Coaches You Don't Want to Bet Against in March Madness
In all of its splendor, March Madness is upon us.
While the players on the court ultimately have the most to say in the outcomes of the many games that will be played over the next 21 days, coaches will have their waving hands in the middle of the daily fray, too.
There are some coaches whom opposing teams just don't want to see come NCAA tournament time. Several are household names. Others, maybe not so much just yet.
Whether it's getting the most out of their players, expertly working the officials, setting up a specialty defense or designing precisely the right play late in a tight game, these are the guys who will make the biggest differences in helping their teams advance deep into the tournament.
Mark Few, Gonzaga
Mark Few has guided little ol' Gonzaga to its 16th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, no small feat in and of itself for the tiny school out of Spokane, Wash. Few has been in the coach's seat for 15 of the 16 NCAA trips.
To put it in perspective, that ties the Zags with Wisconsin for the eighth-best streak in NCAA tourney history. The only seven schools with longer consecutive-appearance streaks have pretty good hoops backgrounds and go by the names of North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, Duke, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan State.
And the only schools with longer active NCAA runs are Kansas (25 in a row this year), Duke (19) and Michigan State (17).
Many like to point out that Gonzaga plays in the weak West Coast Conference, that it is less a Cinderella NCAA story these days than it is overrated. But the fact is that Few does more with less than many coaches out there, and the Zags have won at least one game in each of the last five tournaments.
The only other schools that have accomplished that are Kansas, Syracuse and Wisconsin.
John Calipari, Kentucky
Kentucky's John Calipari is no doubt a polarizing figure in college basketball.
Love him or hate him, it is difficult to argue against the case that he's a talented coach who squeezes the most out of his players and routinely has them primed for tournament time. This year is no exception, as the Wildcats struggled early but came on late and are likely to be a factor in the NCAA tournament.
Calipari is one of only two coaches to lead three different schools to a Final Four, having done it with Massachusetts in 1996, Memphis in 2008 and Kentucky in both 2011 and 2012, with the Wildcats winning the national championship the second time around.
(It's worth noting that the NCAA later vacated both the Massachusetts and Memphis appearances because of violations, including one in which an incoming freshman allegedly had another person take his SAT exam.)
There is some merit to the argument that perhaps Calipari is a better recruiter—when he does it by the rules—than a coach, but there is no question that he knows how to juggle the egos of the talented players he recruits better than most.
These days, that's half the battle in coaching at any level.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Until Wichita State's incredible run to the Final Four last season, when the Shockers truly shocked the nation before a narrow loss to eventual national champion Louisville in the semifinals, few folks knew of Gregg Marshall.
But if they had done their hoops homework, they would have known that Coach Marshall was no stranger to the NCAA tournament even before he arrived at Wichita State. As coach at Winthrop, Marshall won 70 percent of his games—194 wins against 83 losses—and won the Big South tournament seven times in nine years to punch an NCAA tournament ticket each time.
As coach of No. 15 seed Winthrop in 2006, Marshall nearly orchestrated an upset of No. 2 seed Tennessee. The next year, with Winthrop as a No. 11 seed, Marshall became the first Big South coach to win a first-round NCAA tournament game when he led an upset of sixth-seeded Notre Dame.
All of which led up to last year's magical run for Wichita State under Marshall, who left Winthrop to take the Shockers job following that 2007 season.
Now Marshall is coaching a No. 1 seed, and everyone is gunning for the 34-0 Shockers in a tough Midwest Regional bracket. It won't be easy going, but he'll have his guys ready.
Bill Self, Kansas
In some ways, Bill Self has had to coach more—or at least differently—this season than in any of his previous 10 years at Kansas.
Reporter Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star put it best, writing in a March 15 article:
This group has surprised him, good and bad. The Jayhawks have lost nine games before the NCAA tournament, the most by any of his KU teams. They have two of the most talented players Self has ever coached (in freshman guard Andrew Wiggins and sophomore forward Perry Ellis), but not the sort of calloused toughness and self-guidance that he sees as the structure of the great teams that have become the standard of Kansas.
The point is that Self has had to coach freshman phenom Wiggins differently than almost every player he's had in the past.
A sign of a good coach is one who can adjust to his players, figuring out how to maximize and play to their strengths while minimizing and hopefully improving upon their weaknesses. That allows individual players, and thus the entire team, to improve as the year progresses.
Self has done that this season. And by the way, he owns a 35-14 career record in the NCAA tournament that includes leading the Jayhawks to the 2008 national title.
Shaka Smart, VCU
Shaka Smart of VCU remains one of the best young basketball coaches in the nation.
The 36-year-old believes the aggressive defensive style favored by his teams is sure to wreak "havoc" on opposing teams, according to the New York Times' Tim Rohan.
The Rams certainly did that in the 2011 NCAA tournament, when their selection as an at-large team was roundly criticized. Even though being one of the last four teams invited meant an extra play-in game, Smart's team went on to beat in succession Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and finally Kansas—the Southwest Region's No. 1 seed that year—to become only the second No. 11 seed in history to reach the Final Four.
Smart is obviously no dummy. In fact, he's brilliant at recruiting overlooked gems and getting them to buy into his frenetic defensive philosophy, which keeps VCU in games against teams that frequently have more size and talent this time of the year.
Billy Donovan, Florida
It's hard to believe that this is Donovan's 18th year as coach at Florida. So, in truth, Billy the Kid is a kid no more.
You need to have a little age on you to accomplish all that Donovan has, including capturing the national title in 2006 and 2007. His Gators also made the championship game in 2000.
Donovan owns 31 NCAA tourney victories. His Gators, who enter this year's extravaganza ranked No. 1 in the nation and as the No. 1 seed in the South Region, are a legitimate threat to go all the way.
It used to be that you could say Billy the Kid was so close to his players in age that he simply related to them better than other coaches. Now that he's 48 years old, let's just say that he can flat-out coach in all aspects of the game.
Roy Williams, North Carolina
There are those who love to insist that North Carolina coach Roy Williams is overrated.
When you coach at a perennial powerhouse like Williams has throughout his career—first Kansas, then UNC—and don't win the national championship every single year, the criticism, while laughable to those in the know, is going to come.
But the numbers don't lie.
Over the years, Williams has coached his teams to seven Final Fours and is one of only two coaches (Louisville's Rick Pitino being the other) to have led two different programs to at least three Final Fours each.
From 1990 to 2009, Williams also led his Kansas and North Carolina teams to 20 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (second all time) and earned at least one victory in each appearance to establish the longest such streak in tournament history.
This year, he has arguably pulled off one of the finest coaching jobs of his storied career, rallying the Tar Heels from a 1-4 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference to finish 23-9 and establish themselves as a dark-horse contender who could get on a roll at just the right time.
Rick Pitino, Louisville
Look out, folks.
Louisville is not only the defending national champion and has won 12 of its last 13 games, but the NCAA selection committee has ticked off coach Rick Pitino by making the Cardinals a No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region. Pitino had lobbied for a No. 1 seed for the Cardinals, who are ranked fifth in the nation, after they beat Connecticut to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament.
"I'm very impressed with our guys," Pitino told The Associated Press (via Fox Sports). "What they've done to win a regular season, conference tournament the way we have done it, in the fashion we have done it fits the eye test."
For Pitino, a master psychologist, this is just the type of slight that he can and will use to motivate his players. There is a reason Pitino is the only men's coach in NCAA history to legally lead three different programs to Final Four appearances, having accomplished it with Providence, Kentucky and Louisville. (John Calipari also did it but later had two of those appearances vacated by the NCAA.)
Pitino is one of only four coaches to take his teams to the Final Four in four different decades, with the others being Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. So his credentials speak for themselves. Now he's poised to let what others have said about his current team's season work in his favor.
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
With four national championships on his NCAA resume, Coach K doesn't have any explaining to do as to why he's included on this exclusive list.
Duke has been to 11 Final Fours under Krzyzewski. In winning back-to-back national titles in 1991-92, Krzyzewski became the first coach since UCLA's John Wooden to accomplish that feat.
While his critics have plenty of fodder when they argue that he appears to be an incessant whiner when working officials during games, the fact of the matter is that no coach works them more tirelessly or effectively. Plus he is intensely loyal to his players, something all coaches profess to be but few actually are when critiquing them publicly or even privately.
That may be Coach K's greatest attribute in this new day and age, when oftentimes he only has a star player, such as current freshman sensation Jabari Parker, for one year. He's able to get his players to buy in to everything he asks of them very quickly and completely.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Since coming to Michigan State as coach in 1995, Tom Izzo has guided his team to nine Sweet 16 appearances, seven Elite Eights and six Final Fours while winning the national title in 2000.
Critics may argue that Izzo should have captured more than one crown by now, but this year, after guiding the Spartans to the Big Ten tournament championship, he appears to be poised to make another serious run at it.
This has been one of Izzo's better coaching jobs overall. His team was ranked No. 1 in the nation early before suffering through a slump that threatened to short-circuit the season. Instead, Izzo rallied his players and now they're playing some of the best basketball they've played all year.
That seems to be the pattern with Izzo. When it counts the most, he has his team playing its best. There is no greater compliment that can be paid to a coach operating in the pressure-packed bubble that is the NCAA tournament.