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Ness Notes: It's The Coaches, Stupid (Part 1)
by Larry Ness - 03/24/2010
Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign coined the phrase, "it's the economy, stupid!" I'll play off that and look at the Sweet 16 coaching matchups in this two-part column. While the world of professional sports is dominated by its best players, the college game typically finds that its schools (teams) are best-identified by its coaches. Accepting that premise, here's a look at the 16 head coaches who have led their respective teams to this year's Sweet 16. Part 1 includes the four coaching matchups on Thursday (listed in order of starting times) with part 2 (featuring the four matchups on Friday) coming late Thursday afternoon (important note: Edge does not equal a pointspread selection).
Brad Stevens (Butler) vs Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) at 7:05 ET: Stevens was a volunteer assistant and then earned an administrative job under Thad Matta at Butler. When Matta left after the 2000–2001 season, new coach Todd Lickliter promoted Stevens to a full-time assistant coach. Stevens was promoted to the head coaching job in 2007 when Lickliter moved on. Stevens is an incredible 86-14 (.860) as his third season at Butler winds down and leads the Bulldogs into this game with the nation's longest active winning streak (22 in a row). University of Iowa. He became the third-youngest head coach in NCAA Division I history to lead a team to 30 wins in a season in the 2008-08 season (his first at Indianapolis). On Feb. 26, 2010, Stevens broke the record set by Mark Few of Gonzaga in 2002 and tied by Mark Fox of Nevada in 2007 for the most wins in his first three years of coaching with his 82nd career victory on February 26, 2010 (extending it to 86 wins).
Stevens meets Jim Boeheim, who is in his 34th season leading the Orange. His 829 career wins rank second among active coaches (to Mike Krzyzewski) and this is his 27th NCAA appearance. It's his 15th Sweet 16 appearance and he's searching for his fourth Final 4 trip. Boeheim lost to Indiana (1987) and Kentucky (1996) in two championship games before "winning it all" vs Kansas in 2003. Butler's never won more than two games in any one NCAA appearance and Stevens is 3-2 in his five NCAA games. Meanwhile, Boeheim's 44 tourney wins rank him 7th all-time.
Lorenzo Romar (Washington) vs Bob Huggins (West Virginia) at 7:25 ET: Lorenzo Romar began his head coaching career Romar at Pepperdine University where he went 42-44 in three seasons. He moved to St Louis for three years (51-44), making his first NCAA appearance in his first season with the Billikens (2000). He moved to Washington to begin the 2002-03 season and this is the fifth time in eight seasons in which he's led the Huskies into the Big Dance. His Huskies earned a No. 1 seed in 2005 but lost in the Sweet 16, ending with 29 wins (tied a school single-season record). The 2006 team also advanced to the Sweet 16, making this Romar's third Sweet 16 appearance in five NCAA tries (he's 7-5 in NCAA games, including 7-4 with Washington).
Most people remember Bob Huggins for his years at Cincinnati but he began at Akron (five years), leading the Zips to their first-ever NCAA appearance in 1986. He came to Cincy to begin the 1989-90 season and after two NIT appearances, led the Bearcats to 14 consecutive NCAA trips, reaching the Final 4 in 1992 and advancing to the Elite 8 in both 1993 and '96. He was basically forced out at Cincy because of off-the-court issues and a year later landed in Manhattan, Kansas. He stayed just one year at Kansas St (23-12 and a NIT appearance) and locals were none to pleased when he left to return to his alma mater, West Virginia. He's led the Mountaineers to three straight NCAA trips since 2007-08 and is in the Sweet 16 for the second time. It's hard to argue with this guy's success, with 17 NCAA and three NIT appearances in his last 20 years. West Va is 29-6 this season, matching the most wins by a West Va team set by the Jerry West-led team of 1958-59 which lost 71-70 to Cal in the national championship game. It marks the 13th time in the last 20 years in which a Huggins coached team has won at least 25 games. Just twice in that span, has one of his teams failed to reach 20 wins (Cincy went 18-12 in '91 and 17-12 in '03).
Chris Mack (Xavier) vs Frank Martin (Kansas State) at 9:35 ET: Xavier's Mack reminds me a lot of Brad Stevens at Butler in that his first-ever head coaching job is at highly successful mid-major school and there's been no drop-off. He was named Director of Basketball Operations at Xavier under the late Skip Prosser and would follow Prosser to Wake Forest in 2001 as an assistant coach. He returned to Xavier in 2004 when Sean Miller took the top job, to work as his assistant. Miller stayed five years, the last four ending in NCAA appearances. Miller moved on to greener pastures at Arizona (or maybe not?) and Mack was hired as Xavier's head coach. He hasn't let the school miss a beat, as the Musketeers are 26-8 and in the Sweet 16 for the third straight season (only other school which can say that is Michigan St). More good news for Xavier fans is that it's reported that Mack has already landed an outstanding recruiting class for the 2010-11 season
Frank Martin was an assistant at Cincinnati for two years, one season each under Bob Huggins and Andy Kennedy. He joined Huggins at Kansas State in 2006 and when Huggins left for West Va after just one season was promoted to his first-ever head coaching job at the collegiate level. Helped by Michael Beasley, he led the Wildcats to 21 wins (including a first round NCAA win) in his first season (2007-08) and 22 wins last year but only a NIT trip. For someone with no track record, expectations have been high. Kansas St was a preseason top-25 team in his first season (2007-08) for the first time since 1972 and this year's team reached No. 6 in the AP poll on Feb 22, matching the school's highest-ever ranking since the final regular season poll of 1961-62. Martin led the Wildcats into their first conference title game since 1993 by reaching the Big 12 tourney final this year (first-ever Big 12 title-game appearance) and while KSU lost to Kansas (for the third time this year in that game), the Jayhawks are back home watching on TV while the Wildcats are one win away from an Elite 8 appearance and two wins away from the school's first Final 4 appearance since 1964. Pretty heady stuff for a third-year head coach.
Steve Donahue (Cornell) vs John Calipari (Kentucky) at 9:55 ET: Steve Donahue got his first head coaching job at Cornell, beginning in the 2000-01 season. He opened with six straight losing seasons, although his '05 and '06 teams went 8-6 in Ivy League play. The Big Red went 16-12 (9-5) in 2006-07, a prelude to its breakout season the next year. His 2007-08 team went 14-0 to win the Ivy League (22 wins were a new single-season record), giving Cornell its second league title and first since 1988. It ended a 19-year stretch in which only Penn and Princeton had taken the league crown. Cornell won the Ivy League again last year, the first time in 50 years that any team other than Penn or Princeton had won consecutive Ivy League titles in basketball. This year's team made it three straight Ivy crowns led by a group of eight seniors. Dominant wins over Temple (5-seed) and Wisconsin (4-seed) make the Big Red the Ivy's first Sweet 16 team since Penn went to the Final 4 in 1979. Cornell's 28 wins matches the most wins in a single season by an Ivy school, tying Penn in 1971 which was 28-0 before losing to Villanova (Howard Porter's team) in the East Regional Final. Win No. 29 would come over Kentucky and send shockwaves through not just Ithaca but the entire nation.
I've talked about Calipari more than a few ties this year (hard to miss him) and some of this is repetitive. Over his first 17 seasons (prior to this year, his first season at Kentucky), his U Mass and Memphis teams had made eleven NCAA tournament appearances, including reaching the Sweet 16 seven times, the Elite 8 five times and the Final 4 two times, including the championship game once (with Memphis in '08). He has coached five teams to the NIT, winning the NIT championship at Memphis in 2002 (his NCAA record was 21–9, .714 and he was 15-5, .750 in the NIT). He led Kentucky to a 32-2 record this year, earning a No. 1 seed, making him the only coach in NCAA history to do that with three different schools. He's added two more NCAA wins to his tally (now 23-9), a seventh Sweet 16 appearance and is one win away from a sixth Elite 8 and two wins away from a third Final 4. If that happens, he joins Rick Pitino as the only other coach to take three different schools to the Final 4.
Join me late Thursday afternoon for a look at Friday's head coaches.
Good luck, Larry