Bo Ryan, others hope to end their Final Four droughts this weekend
The NCAA Tournament will go on without Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams.
At least as far as the Final Four is concerned, that means new blood.
Of the 16 coaches left in the NCAA Tournament, only six have been to the Final Four. Some of the others are young coaches making their first major impression (Dayton’s Archie Miller, UConn’s Kevin Ollie), but the Sweet 16 is more notable for the coaches who have accomplished nearly everything they can in their career without reaching the Final Four.
Bo Ryan and Sean Miller may be on anyone’s top 10 or 20 coaches in the country, but neither have reached the Final Four. That may change, perhaps in a meeting between the two of them in the Elite Eight.
As the NCAA Tournament moves into the regionals, we’d be shocked if one coach does not reach his first Final Four, though it’s certainly possible all of them get left out yet again.
Suffice to say, no one wants to be on this list next season.
Top 20 active coaches who have never been to the Final Four
1. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
Closest call: Wisconsin lost to North Carolina in the 2005 Elite Eight.
Ryan’s approach is consistent as they come, going back to when he won four Division III titles at Wisconsin-Platteville. Thanks to unflinching player development and disciplined defensive play, Ryan's teams have never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. Success in the NCAA Tournament has eluded him. Ryan’s Wisconsin teams have made it out of the first weekend three times since 2005 and stalled in the Sweet 16 each time. With a No. 2 seed, only the second time he’s been seeded this high, Ryan may have his best chance to reach the Final Four of his career.
Can he reach the Final Four this year? Yes, but he’ll have to go through Scott Drew (2-0 in the Sweet 16) and either Sean Miller or Steve Fisher to do it.
2. Sean Miller, Arizona
Closest call: Arizona lost by 65-63 to Connecticut in the 2011 Elite Eight, and Xavier lost to UCLA in the 2008 Elite Eight.
In 10 seasons as a head coach, Miller has reached the Sweet 16 five times and the Elite Eight twice with two schools. He has restored Arizona to its place as one of the premier programs in the West and should reach the Final Four sooner rather than later. At 45, Miller's first Final Four probably won’t be his last.
Can he reach the Final Four this year? Yes, with a No. 1 seed, Miller’s Arizona team will be the favorite in the region.
3. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh
Closest call: A No. 1 seed in 2009, Pitt lost on a buzzer-beating layup by Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds in the Elite Eight.
Dixon has been remarkably consistent at Pittsburgh in the Big East and the ACC, missing the NCAA Tournament only once in his 11 seasons as a head coach. Dixon’s two best teams, though, lost in heartbreakers in the NCAA Tournament. His 2009 team lost on a buzzer-beater by Villanova in the Elite Eight. And two years later, Pittsburgh committed two late fouls that enabled eighth-seeded Butler to hit the free throws to advance to the Sweet 16.
Can he reach the Final Four soon? Probably not. Pitt may be heading into another rebuilding year with Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna leaving next season.
4. Mark Few, Gonzaga
Closest call: An Adam Morrison-led Gonzaga team lost in a 73-71 heartbreaker to UCLA in the 2006 Sweet 16.
Gonzaga was a Tournament darling when the Bulldogs reached the Elite Eight under Dan Monson in 1999. Now, Gonzaga may be more well known for busting your brackets. The Bulldogs’ first No. 1 ranking and No. 1 seed was marred in 2013 when Gonzaga lost to Final Four-bound No. 9 seed Wichita State. Few has reached the Sweet 16 only once since 2006.
Can he reach the Final Four soon? Probably not, and it will take a special group to get him there. Gonzaga has been seeded higher than seventh only twice since 2006.
5. Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Closest call: Tennessee lost 70-69 to Michigan State in the 2010 Elite Eight.
Pearl’s second exile from coaching ended a week ago when the former Tennessee coach was hired at Auburn. He’ll have an uphill battle at one of the SEC’s least successful programs over the last 10 years, but if Pearl can’t win at Auburn, few coaches could. Pearl has reached the Sweet 16 four times in his career, three times at Tennessee and once at Milwaukee.
Can he reach the Final Four soon? No, but making Auburn relevant in basketball may be a bigger challenge anyway.
6. Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech
Closest call: Williams led Marquette to the Elite Eight in 2013, where the Golden Eagles lost 55-39 to Syracuse.
After missing the postseason for the first time in five seasons at Marquette, Williams decided to try his had at the ACC by taking one of the league’s toughest jobs at Virginia Tech. Williams has a style all his own, with a focus on on advanced statistics and finding players with chips on their shoulders. Given Williams’ own background, he’ll grab more players from the junior college ranks than the typical major-program coach.
Can he reach the Final Four soon? No. Virginia Tech went from a perennial bubble team to winning six ACC games in two seasons under James Johnson.
7. Tony Bennett, Virginia
Closest call: Bennett led Washington State to the Sweet 16 in 2008 where the Cougars lost to top-seeded North Carolina.
Bennett led Washington State to its first regional semifinal in 67 years and Virginia to its first regional semifinal in 19 years. He can coach, but running a slower offense doesn’t always translate to NCAA Tournament success, as Bo Ryan can attest.
Can he reach the Final Four this year? Yes, but his toughest game will be in the Sweet 16 against Michigan State.
8. Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State
Closest call: Iowa State lost on a late basket by Ohio State’s Aaron Craft in the round of 32 in 2013.
The Mayor returned to Ames to revitalize Iowa State basketball, leading the Cyclones to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. This year’s team is Iowa State’s best since 2001 when the Cyclones lost to 15th-seeded Hampton in the first round.
Can he reach the Final Four this year? It will be tough. Iowa State looked like a Final Four contender at the end of the season, but that was before Georges Niang was lost for the remainder of the year.
9. Dana Altman, Oregon
Closest call: Oregon lost 77-69 to Louisville in the Sweet 16 in 2013.
Altman has taken three teams to the NCAA Tournament and failed to win 20 games only once since 1999. Though he wasn’t the first choice at Oregon, he’s breathed new life into the program in the last two seasons.
Can he reach the Final Four soon? Maybe. Oregon is still a notch below Arizona and UCLA, but Oregon is the kind of program that could catch fire in a season or Tournament to reach the Final Four.
10. Scott Drew, Baylor
Closest call: Baylor lost in the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012
Drew is a divisive coach for some reason, despite taking over one of the toughest situations in college basketball and creating a viable Big 12 program. Drew has twice led Baylor to the Elite Eight where the Bears lost to the eventual champions (Duke in 2010 and Kentucky in 2012)
Can he reach the Final Four this season? Sure. Baylor has the talent to compete with Arizona and Wisconsin in its bracket and just blew out Creighton.
The next 10:
11. Fran McCaffery, Iowa
Iowa is the fourth program McCaffery has taken to the Tournament, which has yielded two wins, both at Siena.
12. Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt
One of the best offensive Xs and Os coaches in the league, Stallings may have missed a window for a deep Tournament when John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli left.
13. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Cronin needed four seasons to pull the Bearcats out of the cellar, but he’s reached four consecutive Tourneys since.
14. Matt Painter, Purdue
Like Stallings, Painter may have missed a window when his nucleus of Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore couldn’t stay healthy.
15. Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
Hamilton has seven NCAA appearances at Miami and Florida State, two programs not used to going to the Tournament.
16. Tad Boyle, Colorado
Have we mentioned how much luck is involved in going to the Final Four? This was Boyle’s best team until Spencer Dinwidde got hurt.
17. Tim Miles, Nebraska
Miles is a rising star who has built Colorado State and Nebraska into NCAA contenders.
18. Steve Alford, UCLA
Alford wrestled some demons by defeating lower-seeded teams from Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin. Beating Florida is another matter.
19. Mike Anderson, Arkansas
If only NCAA Tournament games were played in Fayetteville...
20. Bob McKillop, Davidson/Rick Byrd, Belmont
Two great coaches in one-bid leagues continue to pile up wins, but their ceilings are limited. Unless Stephen Curry happens to be on the roster.