking that a bigger program hasn’t made Toole an offer he can’t refuse, as he’s won two Northeast Conference regular season and two tournament titles in his decade with the program.

On top of that, Robert Morris recorded a famous win over Kentucky in the 2013 NIT. Moreover, the Colonials have finished third or better in seven of Toole’s 10 seasons. Toole has brought stability to the program and made them a contender for the conference crown every season.

4. Greg Paulus, Niagara

A lot of 34-year-olds would kill for Paulus’ CV. He played basketball at Duke and football at Syracuse. He’s also been an assistant at Navy, Ohio State, Louisville and George Washington before securing the Niagara job last season.

The situation was far from ideal after Paulus took over as head coach at the last minute when Patrick Beilein resigned for personal reasons. The Purple Eagles were just 12-20 in his first season, but most expected things to be much, much worse.

While he’s still young, Paulus has learned from some excellent coaches over the years while also playing college basketball and football at the highest levels. His pedigree is rather unique and so it could be just a matter of time until he figures out how to succeed as a head coach.

3. Todd Golden, San Francisco

Just 35, Golden has been on the coaching staff of college basketball programs since he was 27 after a brief playing career overseas. He spent a couple of years learning from Bruce Pearl at Auburn and, in 2019, he got a chance to succeed longtime mentor Kyle Smith at San Francisco.

For what it’s worth, Smith looks like a head coach on the rise as well. But the much younger Golden also has a promising career ahead of him after guiding the Dons to a 22-12 record in his first season, a campaign that included two close losses against mighty Gonzaga.

Much like Smith, it won’t be too long until Golden gets a chance at a power-conference program.

2. Richard Pitino, Minnesota

It shouldn’t be too surprising to see a coaching legacy experience early success. Granted, Pitino’s father helped him a lot by hiring him at Louisville twice. But the younger Pitino has more than held his own as a head coach.

In his first season at Minnesota, he led the Golden Gophers to an NIT championship. A few years later, he guided Minnesota to the NCAA Tournament after enduring a brutal 8-23 campaign the previous season.

Sustained success has never come easy to Minnesota, but Pitino is on his way toward making that happen.

1. Shantay Legans, Eastern Washington

Legans could be on the verge of making Eastern Washington a serious mid-major. He was an assistant at EWU under Jim Hayford when the Eagles went to the postseason in three straight seasons, including an appearance in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

Legans took over Eastern Washington in 2017 and immediately led them to the postseason for the fourth consecutive campaign in 2018.

Last season, the Eagles were on the verge of something special before the season was canceled because of the pandemic. Eastern Washington was 23-8 during the regular season, winning the Big Sky regular-season title and earning Legans Coach of the Year honors in the conference.

The Eagles are a team to watch closely in the years to come and so is Legans.

Photo: Getty Images