The first weekend of the NCAA tournament is over. The 68-team field has shedded 52 teams to get to the Sweet 16.
The severe extent to which the Big Dance reduces its pool of participants in four days makes this Monday the best time to tackle a number of college basketball topics. At the top of the list is this thorny question of how we should assess coaches based on March performance, in relationship to regular season performance. With 52 coaches being eliminated — some of them as leaders of highly-seeded teams — now is the time to wrestle with this question. Next Monday, we’ll be busy reassessing the legacies of the coaches who either made or just missed the Final Four, a more narrow point of focus.
At the outset, let it be said that some coaches clearly expose themselves as “not ready for prime time,” and that their failures — in March but also in the regular season — mark them as a cut below their peers. Think of Travis Ford after his Oklahoma State team couldn’t at least win one game against one of the less imposing Gonzaga teams of Mark Few’s tenure. It’s now reasonable (and not intellectually sloppy or hasty) to say that Ford is a worse coach than Scott Drew, Bruce Weber, and Rick Barnes, three members of the Big 12’s “oft-questioned club.”
Ford is an easy call, though… at least at this point in time. His March record exists in tandem with the fact that his teams have not acquired high seeds through strong regular season performances. When a coach acquires that kind of portfolio, he’s an easy one to downgrade. That’s not complicated or controversial.
When you get to the coaches who do extremely well in the regular season but then don’t do as well in March, that’s when it becomes a lot more difficult to assess coaches. The most important and obvious reason why you don’t want to render overly harsh verdicts here is that if a man turns in four months of excellence followed by one bad day when the lights are on and the whole nation is watching, it’s not fair to that coach — as a craftsman and as a human being — to paint him negatively. The great coaches rightly earn their place in the pantheon by excelling at this time of year, but the coaches who come up short should not be reflexively dismissed as losers. Would you want to be judged by how you performed on one day, rather than on four months?
Let’s cut to the chase and explore why coaches often receive unfair treatment based on March losses.
5 – SPECIAL REGULAR SEASON ACHIEVEMENTS ARE FORGOTTEN OR IGNORED
It seems more than reasonable to posit that if a coach does something special within the context of regular season performance, he should not receive as much criticism in March. Lon Kruger of Oklahoma absorbed a loss as a 5 seed in this year’s round of 64 last Thursday. His Sooners — because of missed free throws in the final minute; a bad foul by Isaiah Cousins; and then a very tough (contested) three-point make by North Dakota State’s Lawrence Alexander — squandered a late lead and lost in overtime to the 12th-seeded Bison.
Kruger did make the Final Four at Florida in 1994, but for the most part, his March record has not been that impressive. Kruger has made the second weekend of the NCAAs (Sweet 16 or better) only three times, the Elite Eight only twice. He’s been in this profession a long time, so he has certainly opened himself up to criticism. Yet, Kruger has done something no other man has ever managed to achieve: He’s led five schools to the NCAA tournament (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, and Oklahoma). Nine other men have led four schools to the Big Dance.
Kruger’s ability to whip programs into shape puts him a cut above many of his peers, and he took a team with “NIT” written all over it to a 5 seed in the NCAAs. It’s something he knows how to do, even if the Sweet 16 has been uncomfortably elusive over time. If Kruger is simplistically viewed as a bum because he can’t win in March, well, that’s just not a fair verdict.
4 – TALENT
Would anyone say that Bo Ryan (pictured in the cover photo above) does less with more? Of course not. One of the essential tasks at the core of coaching — what it means to be a good coach — is to get the most out of the talent at one’s disposal. Few men have done more with less over the past decade-plus than Ryan. If his tournament resume had been forged with John Calipari-level recruits, yes, we could (and would) view Ryan much more dimly as a coach. What he’s done at Wisconsin is nothing short of outstanding. He’s never finished worse than fourth in any Big Ten season since he came to Madison.
He’s an incredibly good coach, and a loss in the West Regional this week (if it happens; it might not…) won’t change that reality. Moreover, it shouldn’t.
3 – THE RPI
Like it or not (I loathe it…), the RPI is one of the major tools the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee uses to seed and bracket the NCAA tournament. There has to be a better vehicle for tournament seeding (that’s another discussion for another day), but since the RPI is still used, it will create distortions.
The Massachusetts Minutemen occupied the RPI top 20 for much of the season. They were seeded sixth. They looked like a 13 seed in the process of getting crushed by Tennessee, a First Four team that barely snuck into the field of 68. Virginia Commonwealth was also in the top 20 of the RPI alongside UMass in early March. The Rams might have deserved to beat Stephen F. Austin on Friday (dubious foul call, cough), but they nevertheless failed to put that game away when they had the chance and are now sitting at home.
Kentucky was another RPI king during the season, but it was seeded eighth, and while you can perhaps say that Kentucky should have been seeded seventh — that’s an allowable argument — the Wildcats really had no claim to a sixth seed or higher. At any rate, Kentucky’s high RPI despite one and only one win of consequence (Louisville, maybe Tennessee if you’re feeling generous) shows that in some instances, RPI and seeding aren’t strongly correlated.
When you get these and other kinds of distortions between seedings and talent, between resumes and a team’s ceiling of potential, you’re going to get all sorts of tournament results in which much lower seeds win and much higher seeds lose, as we’ve seen in this tournament’s first weekend.
Therefore, should Derek Kellogg and Shaka Smart be knocked for their losses, or were their teams seeded (with help from the RPI) in ways that made their losses appear far worse than they actually were? This is how coaches can be unfairly pounced upon in March.
2 – RESUMES
The RPI is not a good basis for seeding a team. A resume is a good basis for seeding a team, but even then, reasonable minds will differ in terms of judging what a good resume looks like (and should look like). Some will say that a portfolio with a few solid wins and no bad losses is better than one with several great wins but even more awful losses. Others will stand on the opposite side of that philosophical divide.
Regardless of where you situate yourself within this kind of discussion, though, the larger point is that a resume is a measure of past-tense achievement, not present- or future-tense capability. Villanova unquestionably earned a 2 seed, whereas Louisville and Michigan State — though underseeded at 4 — did own inferior resumes (and should have been seeded third).
Fans often conflate a resume with raw potential, thereby giving the so-called “eye test” more weight than a 30-game body of work. Seedings are not the product of eye tests — write that on a blackboard 100 times and make it your mantra. If seedings were based on the eye test, Louisville and Michigan State would have been 1 seeds, and 30 games would have been ignored. That’s not how the system works, though, and in this case, it’s not how it should ever work. Confusion about this point leads the coaches of teams such as Villanova (Jay Wright) to be dumped on after a loss such as the one the Wildcats suffered to a team seeded five notches lower (Connecticut) on Saturday.
1 – THE GEORGETOWN EFFECT
As you can see, these various list-items are closely connected. Put together, they create what can reasonably be called “The Georgetown Effect.” Teams win and overachieve over the course of four months, but the very dynamics that cut in their favor from November through February work against them in March, leading highly visible sportswriters at high-end publications to say ridiculously stupid and shortsighted things.
Georgetown hasn’t just lost its NCAA tournament games since 2008. The Hoyas were typically run out of the gym — Davidson and Steph Curry did this in 2008. Georgetown was a 2 seed. Ohio did this in 2010. Georgetown was a 3 seed. Florida Gulf Coast might have been a 15 seed last year, but it played above the rim and left no question as to which team was more able to put the ball into the basket. Georgetown might have been the 2 seed in that matchup, but FGCU carried the big stick.
We see this in NCAA tournaments, everyone, and if you really haven’t stopped to grasp it, you need to do so right now: There are plenty of 2 or 3 seeds which, when placed against a 6, a 7, or even a 10 or 11, are not the more potent teams. Skeptical? It’s not that hard to understand.
No, the 2 won’t typically be less talented than the 7 or even the 10, but in a sport played by 19- and 20-year-olds, it will often be the case that the 7 or the 10 seed is that underachieving high major which — having young male human beings on it — just doesn’t mesh. This player can’t handle the pressure, that player has a conflict with the coach, and what could have been a 2-seed-level season/resume becomes something much more pedestrian.
Yet, that team — which could have been a 2 seed over the course of 30 games — can still play like a 2 seed in two or three tournament games. Stanford has done this. Connecticut has done this. Oregon nearly did it.
Villanova was a 2 seed in resume, but a much lower seed in terms of talent. Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin teams have been seeded 2 through 4 and been flatly outgunned in March losses. Lon Kruger teams have looked this way as 4 or 5 seeds on multiple occasions against lower-seeded foes. JT3’s Georgetown teams embody this reality more than any others over the past six years.
Here’s the heart of this whole discussion: Coaches will get so much out of their players during the season that they earn high seeds, outperforming preseason expectations. Yet, when NCAA tournament finality enters the picture, the urgency felt by lower seeds to make up for four months of disappointment (or injury setbacks, or various other negative plot twists) leads them to play with the passion that had been absent in December and January.
When you try to assess coaches, be sure to identify if they:
A) Overachieve during the regular season.
B) Lose to a clearly less talented team in the postseason.
If a coach does B but not A, sure, bring on comparatively more heat. If he does A and not B, keep your March criticism limited and restrained — you can complain about specific errant chess moves, but not about the bigger picture.