Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Coaching the Cause Behind Weak First Weekend

By Joshua Duffy

I love the NCAA tournament. Let's just get that out of the way. I refuse to work those first two days. I spend countless hours at the bar not talking to my wife and kids (and I really like my wife and kids). In fact, most of March (and a good chunk of February) is spent on the NCAA tournament.

Spreadsheets. I have spreadsheets. Lots of them. I keep track of all kinds of stuff, like the winning percentage of teams with the better efficiency split in second round games (72.9% from 2003 through 2011) and the fact that between 2006 and 2011, only one out of 66 teams with a rebounding margin under 0.5 made the Elite Eight (something to keep in mind, Syracuse fans).

So believe me when I tell you — I love the NCAA tournament.

And that's what makes this that much harder to say:

This year's tournament has sucked.

Okay, maybe "sucked" is a bit harsh. It hasn't sucked like watching "The Voice" sucks, or listening to a couple of grandmothers debate coupons while your football team loses the Super Bowl sucks. But by NCAA tournament standards, the first and second rounds of 2012 have left much to be desired.

I mean, did you see that Cincinnati/Florida State game on Sunday night? Or Texas/Cincinnati? Or South Florida/Temple? Or any of the Thursday games?

One of the main causes of this is the terrible officiating, which has been discussed everywhere over the past few days. Too many of these officials suck at their jobs, and there's really not a whole lot else to say about it.

Another much less talked about cause for the decrease in quality of games has been the coaching. Here are a few notes from the "my wife thinks I'm stupid for tracking this stuff" file:

* Temple's Fran Dunphy is revered, and he does have that good ol' curmudgeonly coach who always looks like he's half drunk appeal to him, but his tournament record sucks. He's won exactly two NCAA tournament game in his career. The first was with Penn in 1994. He's been 12 tournaments since then with a record of 1-11 in first-round games. In two of the last three years, the Owls have been on the wrong end of a 12-5 upset. He's 63. In the corporate world, we'd be working on a succession plan right about now.

* On the other edge of the age spectrum, Memphis coach Josh Pastner is now 0-2 with losses to Arizona in 2011 (coached by a great tournament coach in Sean Miller) and St. Louis in 2012, coached by Rick Majerus (now 11-1 in first-round games). Tough luck, but it might help to start recruiting a little more grit instead of just athleticism.

(That's really the third and probably biggest cause for the drop in play — kids being developed by influence-peddling AAU vultures who cater to stars instead of coaching fundamentals. The game has devolved because the teaching part of coaching has gotten trampled by the marketing part.)

(The fourth reason — no Gus Johnson. You think the lack of OT games or buzzer beaters is a coincidence? No way. We need Gus Johnson back right now.)

(And now back to ripping bad coaches.)

* If I was a Vanderbilt fan, I would hate having Kevin Stallings as my coach. That guy is sooooo good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It's amazing! His performance down the stretch in the second-round loss to Wisconsin was legendarily bad (not using one of his two timeouts with the ball down two and 17 seconds on the clock). He's now underperformed his seeding in three of their last four tournament appearances.

* One step worse is John Thompson III, who should really just change his name to "John Thank God I'm Legacy Because Otherwise I'd Be Lucky to Work the Ivy League Thompson III." That's four straight years of underperforming his team's seed, and the Hoyas haven't made even a Sweet 16 since the Final Four in 2007. And he's been a two-seed once and a three-seed twice since then.

* Stallings and Thompson are bad, but the real "I can't believe you have one of the highest paid jobs in sports" award is still the property of Texas' Rick Barnes. In fact, we're just going to name the god damned thing for him. From now on, it's the God Damn Rick Barnes Award For Extremely Poor Coaching.

Now I can maybe talk myself around giving Barnes a pass on his team coming out flat against Cincinnati. They're young. It happens. And they were an 11 seed, so they were supposed to lose. (Then again, so was NC State.) But the shoddy management of his team in the final three minutes of that game (when it was tied at 52) is unforgivable. Barnes is now just 10-10 in 20 career first-round tournament games between Providence, Clemson, and Texas. He's over-performed seeding expectations just once in those 20 tournaments (Sweet 16 as a six-seed in 2004), and under-performed eight times.

Barnes has failed to make the second weekend in nine of his 14 tournaments with the Longhorns, and has just one Final Four despite some of the best players in college hoops playing under his leadership.

* Frank Haith. Damn, dude. I don't care who gave you what award, that was an all-time choke job. You're going to need at least a Final Four run, if not an outright title, to keep the opening-round loss to Norfolk State from defining your legacy in Missouri (the state, not just the school). This isn't Duke where they can lean back on their history and trust funds to make themselves feel better. Missouri fans were set up for the greatest run of their lives, the chance to finally equal Kansas in basketball glory. They were all-in emotionally. And you blew it in the worst possible way. Good luck in the SEC.

* Hey, was that Mike Brey going out in the first weekend for the fifth tournament in a row, with three of those losses coming in the first round as the higher seed? It was? Wow. Great job, Mike. Glad to know that in this crazy world of uncertainty, we can always count on you. Don't let them get you down there in South Bend, coach. You and I know consistency is way more important than winning.

(Ah, I feel better now. I really do.)

The good news is that we should have gotten all of the crap out of the way over the weekend. Of course the officials will still be the officials, but the coaches remaining are the cream of the crop.

By my count, five of the remaining 16 coaches are Hall of Fame locks: Jim Boeheim (Syracuse, who is already in), John Calipari (Kentucky), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Rick Pitino (Louisville), and Roy Williams (North Carolina).

Behind them, four more have a good shot at the all-time greatness depending on whether they can keep up their current level of success: Billy Donovan (Florida), Bo Ryan (Wisconsin), Thad Matta (Ohio State), and Bill Self (Kansas).

(Quick side note from the Louisville/Michigan State game on Thursday: Pitino is a career 9-0 in Sweet 16 games. Izzo is 7-2. Coaching will not be an issue in that one.)

That's nine of the current 16 coaches still active in the NCAA tournament that could potentially end up in the Hall of Fame, and while it's way too early to put any kind of HOF potential label on Chris Mack (Xavier), Buzz Williams (Marquette), Tom Crean (Indiana), Scott Drew (Baylor), and Mark Gottfried (NC State), all five look to be at the beginning of potentially great runs at their current schools.

Hell, even Ohio's John Groce, an assistant at three of the other Sweet 16 schools (NC State, Xavier, Ohio State) before landing the Bobcats job, is now 2-0 in first-round games.

(And then there's Mick Cronin, who is just ... Mick Cronin.)

So there you have it, sports fans. The first weekend may have disappointed, but the cream has risen to the top, and now we're in for some good ball.

Now if we can just get some damn decent officials.

And Gus Johnson.

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