March Madness: Ranking the 11 Sweet 16 coaches aiming for their first Final Four
Sixteen coaches will try to get to the Final Four this weekend, and five already know the way. Been there, done that. As for the other 11 wannabes, time to rank them. But how?
The PTD poll. Paid Their Dues. Figuring in longevity and consistency. Bonus points for past anguish of coming close.
No. 11 Mike White, Florida
He’s the kid of the group at 40. Not that he hasn’t been busy, with five children. It took him only two seasons with the Gators to be SEC Coach of the Year. White was once a four-year starter for Mississippi, meaning he had an up-close look in 1998 when the Rebels were knocked out of the NCAA tournament by Bryce Drew’s famous buzzer-beater for Valparaiso. The circle of life. Nineteen years later, Drew’s Vanderbilt team beat White’s Florida three times this season, accounting for 37.5 percent of the Gators’ eight defeats.
No. 10 Greg Gard, Wisconsin
A long-time assistant, he was always presumed the Badgers’ heir to Bo Ryan, but that happened quicker than expected when Ryan abruptly retired in December of the 2015-16 season. Didn’t take him long to get acclimated. Now he’s only the third coach in the past 20 years to get his first two teams to the Sweet 16. He must be good at crisis control; his first Wisconsin team started 1-4 in the Big Ten, and this one lost five of six during a Big Ten stretch late in the season.
No. 9 Chris Holtmann, Butler
The former NAIA All-American guard from tiny Taylor in Indiana received his head coaching baptism at Gardner-Webb, where he went from 11-21 to 21-13 in three years. Then he moved to Butler as an assistant, suddenly landed in the head coaching seat when Brandon Miller took a medical leave and never came back, and started winning NCAA tournament games. In three Butler seasons, he’s won three first-rounders, and now has the Bulldogs this far for the first time since the Brad Stevens days. When a man's name is in the same sentence as Stevens' at Butler, he's doing swell.
No. 8 Matt Painter, Purdue
For 12 seasons he has toiled at his alma mater, getting the Boilermakers into the NCAA tournament nine times and the Sweet 16 three. He also has been Big Ten Coach of the Year three times, and not many guys can say that. The last couple of months of March have not been kind, with overtime losses in the first round to Cincinnati and Little Rock. He figured to be owed a break or two by the fates of basketball after all that misery. His first one this season was when Caleb Swanigan decided not to turn pro.
No. 7 Chris Mack, Xavier
Eight years, seven NCAA tournament trips for Mack with the Musketeers. Plus four Sweet 16s. Plus the highest ranking and highest seeding the school has ever seen. Plus him having a big part in Xavier’s most impressive streak of all: 100 consecutive seniors who graduated. He’s truly the hometown boy-made-good, as not only a Xavier alum and past team captain, but a kid who grew up in Cincinnati. This season might have been his best job yet, getting the Musketeers through a nasty injury-induced late-season slump to here.
No. 6 Dana Altman, Oregon
First, he was at Kansas State. Conference coach of the year. Then, Creighton. Conference coach of the year. Now, Oregon. Conferen ... you get the idea. He’s a three-leaguer when it comes to awards, not to mention a coach with 20 consecutive winning seasons, and 13 trips to the NCAA tournament. Probably a good idea the high school star quarterback decided to go with a different sport. And he was also an Eagle Scout. How many of them get to the Final Four? At 58, he is the senior member of this list.
No. 5 Frank Martin, South Carolina
When he was young, this son of Cuban exiles worked in a pool hall, at a Dairy Queen, as a bartender and as a bouncer at a nightclub. When some troublemakers he tossed took a few shots at him one night, he decided it was time to coach basketball. Good choice. He spent 15 years coaching in Miami high schools, then moved on and led Kansas State to the Elite Eight. Should he get the Gamecocks playing beyond this weekend, his life story instantly would become Final Four lore.
No. 4 Steve Alford, UCLA
He’s been a busy man in 22 years of Division I coaching. Four different schools -- Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico and UCLA -- taken to the NCAA tournament, the Bruins now for the third time in four years. He’s one of only five coaches to have won a tournament game at four schools. He also has more career victories than any active coach 52 and under. And if UCLA captures the South regional Sunday, it would be only two days away from the exact 30th anniversary of the day he scored 33 points for Indiana to beat No. 1 UNLV in the 1987 Final Four.
No. 3 Scott Drew, Baylor
He took the Baylor job when the program was on life support after a shocking scandal that even included a player’s murder. How bad was it? The only reason the Bears lost just 13 games in 2005-06 was because they were allowed to play only 17, their non-conference schedule wiped out by sanctions. Drew endured that, and four consecutive losing seasons, and now has had Baylor in the tournament seven times in the past 10 years, the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight twice. This at a program that had been to one tournament in the previous 53 seasons before he arrived.
No. 2 Sean Miller, Arizona
He’s knocked on the door more often than Girl Scouts selling cookies. Miller once led Xavier to only its second Elite Eight, and did it three more times with Arizona, losing to Wisconsin in overtime and Connecticut by two points. Aaagggh. In 13 years as a coach, he’s never had a losing season. In eight years with the Wildcats, he’s been in the Sweet 16 five times. And if you really want to see Sean Miller shine, go to YouTube and find clips of the night he appeared on the Johnny Carson show at the age of 14 to display his ball-handling skills.
And finally, No. 1, Mark Few, Gonzaga
Really, who else? The NCAA tournament will go without TV commercials before it goes without Gonzaga. Few wouldn’t know what to do with himself in March otherwise. The Zags have made it every one of his 18 seasons as coach. He owns the finest winning percentage in Division I, having just accumulated his 500th victory to go next to the small pile of 112 defeats. This is his seventh Sweet 16. He is only 54, so who knows how high the win total will climb at his current clip. Sooner or later, it has to happen, right?
Come Saturday, he and Gonzaga might be facing Miller and Arizona for the West regional title, and a Final Four berth. Think of that, No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the PTD poll.