NCAA Final Four: Handicapping the Coaches
by Trevor Whenham - 3/29/2012
There isn’t a whole lot to complain about with the Final Four this year. We have strong teams with great players and the best rivalry storyline we have seen at this point in years.
If you were looking to be critical, though, one thing you absolutely couldn’t knock is the caliber of the coaching. This group of four head coaches is so strong that Thad Matta looks like the outsider of the group in terms of accomplishments, and all he’s done is win tournament games with three teams, make the tournament in 10 of 12 years as a coach, and take Ohio State to the championship game in 2007.
It’s an incredible group. Let’s look at each of the four from a college basketball handicapping perspective:
John Calipari, Kentucky
Calipari is indisputably the best coach in the country to have never won a NCAA Championship. That lack of hardware haunts him, though, and is a huge missing piece from an otherwise sparkling legacy.
He has taken all three teams he has coached to the Final Four, and has only been knocked out of the tournament without a win once in 14 appearances — back in 2003 in his first tournament appearance with Memphis.
This is his fourth Final Four appearance, but his 2008 appearance in the Championship Game with Memphis represents his only Final Four win. He has by far the most talented team here, but his other two Kentucky squads have been loaded, too, and neither won a Final Four game.
What stands out this year, though, is that Calipari has this team more dialed in than he has ever before. The defensive discipline he has the team playing with would be remarkable for a group of seniors. The fact that his squad is loaded with freshmen makes it hard to believe, and proves just how much coaching skill Coach Cal has.
Rick Pitino, Louisville
Pitino is a legend — there is no way around that. This is the third team that he has taken to the Final Four, and the fourth decade in which he has appeared on the final weekend. He has a championship in 1996 with Kentucky, finished runner-up in 1997, and has been in the Final Four six teams. He’s the esteemed veteran of this group.
The most remarkable Pitino stat is that he has taken a team to the Sweet 16 10 times, and he has never lost. When he has a good team he knows how to get them ready.
Over the last couple of years Pitino looked like he had lost some spark. He had lost in the first round two years in a row, and had a disappointing regular season this year.
Something changed at the start of the Big East Tournament, though. He’s more relaxed than ever — he has even smiled in games — and he seems to be having fun.
He’s the best coach in the country at in-game adjustments, he is able to pay with nothing to lose because no one expects him to win and his opponent has all the pressure in the world. Things couldn’t be better for Pitino right now, and there isn’t a coach better suited for his position.
Bill Self, Kansas
Self doesn’t quite get mentioned in the same breath as the true coaching legends like Roy Williams or Coach K. He should, though.
He’s riding an incredible streak of 14 straight years in the NCAA Tournament — a streak that spreads over three schools. He has won at least one tournament game in 12 of those 14 years, and has taken all three schools — Tulsa, Illinois, and Kansas — at least to the Elite Eight. This is the fifth time in just nine years that he has at least made the Elite Eight with Kansas, and he turned the 2008 appearance into a National Championship.
If there is a knock on him it is that even with his Elite Eight win this year he is still just 4-5 in the last three games of the tournament. Another championship win here would make that record look better and really secure his legacy, but at this point his performance in the big games isn’t quite as stellar as you might expect. In other words, though Self is unquestionably a great coach but betting against him doesn’t have to scare you at this point.
Thad Matta, Ohio State
Matta doesn’t quite have the record that Self has posted, but it is still impressive — he has made the tournament 10 times in 12 years as a coach, and he has only lost in the first round once over that stretch. He doesn’t have a win yet, but he was a runner-up with Ohio State in 2007, and took Xavier to the Elite Eight. He’s 3-2 in the last half of the tournament, and won his only FInal Four game, so he’s got a better record — though with a smaller sample size — than Self.
In the last three years he has won the Big Ten Tournament twice and finished second this year, so he knows how to get the most out of his team when it matters most. Matta is easy to trust here, and his comparative inexperience is far from a concern.
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