Who has done the best coaching job in D3 men's basketball this year? There are some really great options. Is it one of the undefeated guys, like Benedictine's Keith Bunkenberg? Is it boy-wonder Zach Filzen, or the Caltech coach who has increased his team's conference win total six fold in two years? Maybe it's Gary Grzeck, who guided St. Norbert through three straight undefeated conference campaigns, or someone else?
You decide. The poll closes Friday at noon Pacific.
Here are some nominees:
Keith Bunkenberg, Benedictine
Keith Bunkenberg's Benedictine Eagles are 24-0, breaking the single-season program record for wins set by the 1991 team with one game left in the regular season. The team is getting strong play from several different players, rather than just one superstar. Along with Lancaster Bible, the Eagles are one of just two unbeaten teams in the nation in D3.
The record this year at Benedictine – which is in the Chicago suburb of Lisle – is even more impressive considering last year's team was 18-9 and lost five games in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference. The Eagles are No. 1 in the NCAA Central Region rankings, and BR-2 according to BennettRank.
Chris Graves, Birmingham Southern
It's been a turnaround season for fifth year coach Graves' Birmingham Southern Panthers, who have rolled through the Southern Athletic Association undefeated this year. They're on a 13-game winning streak as they head into the SAA tournament, where they'll be the top seed. This is all coming off an 11-loss season last year in which the Panthers finished barely over .500 at 8-7 in league play.
John Krikorian, Christopher Newport
After losing five Capital Athletic Conference games and finishing third in the league last season, Christopher Newport has gone through the league undefeated, currently sitting at 16-0 in conference play, and 22-1 overall, a major improvement over last year's eight-loss team.
Krikorian's Captains are just two seasons removed from a sub-20-win season. Krikorian's first year at the helm, back in 2010-2011, the Captains went 18-9 overall. Then in 2013-14, their first in the CAC, they finished 9-7 in-conference. Krikorian has guided the program through a period of steady improvement.
Gary Grzesk, St. Norbert
Usually, when a team has been one of the best in the nation for several years, the coach isn't considered for an award. It's all about expectations – there's nothing extraordinary about taking a good team and keeping them good. But St. Norbert's Gary Grzesk deserves some recognition.
He's guided his team thorugh an amazing win streak in the Midwest Conference even though every time the Green Knights take the court they get their opponent's best game. Every Midwest team wants to be the one that ends St. Norbert's now 60-plus-game conference win streak. None of them managed to do it.
The Green Knights managed to put together an unbeaten run in the MWC for a third straight year despite losing last season's conference player of the year, Andrew Schwoerer, who was not only the team's leading scorer with 16.7 ppg (and biggest scorer in two decades), but also its leading rebounder. This week the Green Knights are 20-2 and 17-0 in the conference. St. Norbert this week was No. 3 in the NCAA's Central Region rankings.
Zach Filzen, Lancaster Bible
How many head basketball coaches can say they took their team to an undefeated season in year one? Well, if Lancaster Bible's next three games go like the first 22 did, at least one of them. Zach Filzen has had one heck of a coaching debut.
Filzen is just 26 years old, but has been around coaching his whole life – his mom, Tammy Filzen, was one of the most successful coaches in college basketball in Minnesota, where she won 226 games at Carleton from 1997-2010.
"Even though I'm on the younger side, I've been watching coaches plan practice, execute game plans and mentor student-athletes for almost 20 years," Filzen said when he was hired. "My mom was a great teacher of the game and I learned a lot from her."
Filzen, who holds the top two spots on the all-time 3-pointers made in a season list at the University of Buffalo, started his career as an assistant at Northwestern (Minn.) before taking over at Lancaster Bible before this season. He was brought in with the hope that he might help LBC win its first North Eastern Athletic Conference Championship and take the team to its first NCAA D3 tournament – probably not with the hope that he'd lead the team to an undefeated season in his first year. Last year's team was very good – a program-best 28-3 overall and 17-1 in-conference – but for a new coach, especially one with no head coaching experience, to come in and improve on what was already a stellar record is pretty amazing.
Oliver Eslinger, Caltech
On the surface, the coach of a 8-14 squad (6-7 in conference play) doesn't exactly seem like Coach of the Year material. But Oliver Eslinger's Caltech squad is near .500 in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play after years of struggle in which the team often went winless in the league. Last year, the Beavers won just three conference games, so they've doubled that already this season. In the 25 years prior, they won exactly one conference game, so you could say they're trending in the right direction. Eslinger says his goal is to compete for conference championships, and the national title. Slow and steady wins the race, but he and his Beavers are on their way.
Jamie Benton, Johnson & Wales
Johnson & Wales is 21-2 overall this year and 15-1 in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, having just lost to snap a school-record 21 game win streak. While Benton's Wildcats have improved their record only modestly from last year's 22-6 squad – this year's team has been dominant, winning most of its games by hugely lopsided margins. The team leads the nation in scoring margin, with an average winning margin of 27.1 points. The Wildcats are a defensive juggernaut – almost always a sign of good coaching – giving up just 65 points a game, putting them among the top defenses in the nation. Benton, who played at Boston College, is in his 12th season at the helm in Providence and is the only coach ever to lead JWU to a win in the NCAA tournament.
Mike Moran, John Carroll
Mike Moran's John Carroll team was a respectable 20-7 overall and 15-3 conference play last season, but this year the team won 21 games before it lost. JCU has dropped its last two and is now 21-2 and 14-2 in the conference, but the Blue Streaks look likely to return to the NCAA tournament for a second straight year after going last year for the first time since 2010. Moran is in his 24th season at John Carroll and has one Final Four appearance on his resume, back in 2004. JCU was No. 1 this week in the NCAA's Great Lakes Regional rankings.