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May 12, 2011
March Masters
Best Tournament Coaches of the Last Five Years

by John Gasaway


Last week I looked at which major-conference head coaches have attained the best per-possession results in conference play over the past five seasons. We saw that Kansas and Bill Self have dominated the rest of the Big 12 in a way that no other major-conference program has been able to match in recent years.

That's fine, but a strong regular-season performance isn't the only thing that a fan wants to see from his or her team. Ask Connecticut fans. Jim Calhoun's team suffered through a mediocre 9-9 season in Big East play this year. Then again I think it's fair to say the Huskies had per-possession results in conference play a pretty good NCAA tournament. There's more to college basketball than just the regular season.

So today I want to salute the head coaches who have performed the best when the lights are brightest: in the NCAA tournament. Let's start with the Performance Against Seed Expectation (PASE) measure developed a few years ago by Pete Tiernan.

PASE compares how well a team does in the tournament with how well identically-seeded teams have done in the past. For example, a No. 1 seed will, on average, win slightly more than three tournament games. So this year when No. 1 seed Kansas won three games before losing to Virginia Commonwealth, the Jayhawks came up a fraction of a win short of their "expectation."

Now, let's see how well coaches have done in comparison to what would be expected based on the tournament seeds they've received. Bear in mind we're interested only in the past five tournaments. Additionally, I've placed an equally arbitrary limit on this list. I've restricted admission to coaches who have made more than one appearance in the NCAA tournament in the past five seasons. (Sorry, Shaka Smart -- but that +3.5 is a very impressive start.)

So without further ado, here are the coaches who have won more NCAA tournament games than they "should" have based on their seeds the past five years.

Outperforming March expections
NCAA tournament wins above expectation (defined by PASE), 2007-11
(Parentheses indicate the coach is no longer with that team)

                                  Wins above expectation
1.  Brad Stevens, Butler                   7.7
2.  Tom Izzo, Michigan State               6.0
3.  Sean Miller, Xavier/Arizona            3.9
4.  John Calipari, Memphis/Kentucky        3.9
5.  Roy Williams, North Carolina           3.5
6.  Jim Calhoun, Connecticut               3.3
7.  Billy Donovan, Florida                 2.3
8.  Ben Howland, UCLA                      2.1
9.  Steve Donahue, (Cornell)               1.3
10. Bob Huggins, West Virginia             1.3
11. Jay Wright, Villanova                  1.1
12. Lorenzo Romar, Washington              1.1
13. Mike Anderson, (Missouri)              1.1
14. Bruce Pearl, (Tennessee)               1.0
15. Frank Martin, Kansas State             0.9
16. Fran McCaffery, (Siena)                0.9
17. Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's            0.7
18. Chris Mooney, Richmond                 0.7
19. John Beilein, Michigan                 0.7
20. Tim Floyd, (USC)                       0.5

Well, I'll be. It turns out Brad Stevens and Tom Izzo have been very successful in the NCAA tournament the past few years. Who knew?

This list gets the conversation started, certainly, but you'll forgive me if I add some further thoughts to what is unavoidably a highly subjective exercise. After all, which is more impressive? Making the Final Four as a low seed, or winning the national championship as a high seed? That is in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, missing from this list entirely are two coaches who have won national championships in the past five years: Bill Self (Kansas, 2008), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke, 2010). Would you, as a fan, take a bargain where you get a national championship in exchange for some early exits in other years? I suspect the answer for many of us would be yes. (Meaning I would take it in a heartbeat. I want that feeling just once. Not all of us went to North Carolina or Connecticut.)

Based on subjective preferences like that, I've come up with my own ranking of the top postseason coaches of the last five years. Enjoy:

1. Tom Izzo
Michigan State fell in the round of 64 this year (to UCLA), but that's life in a single-elimination setting. Even with that loss, Izzo is still topped only by Brad Stevens (quickly becoming "The Amazing Brad Stevens") in terms of tournament wins above expectation over the last five years. Izzo, the man who's guided his team to six Final Fours (think about that for a minute) deserves his place at the top of this list.

2. Roy Williams
What's most impressive about Williams' presence on the list above is that, of course, his North Carolina teams have received incredibly high seeds (not counting their one-year absence from the tournament in 2010). With high seeds come high expectations, yet the Tar Heels have still managed to exceed what they "should" do. In their last four tournament appearances UNC had made the Elite Eight every time. That's incredible.

3. Brad Stevens
There was a time when Stevens was subject to the same laws of March gravity as regular human coaches. After all, at the risk of shocking the children, it's true that Butler went 0-1 in the 2009 NCAA tournament, losing in the round of 64 to LSU. But that's ancient history now. To take a Horizon League team to two consecutive national championship games is an astonishing feat. Yes, it took some close wins to get the Bulldogs that far in both 2010 and 2011, but faulting a No. 8 seed for not beating a No. 1 seed (Pitt) by a large "enough" margin rather misses the point. It's been an amazing run by Stevens.

4. John Calipari
The man's been to every Sweet 16 over the past five years. In fact, though this article's supposed to be about those five years only, Calipari's now appeared in six consecutive Sweet 16s. Enough said.

5. Sean Miller
Miller's only misfortune has been that he's piled up the March while Stevens has been busy being Stevens. In a more normal moment our attention would be riveted on Miller, who regularly guided Xavier to the second weekend before taking Arizona to the last second of an Elite Eight game against eventual champion Connecticut this year.

Put it this way: I'd be perfectly happy letting any of the above coach my team in March. And, who knows, maybe next year I'll find room for Shaka Smart on this list. Anyway, I'll be watching.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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