Take a look at the Hall of Fame college basketball coaches and the hundreds of wins they’ve accumulated, yet are preserved in bronze plaques and statutes for just a handful of particular wins that happened to come on neutral floor in March.
No matter how great their style of play, strategies, or recruiting skills were, take away their NCAA Tournaments, and nobody would’ve remembered them. Coaches then and now over the past 80-plus years have built entire programs around NCAA Tournament success, or watched their careers run into the ground after a series of first round exits or trips to the NIT.
Here’s a look at the coaches on the sidelines today who are separating themselves from the pack with their terrific March track records, exceeding expectations regardless of their team’s seed. When these coaches have coached 1-seeds, they’ve almost always advanced deep into the bracket, and when they’ve been double-digit bubble teams who barely squeaked in they’ve still found ways to pull off first round upsets and Sweet 16 runs. A few common traits in the five I settled on based on their tourney records over the past ten years:
- None of them have been upset by teams they definitively should’ve beaten in the first round.
- All of them have made surprise Elite Eight runs (or gone even further), and some have done them multiple times.
- None of these coaches have won a national championship—yet—perhaps hinting that not all great coaches need to overachieve every season but just every now and then.
The Oregon Ducks have quietly amassed quite an NCAA Tournament record over the past ten years under Dana Altman, getting out of the first round as 8, 5, 3, 12, and 7-seeds, made the Sweet Sixteen as 5, 3, 12, and 7-seeds, and reached their first Final Four since the very first NCAA Tournament in 1939 in 2017 as a 3-seed when they defeated Kansas in Kansas City. I don’t know about you, but coaching in the 5-12 game twice, once as the 5 and once as the 12, and not only winning both times but making the Sweet Sixteen both times is a tremendous accomplishment. Beware the Ducks in March, regardless of their seed.
In the past six NCAA Tournaments Musselman has gotten Nevada and Arkansas into the bracket three times each, with the Wolfpack earning a 12-seed, 7-seed, and another 7-seed and the Hogs earning a 3-seed, 4-seed, and 8-seed. Typically, this would result in one first round win during the Nevada years and 2 Sweet Sixteens with the Hogs for most coaches. Musselman has gone above and beyond that, knocking off 2-seed Cincinnati in 2018, making the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons with his ‘21 and ‘22 Razorbacks, and just recently knocking off the Kansas Jayhawks to reach the Sweet Sixteen in three straight seasons—all without being a 1 or 2. Counting that’s four Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights in just the last five tournaments. No wonder he celebrates so hard after the final horn.
Fear the Beard! Texas Tech went to the Elite Eight in 2018 and the title game in 2019 as 3-seeds in one of the most impressive two-year stretches for a non-blueblood team seen in recent years, and Beard also took Little Rock to the Round of 32 in 2016 as a 12-seed when they pulled a wild upset over Purdue. His one and only NCAA Tournament with Texas didn’t end in the first round either, as they won a 6-11 game, and if he gets Ole Miss to the Big Dance soon they’ll likely be a team no one wants to face in March.
Ever since Kelvin Sampson got the Houston Cougars back to the NCAAs in 2018 as a 6-seed, they’ve never lost a first round game, gone at least to the Sweet Sixteen in all but one of those tournaments, made one Elite Eight (and as a 5-seed!), and one Final Four. While they might not have made it as far as some thought this year, very few coaches have reached the second weekend regardless of seed quite like Sampson and his Cougars over the past decade.
Over the past ten years Gonzaga has definitively been the most difficult team to knock out of the tournament, with zero first round losses in all nine tourneys and only one Round of 32 loss way back in 2014 as an 8-seed. They’ve made eight straight Sweet Sixteens, four Elite Eights (and could make that five tonight!), and not only two Final Four trips but appearances in the title game both times. No other active coach has been able to dodge the 15-seeds and 7/10 or 8/9 2nd round predators like Few, even if they’ve won the national championship.
Bill Self, Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Scott Drew, Tony Bennett, and several others have seen a lot of success in the last decade, but not as consistently as these five overachievers, who have avoided March letdowns in almost every tournament they’ve played in, while the past several national champions have had to weather some up-and-downs in their tournament runs. One shot can make all the difference in March—you win or you go home, and regardless of seed these coaches have shown year after year that if there’s a will, there’s a way.