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#pounditFriday, December 4, 2020

5 coaches you can bank on during March Madness

John Calipari

There are a lot of factors to look at when filling out your bracket once March Madness rolls around. Who’s coming in on a hot streak? Who has the sort of player that can take over and win a game on their own? How many experienced upperclassmen does each team have to turn to when the pressure is on?

Due to the very nature of college basketball, roster turnover is high, and it’s hard to put much stock in long-term trends for that exact reason. However, there is one constant, and that is the coaches.

Here are a few of the coaches you can put some faith in to have their teams primed and ready to make a potentially deep run into March.

5) Roy Williams, North Carolina

Williams is about as reliable as they come in terms of avoiding upsets and taking a team deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Since joining the Tar Heels in 2003, Williams had guided the school to 12 tournament appearances. Only once has his team’s run been ended by a double-digit seed, and in the five times they’ve been eliminated by a lower seed, three of them were as No. 1 seeds to a No. 2 seed. He almost always guides his teams deep into the tournament, as he’s been to the Elite Eight 12 times dating back to his years at Kansas, making it to the Final Four on eight occasions.

Williams’ team can make a good case for a No. 1 seed again in 2017. Don’t be surprised if they’re playing late into March once again.

4) Sean Miller, Arizona

Miller made his name at Xavier, where he took the Atlantic 10 outfit to a Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight before making the jump to Arizona. There, he stabilized a program still not sure how to move forward after Lute Olson’s retirement, and has taken the school to great heights since then.

In five tournament runs with Arizona, Miller has guided the Wildcats to the Elite Eight three times, with only one exit prior to the Sweet Sixteen. He has lost only twice in his head coaching career in the first round – his very first year at Xavier in 2006, and a rather sweaty exit in 2016 to a Wichita State team that boasted the likes of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.

His 2017 team looks primed for a deep run after blowing through the Pac-12 with 16 wins in 18 games. Miller built himself a reputation as one of the best young coaches in the nation, but at this point, he has to be recognized as one of the most reliable coaches in the sport, without any qualifiers.

3) Rick Pitino, Louisville

Pitino’s first Final Four appearance as a coach came in 1987, which was also the first year the NCAA Tournament featured a three-point line. That’s how long he’s been at this, and he’s been setting a standard of excellence ever since.

Pitino took over at Kentucky in 1989, and since then, he’s lost in the first round just three times in 18 seasons, reached the second weekend of the tournament 12 out of those 18 attempts, and reached seven Final Fours. He has made Louisville a force to be reckoned with, and their 2013 championship is evidence of that.

Pitino has found a way to succeed everywhere he’s gone. Yes, he had a great system in place at Kentucky, but he resuscitated a Louisville program that had fallen into mediocrity in the latter years of Denny Crum’s tenure. Louisville will likely have a top-three seed when the brackets come out on Selection Sunday, and Pitino has the know-how to guide his group deep into the tournament. They’ll be hungry, too, after a year away from the tournament due to a postseason ban.

2) Tom Izzo, Michigan State

There’s a joke in East Lansing that the month of March should be renamed Izzo, such is his reputation for finding a way to get his teams wins in the tournament no matter how their regular season has gone. He’s taken teams seeded No. 1, No. 2, No. 5, and No. 7 to the Final Four, with 2015’s particularly memorable run seeing them knock off the No. 2, 3, and 4 seeds in their region from the 7 line. Izzo simply finds a way to get his teams playing their best basketball when March comes.

Izzo isn’t flawless — Michigan State’s 2016 loss to No. 15 Middle Tennessee State was one of the biggest shocks in tournament history — but his teams tend to be well-drilled and prepared for the pressure that March brings. That will be put to the test in 2017, as his freshman-heavy team has had an inconsistent season and actually faced questions as to whether they deserve a bid.

They’re still talented, and with Izzo at the helm, the Spartans will feel that anything is possible so long as they find their way into the field.

1) John Calipari, Kentucky

It’s a story nearly two decades old at this point. John Calipari brings together a talented group, generally with a lot of freshman. He spends the regular season teaching and drilling and helping them mature, and then when March comes around, his young, hungry unit starts rolling through the NCAA Tournament, whether they came in undefeated or as a lower seed due to growing pains. His teams just win.

In the last 11 NCAA Tournaments, a Calipari-coached team, be it Memphis or Kentucky, has made it to the Elite Eight eight times.

It’s no secret that Calipari is able to land elite recruiting classes every single season, but his real skill is turning a group of players from different backgrounds, all of them generally raw talents, into teams that play together. He’ll try pretty much any tactic to help a player get comfortable. By March, his players are more at ease, know what to do, know how to play with each other, and are generally ready to take on all comers, even if they struggled at times during the regular season. His 2014 team, which made it all the way to the title game as a No. 8 seed, is evidence of that.

Calipari knows how to take talent and make it into a winning team. Expect to see him and his Kentucky team into the second weekend and beyond again in 2017.

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