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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart Prove Elite Coaching Can Get You to the Final Four

The Final Four is set, and the four teams headed to Houston are Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler, and Virginia Commonwealth. While both Kentucky and Connecticut are from power conferences and have the pedigree to warrant a Final Four berth, many people are surprised to see Butler return and VCU to be there at all.

Both Butler and VCU did not build their teams recruiting 4 and 5-star high school players, and you won’t find many McDonald’s All Americans on their rosters. Neither school is an NBA player factory unlike their colleagues in the Final Four. So how did Butler and VCU get to college basketball’s ultimate stage? Superior coaching is how.

All four schools have elite coaches, and in the case of Butler and VCU, their two coaches are some of the best around, and have the brains, organization, and personalities to get their kids to play at a high level.

Coaching especially matters when you’re playing against superior athletes. Less talented, and less athletic teams win because they are better prepared, smarter, and execute better than their more talented and athletic counterparts. They also have to use skill to maximize their limited athletic talent, while other teams can rely on athletics alone. If you’ve watched Butler and VCU this year, you’ve seen why this works.

Butler is undersized on a nightly basis, less athletic, and not as deep in talent as their power conference counterparts. This was on display when they played Florida who showed they had better athletes, size, and depth in their Elite 8 matchup. Butler won the game because of superior preparation and execution. Look at the overtime period — the last two possessions for Florida, the Gators settled for long three pointers while Butler got layups and the ball into the hands of their best free throw shooters.

At the end of regulation, Florida had the ball for the last shot and their play was a 25-foot, off-balance three-point attempt from a player who was 1-10 in the game, when they had upwards of 20 seconds to get a higher percentage shot. Brad Stevens outcoached Billy Donovan all game (despite what Stevens said), and it was evident from the tip off when Donovan applied full court pressure based on Butlers’ inability to break Wisconsin’s pressure the game before. Butler had no problem with it because of Stevens’ relentless preparation.

While Butler’s success isn’t much of a surprise, VCU reaching the Final Four is a major shock if you don’t follow college basketball. The Rams have a collection of players who are transfers and high school recruits that most major programs didn’t look at. However, they are as good as anyone because their coach Shaka Smart makes them believe that, and they have the preparation and execution to beat anyone.

The Rams were one of the last four teams to make the main draw, and they had to play five games to reach the Final Four. They beat five teams, from five different power conferences, and all by 10 points or more. They beam with confidence and swagger, knowing they can compete with anyone. They do this because Shaka Smart will outcoach anyone, and he has his team believing and prepared to take on the challenge.

Kentucky coach John Calapari and UConn coach Jim Calhoun shouldn’t be overlooked as they have done perhaps their best coaching jobs of their careers. Calhoun had to face the distraction of his suspension and had to win five games in the ridiculously tough Big East tournament to secure a three seed in the NCAA tournament. Calipari lost five players from last year’s team to the NBA draft. Both coaches couldn’t rely on talent alone this year like they have in the past, which further illustrates why coaching is so important.

Good players are necessary to win. As one of my good friends said to me recently, you can’t win the Daytona 500 driving a Hyundai Sonata. However, you don’t need elite players to win. You just need players who understand the system, play hard, execute, and prepare like elite players. All four teams in the Final Four, and especially Butler and VCU, are prime examples of this. When it comes to bringing home the championship, may the best coach win.

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