Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Coaching Experience

Of the 26 active NCAA Division I coaches with Final Four experience, 20 of them are bringing teams to this season's Big Dance. That's nearly a third of the 64 teams that will be alive starting tomorrow, and it's something to keep in mind when making your final bracket selections.

Let's start with guys like Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, the guys who coach the teams that happen to occupy the top three seeds in the Midwest. With a combined 23 Final Four appearances between those three, it's obvious that they've got the chops to bring Duke, Louisville and Michigan State back to the Final Four. If you're thinking that a team like Saint Louis or Creighton can make a run to emerge from this group of 16, keep in mind the heavyweights that will need to be slayed first.

There are a few first-round match-ups that will pit coaches with Final Four experience against each other. The 8-9 game in the South, North Carolina vs. Villanova, will feature Roy Williams' seven Final Fours against Jay Wright's 2009 appearance. The 6-11 match-up, UCLA and Minnesota, pits Ben Howland (3 Final Fours) against Tubby Smith (1, with Kentucky in 1998). Even the 7-10 game, with San Diego State (Steve Fisher) and Oklahoma (Lon Kruger) feature veterans who've been there before. In fact, 10 of the of the 16 coaches in the South have Final Four experience, when you add in VCU's Shaka Smart, Florida's Billy Donovan, Kansas's Bill Self and Georgetown's John Thompson III.

The West bracket, on the other hand, has just two coaches - Thad Matta and Bruce Weber- that have been to a Final Four. That reason alone is not why I picked Ohio State to head to Atlanta, but it definitely does present the Buckeyes with an advantage over the likes of Mark Few's Gonzaga team, Steve Alford and New Mexico, and Bo Ryan's Badgers. Bruce Weber has changed schools since his lone Final Four appearance with Illinois in 2005, but he still is going to make Kansas State a tough out this year.

Tom Crean and Jim Larranaga, the coaches for the top two seeds in the East bracket, have both been to Final Fours, but not with the schools they currently coach. Dwyane Wade helped lead Crean's Marquette squad to the Final Four in 2003, while it was Larranaga's George Mason squad that made an improbable run in 2006. If you're looking for a first-round upset, don't forget that Cal coach Mike Montgomery has been to a Final Four, albeit with Stanford. Two teams unlikely to be upset? Jim Boeheim's Syracuse Orangemen and Brad Stevens' Butler Bulldogs, as Boeheim (3 Final Fours) and Stevens (2) are very comfortable playing in March.

Of the 20 coaches in the tournament who have experienced the final weekend of madness before, I have three of their teams in my Final Four. I like Pitino and Louisville to prevail in the Midwest, Matta and Ohio State to emerge from the West, and Larranaga and Miami to be the last team standing from the East. The only newbie I have joining the fray is John Beilein and the Michigan Wolverines, who I think will withstand the coaching gauntlet that is the South bracket.

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