August 9, 2009

Which coach is the best sideline tactician?

At the College Basketball Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college basketball coverage staff for his opinion about a topic in the sport. We have two questions this week one Saturday and one today.

TODAY'S QUESTION: Who do you think is the best Xs and Os coach in the college game today?

My first reaction to this question was Tom Izzo. He doesn't always have the NBA-caliber talent of other powerhouses, but Michigan State always finds a way to win in March. But I decided to go with the coach who has Izzo's number Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. Under Ryan, the Badgers never have finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten, won two outright conference titles and have reached the NCAA tournament in each of his eight seasons. He's also 10-4 in head-to-head matchups with Izzo, including 3-0 in the Big Ten tournament. Ryan never will have the same type of talent as many other Big Ten coaches, but he still manages to win. Ryan has been successful everywhere he's gone, including four Division III championships at UW-Platteville. Top recruits may never want to play in his restrictive offense, but I'd like to see what Ryan could do with truly top-level talent.


I think there are a lot of superb Xs and Os guys who toil in relative anonymity, guys like mid-major coaches Fran Dunphy of Temple, Rick Majerus of Saint Louis, Dana Altman of Creighton, Jim Larranaga of George Mason and Stew Morrill of Utah State. Larranaga and Majerus, when he was at Utah, took teams to the Final Four, and if you give any of those guys the type of talent that, say, is present at Kansas and North Carolina on an annual basis, you'd see more Final Four appearances. And there obviously are a number of great Xs and Os guys at power programs. The one I'm going with: California's Mike Montgomery. He had a great run at Stanford, where he rarely had rosters filled with top-100 prospects yet always had great success because he usually was better than the coach on the other sideline. Then, last season his first at Cal he took what had been a moribund Golden Bears team and guided it to the NCAA tournament.


For some reason, no one ever includes the big dogs when they're discussing the top Xs and Os coaches in the country. Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, John Calipari and Jim Calhoun produce Final Four contenders every season but are rarely lauded for their prowess on the sideline. Instead, people always point to the coaches of overachieving, less-talented teams when discussing the game's top tacticians. Sticking with that theme, I'll go with Michigan's John Beilein. I can't remember the last time I saw a bigger coaching mismatch than Beilein vs. Clemson's Oliver Purnell in last season's NCAA tournament. Michigan had two good players in Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, but otherwise the Wolverines had no business hanging with a bigger, quicker and stronger Clemson team. Beilein, though, won the game by simply outcoaching his counterpart on the sideline. Clemson was confused and rarely got off a quality shot. The other thing I like about Beilein and I realize this is off-topic is that he runs his program the right way. There are always rumors about coaches cutting corners and bending the rules, but none of them ever involve Beilein who has as good a reputation as anyone in the business. Back to the original question: Some other strong Xs and Os coaches are Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, Matt Painter at Purdue and Doc Sadler at Nebraska.


The most recent NCAA tournament underscored Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's skills as a tactician. Izzo won head-to-head matchups with Kansas' Bill Self, Louisville's Rick Pitino and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, and guided the Spartans to the NCAA championship game. Michigan State benefited from playing Connecticut in its home state, but the Spartans didn't look to have as much talent as the Huskies, or Louisville for that matter. And this was no one-year aberration. Michigan State has outperformed its talent level in most seasons since Izzo took over in 1995. Michigan State has produced one lottery pick (Jason Richardson) during Izzo's tenure, yet the Spartans have one national title and four Final Four appearances during that stretch.


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