It happens every spring… well, make that the final week before every spring officially begins.
Coaches who haven't been able to break through in multiple years on the job enter a conference tournament needing at least one win if not more to nail down an elusive Dance invitation. The man in the photo above, Cuonzo Martin of Tennessee, heads the list of coaches with the most to prove in the coming days leading up to Selection Sunday evening. Which four coaches will join him?
5 – MIKE ANDERSON, ARKANSAS
If you said that Mike Anderson does not have as much to prove as a lot of other coaches in the United States, you would be making an entirely fair claim. Yes, Anderson led Missouri to an Elite Eight and UAB to a Sweet 16. He's an accomplished coach. You don't succeed at two different programs if you don't know what you're doing.
The reason why Anderson gets on this list is that the person he needs to prove himself to is…
wait for it…
This man gave up a great job at Missouri (oh, how Tiger fans would love to have him back, now that Frank Haith, also in the top half of the SEC Tournament bracket, is drowning in Columbia, Mo.) to come home. Anderson, mentored by Nolan Richardson, the greatest coach in the program's history (yes, greater than Eddie Sutton), gave Arkansas first place in his life and his heart. Failing in Fayetteville would represent a profound source of pain for Anderson. It would also leave his career in a tenuous and uncertain condition.
Anderson had seemingly found a way to turn the corner at Arkansas when — following the Nolan Richardson pathway — he won in Rupp Arena a few weeks ago. Pigs flew up and down the court the following week, destroying Georgia and Ole Miss while looking like a reborn juggernaut. An NCAA tournament appearance — seemingly so remote for most of the season — suddenly seemed more likely than not.
Then, however, the Hogs came undone in a brutal loss at Alabama that recalled all of their road woes over the past three seasons under Anderson.
This trip to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament carries — if not a sense of finality — a big burden of responsibility for the Razorbacks. If they can't get to the NCAA tournament, their offseason will be miserable. Under this dark and depressing scenario, maybe the Hogs would be able to use such a disappointment as a rallying cry. The program could finally hit its stride next season.
But if it didn't?
Anderson's tenure in Fayetteville would be imperiled a year from now.
You're darn right he has something to prove, despite his rich successes at two other coaching stops.
4 – FRANK HAITH, MISSOURI
The man who replaced Anderson at Missouri is in even greater trouble than Anderson, though no, he's not going to be fired after this season.
It's not surprising at all that a majority of the coaches on this list hail from the SEC, a league that could be referred to as "Underachievement Alley." Haith might be the biggest underachiever of the bunch, a man who has done less than any of his colleagues with more of a basketball tradition. (John Calipari's last two seasons have outdone Haith on this scale, but of course, Cal won the 2012 national title and made the 2011 Final Four with a very flawed and young roster. His successes clearly outweigh his failures.) If Missouri doesn't at least make the SEC final on Sunday, the Tigers are likely bound for the NIT. They might have to win the SEC Tournament to make the field of 68. At the very least, if Haith leaves Atlanta without beating Florida in the quarterfinals on Friday, there will be nothing encouraging to point to when the following season opens in November.
3 – TOM CREAN, INDIANA
Remember when Indiana was a national title co-favorite with Louisville? Remember when Crean had taken the rubble of the Indiana program in the aftermath of Kelvin Sampson's destructive phone dialing and transformed it into a number one seed?
That process, that journey, that larger story, seems as though it occurred five years ago.
Indiana fans are at their wits' end with Crean. They can't stand his inability to deal with zone defenses. They can't stand his substitution patterns. What once seemed like a burgeoning empire is now a career under siege.
Better do something special in Indianapolis, Tom.
2 – RICE (PICK ONE) – UNLV OR BOISE STATE
UNLV and Boise State have spectacularly underachieved this season. Vegas coach Dave Rice and Boise coach Leon Rice were supposed to have returned to the NCAA tournament this season. Leon Rice was viewed as a rising star in the profession 51 weeks ago. Both men need to get an autobid by winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament. A miserable four and a half months could be washed away with one sweet run in Las Vegas.
1 – CUONZO MARTIN, TENNESSEE
Martin should stay on for at least one more season. However, Tennessee's performance in the SEC Tournament — at the very least, its performance against Arkansas in a likely quarterfinal — will probably determine whether or not the Vols make the NCAAs. If Tennessee falls short, the 2014-2015 campaign will be played in the shadow of the ghost of Bruce Pearl.
Quoting the great Hubie Brown, "You cannot have that," Cuonzo.