December 24, 2023
Stock up: Which women’s college basketball coaches have impressed the most?
Four coaches who've exceeded expectations and set their teams up for success
There are still three months left in the NCAA women’s basketball season. But with nonconference slates wrapping up, some women’s college basketball coaches are already elevating themselves, while others may be staring down a ride on the coaching carousel. Today I’m going to take a look at the former, in the theme of spreading Christmas cheer, while saving the lumps of coal for next week.
To be clear, I’m only looking at women’s college basketball coaches who have been impressive relative to expectations. The likes of Dawn Staley and Wes Moore won’t be here not because they haven’t been superb, but because they should already be considered among the best coaches in the sport. Instead, we’ll focus on coaches making second- or third-year breakthroughs, and someone who should finally be getting the mass acclaim she deserves. There are plenty of coaches leading their teams to surprising success this year, but these are more than just flashes in the pan.
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Lindsay Gottlieb is midway through her third season at USC and is already the third-greatest coach in program history. Should she make it to the Elite Eight, she will be the second-greatest coach in program history. The Trojans have been ranked in the top 10 for six-straight weeks and counting, the first season since 2006 they’ve been ranked in back-to-back weeks. It’s also just the second time since 1995, per Across The Timeline.
This is a program that won the second- and third-ever NCAA titles and was runner up a couple seasons later, before spending the next three decades alternating between lackluster big names and overmatched alumni at head coach. Now Gottlieb, in less than three years, has completely surpassed all of them (except maybe Cheryl Miller). The signs were there last season, when the Trojans punched above their weight class all season long. Gottlieb created exceptional buy-in, advancing game plans that could back even the best of the best into a corner. Our Alex Simon remarked that the team was one impact player away from surprising a lot of people. Guess he was right!
It’s not that Florida State has taken big steps forward from last year; they finished 24th in the NET and 33rd in Her Hoop Stats rating in 2022–23, and are currently 42nd and 38th in those two metrics this year, respectively. But Brooke Wyckoff has quietly been steering the ‘Noles in some truly remarkable ways. Despite a very small roster, she has led them through significant in-game adjustments, ones that were crucial to an early win over a fully healthy Tennessee and very competitive losses to Stanford and UCLA. Wyckoff has also excelled at putting lower-profile role players in positions to make big contributions, like Makayla Timpson, Sara Bejedi, Alexis Tucker and Mariana Valenzuela.
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Many have considered Cori Close to be one of the best women’s college basketball coaches in the country for years; I had her second on my National Coach of the Year ballot in 2022. But it’s seemed like wider recognition of Close’s excellence has lagged a bit behind. That is certainly changing this year, with UCLA sitting 11–0, sixth in the NET, with big-time wins over UConn, Florida State and Ohio State. The attention that has come with that success has shone a light on the fact that Close may be the best in the game at managing and motivating a locker room, and UCLA is rapidly emerging as a top-tier player development program.
Much like with Close, I don’t think there was much reason to doubt Nicki Collen before this season. But healthy skepticism may have been warranted since their only notable result to date was losing in the second round as a No. 2 seed. But here we are, a Baylor team made almost entirely of Collen’s players, 10th in the NET and 14th in HHS rating, with a signature win over Utah. The Bears’ frontcourt is quite small and they play a 10-person rotation where six of them haven’t played for Baylor before. Yet, they have been able to play a variety of defensive schemes and offensive styles, changing their lineups and tendencies from game to game and even from half to half as much as anyone in the country.