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Monday, March 19, 2018

Six coaches you can bank on in March Madness

Roy Williams

Whom can you trust when you’re filling out your brackets? Even the best teams can fall victim to big upsets. Duke, for instance, has been defeated by the likes of Lehigh and Mercer in the first round under Mike Krzyzewski. Sometimes, you just have to look to a coach who has a great record of success in the NCAA Tournament — or a penchant for advancing past certain rounds with remarkable consistency.

Here are six safe coaches to bank on in March Madness.

1) Roy Williams, North Carolina

Williams’ third national title in 2017 solidified him as one of the all-time great college coaches — if he wasn’t already, that is. It’s really quite amazing to think that he arrived at North Carolina hindered by a reputation of being unable to win the big one. He’s certainly shed it in the decade and a half since coming to Chapel Hill.

Let’s start with one amazing stat: Williams has never lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He’s been there 27 times dating back to 1989, and he’s a perfect 27-0 in tournament openers, even with his lesser squads over the years. When you consider that every single one of his rivals, from Coach K to Cal and everyone in between, has tripped up at least once, that’s simply amazing. He’s made the tournament 13 times with the Tar Heels and made it to the second weekend in nine of those runs, with five Final Four appearances to go with them. It’s been an up and down year for North Carolina, but Williams is a steady hand at the helm you can count on.

2) John Calipari, Kentucky

It never quite clicked for Calipari’s usual band of freshmen in 2017-18 — at least, not until the SEC Tournament, which the Wildcats won, setting themselves up for an interesting March run.

Of the veteran coaches who are regular fixtures at the NCAA Tournament, only Williams has an early-round record that compares with Calipari. He’s lost just once in the Round of 64 — in 2003, his first trip to the tournament with the Memphis Tigers. They made the second round a year later, and since then, Calipari has reached the second weekend in 10 of his 11 trips with Memphis and Kentucky.

Calipari is on the five line this year, a spot considered ripe for an upset. Over the years, though, he’s been outstanding at avoiding those types of upsets. Pick against him at your own risk.

3) Tom Izzo, Michigan State

Izzo has had his share of early exits. After all, his Michigan State team fell victim to one of the most shocking first-round defeats of all time when 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee bounced them in the first round in 2016. In spite of moments like that, there is a reason that Izzo is widely regarded as one of the best March coaches ever.

Part of what gives Izzo that reputation is that his Final Four teams aren’t always the big favorites. He took a seven seed in 2015 and a five seed in 2005 and 2010. This year, he’ll have a three seed, albeit one that has been regarded as a championship favorite all season long. Michigan State hasn’t actually played in the second weekend of the tournament since 2015. Look for that to change in 2018.

4) Bill Self, Kansas

Once upon a time, Self’s job at Kansas was believed to be in jeopardy due to a string of high-profile early-round flameouts in the NCAA Tournament. A 2008 title helped calm that down, and while he hasn’t won another championship since, Self also hasn’t lost in the first round in twelve years.

Self doesn’t have the record that his contemporaries do, but you can feel comfortable picking his Kansas Jayhawks up until the regional final. They’ve made back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, and he’s led the team to that point in the tournament seven times during his tenure. The problem is that he’s 2-5 in regional finals, so pick with care if you have Kansas getting that far. Still, seven regional finals is nothing to scoff at, so you can feel fairly comfortable picking Self early most of the time.

5) Sean Miller, Arizona

Set aside the FBI investigation and the controversy. Arizona is willing to stand by the embattled Miller because he’s an extremely successful coach. That dates back to his time at Xavier, where he led the Musketeers to the Elite Eight in 2008 before making the jump to Arizona a year later.

Miller’s record out west has been sound, too. He’s been to at least the Sweet Sixteen in five of his six trips to the Big Dance, with three Elite Eight appearances to his credit. He hasn’t been able to get over the hump and reach the Final Four yet, but Miller and the Wildcats are a good bet to be playing late in the tournament once again. He’s not a coach prone to early exits.

6) John Beilein, Michigan

There’s a good case to be made that Beilein is one of the most underrated coaches in America. He took West Virginia to national relevance and has turned a moribund Michigan program around to the point that they’re widely considered a dark horse Final Four contender.

He’s had plenty of success in the NCAA Tournament, taking West Virginia to a regional final, and the Wolverines to the championship game in 2013. Last year’s team very nearly upset eventual Final Four team Oregon as a seven seed, and this year’s group is even better. They tend to win when they’re the higher seed under Beilein — and give teams trouble in the underdog role as well.

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