If you love NCAA Tournament history, you love Final Four history. If you love Final Four history, you have to think that Michigan State is the best pick in a very balanced and even Final Four.
Every Final Four takes on its own shape before the first national semifinal begins on Saturday in a big dome. In some years, the Final Four clearly has two semifinal favorites. In other years, one semifinal feels like the undercard and the other one the real national title game (though the conventional wisdom often fails to hold up on Monday Night). This Final Four feels like a weekend all four teams can win, much as the West Regional in Anaheim felt like a four-team cluster in which there was no heavy favorite or long shot. It certainly played out that way. We will see about the coming weekend in Minneapolis.
With four teams standing on roughly the same plane — I expect two very close semifinals on Saturday — what makes the difference? Some might say “coaching,” and I am inclined to agree… but if you think “coaching” is the reason for your own Final Four selection, let me be clear: I am referring to “coaching” in a specific way: Final Four experience.
You might correctly refute me with the claim: “Matt, Tom Izzo has made seven Final Fours and won only one of them.” This is true.
I am thinking of something very specific when using a coaching-based reason for my Final Four national champion.
Go through Final Four history this century. How many times has a first-time Final Four coach won it all?
You will find only two examples: Bill Self of Kansas in 2008, and Kevin Ollie of Connecticut in 2014. Self needed John Calipari to not foul in the final seconds of regulation. Ollie quickly flamed out, a true outlier among the ranks of college basketball coaches. (UConn playing the East Regional in Madison Square Garden in 2014 meant everything for that team.)
There were two previous Final Fours this century in which three first-time coaches arrived at the Final Four: 2006 and 2017.
In both instances, the one coach with prior Final Four experience is the coach who won it all: Billy Donovan of Florida in 2006, and Roy Williams of North Carolina in 2017.
Guess what? The 2019 Final Four has three first-time Final Four coaches… and Tom Izzo.
Is experience overrated at the Final Four?
History suggests it is not.
Bill Self might have won at his first Final Four in 2008, but he had made multiple Elite Eights in the previous decade and had over 10 years of Division I head coaching experience.
You might hit me with this fact as a counterpoint: From 1995 through 1999, three first-time coaches at a Final Four won it all: Jim Harrick with UCLA in 1995, Tubby Smith with Kentucky in 1998, and Jim Calhoun with Connecticut in 1999.
True… but I can reply with this: Harrick and Calhoun were both 55 or older when they won their titles and had been coaching in Division I more than 10 years (like Self). Tubby was “only” 46 — which is Chris Beard’s age — but had made Sweet 16s at Tulsa and Georgia and was coaching his seventh season of Division I ball. Beard — who will oppose Izzo in the second national semifinal on Saturday in Minneapolis — is in his fourth season as a D-I head coach.
Go back through the list of national championship head coaches since John Wooden’s first title at UCLA in 1964, encompassing 55 NCAA Tournaments and carrying the sport from its greatest dynasty into the modern era. In those 55 years, only three coaches under 40 years old won national titles: Don Haskins of Texas Western (36) in 1966; Bobby Knight of Indiana (35) in 1976; and Jim Valvano of North Carolina State (37) in 1983. That’s it.
Billy Donovan was 40 when he won at Florida in 2006. Ollie was 41 at UConn in 2014. Knight was 41 when he won a second title at Indiana in 1981. John Thompson was 42 at Georgetown in 1984. Denny Crum was 43 when he won his first title at Louisville in 1980. Rick Pitino was 43 when he won his first title at Kentucky in 1996.
That makes eight coaches since 1964 who have won a national title under the age of 44.
Of those eight, only Haskins and Ollie won a national title in five or fewer seasons as a D-I head coach.
Izzo can speak from his own experience here: He needed a Final Four baptism in 1999 before winning in 2000. Gary Williams of Maryland lost in 2001 before winning in 2002. Donovan lost at the 2000 Final Four — to Izzo in the title game! — before figuring it out in 2006.
Other men joining Donovan on the list of eight above — Knight, Thompson, Crum, and Pitino — all lost at the Final Four before they won a national title. Haskins, Ollie and Valvano are the exceptions.
Haskins is in the Hall of Fame. Valvano might have joined Haskins there had he not been struck down by cancer.
Even the coaches under the age of 44 needed experience at the Final Four — and in general — before cutting down the nets, Don Haskins being the exception which proves the rule. (Kevin Ollie, congratulations on winning the lottery — you belong in a separate category.)
Experience truly matters if history is a guide to the Final Four.
Tom Izzo — with one national title in seven Final Four trips — does not have to face Duke at this Final Four, unlike 2015. He would have faced Duke in the 2010 title game had Michigan State been able to beat Butler. Izzo doesn’t have to face a North Carolina juggernaut, which he had to do in both 2005 and 2009. He doesn’t have to face a loaded Arizona team, which he did in 2001. He doesn’t have to go up against Duke’s ridiculously stacked 1999 team.
Michigan State’s one national title under Izzo came with an ideal draw — eighth-seeded Wisconsin and fifth-seeded Florida — in 2000. This draw isn’t nearly as easy, but it still lacks the heavyweights who have normally shut down Izzo at the Final Four.
It’s time, Tom.
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