Bill Self didn’t make it to the Final Four. Neither does Jim Boeheim.
Tom Izzo couldn’t get past the top four, and John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski didn’t get into big dance at all. Roy Williams? He retired on Thursday.
It’s hard to know what to think of this coaching line-up in the NCAA Men’s Final Four. All of them are undoubtedly accomplished, but none of them are icons of the game. Is this an accidental slip up or a sign of a major shock in college basketball? One thing is certain: which of the four remaining coaches will cut the nets after winning the national championship will do so for the first time.
This is an extremely rare occurrence in a sport where the coach is often a bigger star than his players. In this sport, the ability to recruit, win games, and please boosters can create a win cycle that builds on and sustains itself.
In fact, this is the first head-coached Final Four to win the championship since 2006, when Florida’s Billy Donovan, UCLA’s Ben Howland, LSU’s John Brady and George Mason’s Jim Larranaga competed in Indianapolis.
Donovan defeated Howland in that year’s championship game, marking the first of the consecutive championships he won with the Gators before making the leap to the NBA.
Fifteen years later we have a first-time master coach again. Let’s take a closer look at each candidate.
MARK FEW, GONZAGA
Recording: 629-124 (.835) in 22 seasons, all with Gonzaga
Appearances at NCAA tournaments: 21
Last four appearances before 2021: 1 (2017)
Few were assistants on Dan Monson’s staff when the Bulldogs began their current stretch of 23 direct NCAA tournament appearances (last year’s tournament was canceled due to COVID-19).
Monson left for Minnesota after that season. Few have been promoted to head coach and the rest is history. Since then, there has been a steady rise from West Coast Conference dominance to national notoriety, with the Zags regularly planning – and suggesting – large programs in their pre-conference schedule before riding through the WCC schedule.
Despite all the successes, this is the Bulldogs’ second trip to the Final Four. The first came in 2017 when a team led by Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski reached the championship game and lost 71-65 to Joel Berry and the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Now few have the best Gonzaga team of their career and only the sixth team to have won their first four tournament games with at least 15 points since the field expanded to 64 teams 36 years ago.
Should Gonzaga (30-0) win the championship, the Bulldogs will go down in history as the first undefeated national champions since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976.
Few are one of only four active head coaches to have reached each of the last 10 NCAA tournaments. Two of the others – Izzo and Self – are now home. The fourth comes next on this list as he will try to stop Gonzaga’s high profile offense in the Final Four.
MICK CRONIN, UCLA
Recording: 406-192 (.679) in 18 seasons with Murray State, Cincinnati and UCLA
Appearances at NCAA tournaments: 12th
Last four appearances before 2021: 0
Cronin did a great resume in Cincinnati and took the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament nine times in 13 seasons.
Even so, the Bruins didn’t have him high on their list after firing Steve Alford in 2019. UCLA reportedly thought big at the time. Kentucky’s John Calipari, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, Virginia’s Tony Bennett – so great.
It’s funny how things turn out because the guy they eventually hired turned out to be great and put the 11 Seed Bruins on a jaw-dropping run to the Final Four in just his sophomore year at the top.
UCLA finished fourth in the regular season in the Pac-12 and then entered the NCAA tournament with a berth in the top four. The Bruins defeated Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans for an incredible streak with included wins against BYU with 6 seeds, Alabama with 2 seeds and Michigan with 1 seed.
The Bruins did it with toughness and defense – they keep tournament opponents out of 3-point range by 24.7%. You also ride the hot hand of Johnny Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky who averages 21.6 points in five tournament games.
UCLA is trying to become the first Pac-12 team to win a championship since Lute Olson won the Arizona Wildcats in 1997. To do this, however, the Bruins have to get the tournament favorites out.
Do you have another surprise in your tank? Cronin could be the guy who solves the Gonzaga puzzle.
SCOTT DREW, BAYLOR
Recording: 390-226 (.633) in 19 seasons in Valparaiso and Baylor
Appearances at NCAA tournaments: 9
Last four appearances before 2021: 0
What a trip this has been for Drew and the Baylor Bears. It requires a brief look back at the past.
It was 2003 and Drew had completed his first season as head coach at Valparaiso, Indiana. He had taken the reins after working as an assistant to his father Homer for a decade. He led the crusaders to a 20-11 record and NIT berth.
In Texas, Baylor was in an uproar, wavering from an ugly scandal involving ex-trainer Dave Bliss. Drew decided on that in August 2003.
In its first season, the Bears went 8-21. It took Drew five years to have a successful season – 21-11 in 2007-08 – and get his team to the NCAA tournament.
Since then, it’s been a slow build-up towards greatness as Drew turned Baylor into a Big 12 power. Now it seems like his Bear and Few Bulldogs have circled each other as the best teams in the nation for the past two years.
Last season, Baylor was ranked # 1 and # 5 in the AP poll before the NCAA tournament was canceled. This season, the Bears have been the No. 2 consensus team behind Gonzaga for most of the time. The teams were scheduled to play against each other in early December, but the game was abandoned after two people in the Gonzaga program, including a player, tested positive for COVID-19.
When fans finally see this matchup it will come in the championship game but there is an experienced coach with a very talented team standing in Baylor’s way.
KELVIN SAMPSON, HOUSTON
Recording: 592-290 (.671) in 28 seasons in Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana and Houston
Appearances at NCAA tournaments: 17th
Last four appearances before 2021: 1 (2002, Oklahoma)
Sampson is the definite veteran of this group. How few, this is his second appearance in the Final Four when he led Oklahoma there in 2002. Sampson is only supported by Calipari, Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins as active head coaches to help bring multiple programs into the Final Four. He’s also led each of the four teams he coached to the NCAA tournament at least once.
But there were stumbling blocks on the way. Sampson broke the NCAA by breaking the rules for contacting recruits in Oklahoma. With the NCAA on his tail, he moved to Indiana. But he broke the same rules there and was eventually banned by the NCAA for five years. He took a buyout from Indiana and became an NBA assistant.
Sampson returned to college after his ban expired and moved to Houston in 2014. His first team left at 13:19, but he hasn’t had a season since then at 154:44 (0.778).
His current team is sporty and balanced. It is led by Quentin Grimes who scores 18 points per game and has four more averaging at least 8.0 points.
This is the first time two Texas teams have met in the Final Four, and only one team from the state has ever won it all – the famous Texas Western team that made history with five black players in 1966.
Now Houston will try to reach the championship game for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon led the Cougars there in 1984.
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