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How Does The Historical Performance Of A Head Coach Affect A Team's Success In The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament?


“Most people have the will to win; few have the will to prepare to win.” ~ Bobby Knight

Do you have what it takes to win? I'm not talking about cutting the nets down. It's all about cashing in on your office March Madness pool. If you want all the glory, you'll need to do your research. Analyzing the players is one thing, but analyzing a school's track record and, specifically, that of their coach is of utmost importance.

The 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is set to tip-off and 68 coaches will storm the sideline. Some are icons. Some are the new guard. And some are underrated despite perennially taking their team on a trip through the tourney. It's clear, though, that they all have one thing in common: Each man is resolute in leading their recruits to a national championship.

I have spent time analyzing the coaches from this year's tournament to provide your brackets the competitive advantage they need. Which coaching icons have had the best tournament track record? And who are the best (and worst of the rest)? Furthermore, I will also try and identify trends that help you decide when to pencil-in that experienced coach and when the timing's right to test out the new guard.

Unless otherwise noted, I have only reflected NCAA tournament results since 1985 even though some coaches like Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski have been around since the dawn of man. Why did I do this? This is when the tournament expanded to 64 teams and March Madness, as we know it now, really took shape.

THE ICONS

Who are this generation's John Wooden, Dean Smith and Bobby Knight? Who are the men who have consistently and successfully marched their programs through March Madness. Among the coaches in this year's tournament, I identified eight men below who have been doing what they do for, not years, but decades in most instances. My threshold was a minimum of 42 tournament games on the sideline.

  • Jim Boeheim
  • John Calipari
  • Billy Donovan
  • Tom Izzo
  • Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K)
  • Rick Pitino
  • Bill Self
  • Roy Williams

I have charted below each coaching icon's winning percentage in the NCAA tournament since 1985. It is rather amazing that each coach falls within a 10% range. Duke's Coach K and Louisville's Pitino are neck and neck at the top, but we are splitting hairs differentiating between any of these men's records.

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So, how can this information be useful for filling-in your brackets? What if each legendary coach was more successful than others at different stages of the tournament? In an effort to wean relevant data from their coaching records, I have separated their results into three buckets: the first two rounds, the next two rounds (i.e., The Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight) and The Final Four weekend (i.e., the National Semi-Final and Final). And, to clarify, my definition of the first two rounds are the Thursday to Sunday matchups that follow the play-in games. Sorry Mr. NCAA, but old habits die hard and this is what every basketball fan still refers to them as.

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Some trends emerge when splitting the data into buckets. There are coaches like Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and John Calipari (Kentucky) who, as you would imagine, gradually lose more often as the tournament progresses. There are some like Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Rick Pitino (Louisville) that have great track records all the way to The Final Four, but eventually struggle at the big dance. And then there's Billy Donovan and Bill Self who excel on the biggest stage – if they can make it that far. Any way you slice it, these legends win between 65-75% of their tournament games and should never be immediately disregarded when making your picks.

THE NEW GUARD

Now that we have a good grasp on the coaching icons, I thought I should analyze the new guard – coaches who have taken schools to at least three NCAA tournaments, but have coached in fewer than 42 tournament games since 1985. To directly assist you with your brackets this year, I have limited my analysis to coaches in the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The graph below is what I would call “the best of the rest”.

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Similar to the icons, there is very little disparity among the top seven coaches belonging to the “new guard”. The tournament winning percentages for the legends fall between 65-75% which is not drastically different than the 60-70% range for this group. These men have had decent success in the tournament even though some coach, or started their college head coaching career, within smaller programs such as Xavier (Thad Matta and Sean Miller), VCU (Shaka Smart) and Richmond (John Beilein).

You can't often expect the smaller programs to succeed further than The Sweet Sixteen with any regularity. Therefore, I have split my analysis into three buckets: the first two rounds, The Sweet Sixteen/Elite Eight and The Final Four weekend to try and identify some strong coaches from smaller programs.

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This graph shows which of the new guard (if you can call 68 year-old Cliff Ellis “new”) has had the best track record of taking their teams to The Sweet Sixteen. Arizona's Miller is leading the way, but Baylor's Scott Drew and Xavier's Chris Mack are all solid options for your bracket. Ohio State's Matta, Coastal Carolina's Ellis and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan have also proven to be legitimate First Round favorites and potential Sweet Sixteen participants, but you can see that their records start to trend downward compared to the top three. If you're keeping track at home, that's three coaches out of six in this chart who have at one time led Xavier. And, you say you've never heard of Coastal Carolina? You're right there. It's been 21 years since the Chanticleers made the tournament, but Ellis used to lead major conference programs at Clemson and Auburn.

These are the coaches to consider pushing through. But, who are the coaches to keep an eye on for other reasons? What about the coaches who have taken teams to at least three tournaments but have had very little success.

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Top teams like Creighton (Greg McDermott), Saint Louis (Jim Crews) and Memphis (Josh Pastner) are all sleepers on most bracketologist's radar this March and their coach's tournament record cannot be overlooked. Iowa (Fran McCaffery) and Oklahoma State (Travis Ford) are the typical at-large high seeds from major conferences. Can you trust their coach to take them into The Sweet Sixteen? The last coach, Willy Brown, has taken Albany to three tournaments dating back to 2006, but has yet to move past The First Round.

How does the new guard fare once they've qualified for The Sweet Sixteen and the competition becomes a whole lot more fierce? The following graph examines the best of the rest from the Sweet Sixteen/Elite Eight bucket.

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Smart (VCU), Mike Davis (Texas Southern, but Indiana at the time) and Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) have all made one successful run through the Regional Finals, so they know what it takes. Having said that, all three coaches fall victim to a very small sample size. Much more impressive is Steve Fisher's 7-2 record or Thad Matta's 6-4 record during the Regional Semi-Final and Regional Final games. Others like John Beilein of Michigan and Lon Kruger of Oklahoma are coaches worth considering for a deep run into the tournament once you have already committed to them advancing to The Sweet Sixteen.

The final graph that looks at the new guard of college coaches focuses solely on the Final Four weekend. The sample size of this group must be duly noted, but each coach has won at least one game – which  means they've been to, at least, The Final.

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The most significant data is Steve Fisher's – he took Michigan to three Finals and one national championship in a five year period between 1989-93. Like Fisher, it's been many, many years since Davis tasted success with the Hoosiers at the 2002 Final Four before losing out to Maryland in The Final. Perhaps you then should turn to recent success and Beilein and Matta both coach major programs in the Big 10 and have had recent success making it to championship game.

WHEN EXPERIENCE PAYS OFF

Often times you are forced to make a decision in your brackets between two very evenly matched teams. Can anyone truly decipher between the 8/9 game? These young athletes rarely bring enough high pressure experience to the table to indicate to the casual fan that they have a distinct advantage. But, what about the coaches? Can their track record of tournament success provide you with enough confidence to pencil them in. The following graph summarizes the average number of career NCAA Tournament wins over the last 20 years for the winning team's coach compared to the losing team's coach.

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Based on the results above, the winning team's coach has more past tournament success than the losing team's coach on average and the results are consistent round by round. The gap is wider through The Sweet Sixteen and narrows during the Regional Final and National Semi-Final. However, the gap between experience and inexperience explodes wide open in The Final to such a significant extent that you would be hard pressed to ever pick against the most experienced coach.

Often the majority of coaches of high seeds from small programs have very little experience. So, of course their grey-haired colleagues in the major conferences will outshine them. Therefore, I have narrowed the scope of my analysis in the graph below to only teams that were top-eight seeds.

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As you can see, the differences in the graphs are not that distinguishable. The gap in The First Round narrows some, but there is a consistent theme throughout – experience pays off – at least through The Sweet Sixteen. The result in The Final remains unchanged since not one school higher than an 8-seed has ever made it to the national championship game.

I then performed the same analysis, but I focused on the success of the program over a four-year period. For example, Kansas had 11 tournament victories over a four-year period when they played in the 2013 Sweet Sixteen. To go along with their two wins in the first two rounds last year, they won once in the 2010 tournament, three times in 2011, and five times in 2012. I used this statistic to measure whether a team's rolling four-year performance could be an advantage come March Madness.

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Based on results of the last 20 years, winning teams have had better rolling four-year performance than the teams that they've beat. The gap between the winners and losers varies by round, but is consistently material throughout the tournament. The First Round, The Sweet Sixteen and the National Semi-Final (i.e., The Final Four) favor the teams with better recent performance. I also reviewed these results with 1 to 8 seeds in isolation, but there was very little different in the shape of the lines. The biggest change when looking at 1-8 seeds was how the gap narrowed consistently through to The Final Four. 

LOOKING FOR MORE

For the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, I have also analyzed the impact of a school's conference and the experience of their head basketball coach in the following articles:

- How Does Seeding Affect Success in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament?

- Which Current Conferences Have Had the Most Success in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament?

You can find a list of the entire 2014 NCAA tournament field in my NCAA Cheat Sheet which also summarizes my findings from this analysis and in the two other articles listed directly above.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

 



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