Monday, March 25, 2013

Winning the March Lottery

By Corrie Trouw

Listen closely, loyal reader. Your clicks on this website are about to pay off.

I have some lottery numbers guaranteed to make somebody millions of dollars. How can I be so sure? Because these same numbers do so every year. Write these down: 1, 68, 2, 16, and 4.

You see, every March, a few college basketball coaches parlay Cinderella tournament runs into much better jobs. They start by being 1 of the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament. From there, they win 2 games in a weekend to get into the Sweet 16. And then, during the 4 days after the tournament's first weekend, when the dust settles, bigger schools take notice.

This strange process condenses years of work into one winner-take-millions judgment. Coaches spend years toiling as assistants, months recruiting players, and weeks grinding in preparation during each season, but the biggest breaks in their careers fall out from two games sous vide into a weekend in March.

Of course, the goal of sports is to win. But the narrative surrounding single-game performances are comically over-wrought with meaning. In 2010, Butler's Gordon Hayward nearly won the national championship game with a half-court heave, the shot only careening off the rim by a few slices of Spalding. And yet, had that shot gone in, we would remember that game so differently. Duke and Mike Krzyzewski would still be known for their championship drought and the tournament would have had its first true small conference winner in the 64+-team era. Should one near-miss really have that kind of influence on history?

Recent college basketball history is littered with poor coaching hires that seemed to place too much emphasis on tournament success. The poster child case came in 1999, when Dan Monson famously led Gonzaga to three tournament wins, leading to his hiring at Minnesota. Monson never really elevated the Gophers (who had been to the Final Four just a few years earlier), in large part because of the fallout from his predecessor, Clem Haskins, leaving amid scandal.

Was the Minnesota job especially difficult given the circumstances? Of course. But Minnesota knew the potential turmoil ahead and should have hired someone experienced or capable of handling that adversity instead of trying to bottle Monson's fortune as some kind of cure-all.

Let's be clear: I don't blame Stan Heath for leaving Kent State for an unimpressive stint at Arkansas or Darrin Horn for turning his 2008 run at Western Kentucky into a forgettable shot at South Carolina. The coaching profession is a pyramid scheme, where the right alchemy can precipitate an offer from a major program and the millions of dollars that come with it.

But the schools should know better. Just as Monson wasn't prepared for what awaited him at Minnesota, Horn's struggles at South Carolina should have been foreseeable. Horn spent 11 of his 17 years in college basketball to that point at WKU and another two a few hours away at Morehead State. The Hilltoppers were decent in his five years as head coach, but only won their league twice and prior to their 2008 Sweet 16 run, had not made the NCAA tournament under Horn. And yet, the South Carolina brass fell in love with a really good weekend from his team.

All of which brings us to the case of Florida Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfield. Enfield's Eagles became the first 15-seed to win two tournament games, and when the tournament is over in a few weeks, Enfield will likely be a popular candidate for more glamorous or lucrative jobs.

Enfield's team had a terrific weekend, one that will be remembered in tournament lore. But to what extent does this run suggest future success on a larger stage?

You might expect me to be as cautious about Butler's Brad Stevens or VCU's Shaka Smart, both of whom led mid-majors into hallowed Final Four ground. And maybe immediately after those runs, I would have had the same hesitations.

But at this point, Stevens and Smart have demonstrated both staying power and method. Both coaches' programs have beaten major competitors outside of their initial Cinderella Marches on a regular basis. But even more so, each understands the disadvantages of his program and embraces unorthodox methods to get around them.

Stevens' roster isn't packed with high school All-Americans? He employs an analytics assistant. Smart's players are big and fast, but not as polished as the top programs'. He employs a variant of Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell and schedules surprise SEAL training to prepare for it.

In these cases, tournament wins were nice, tangible exhibits that the two could coach, but the talent that will lead to their success at bigger programs (sorry, Bulldog and Ram fans) was there regardless those outcomes.

The tournament is a blast, and certainly coaching impacts outcomes. But schools looking for an ascending coaching star shouldn't let a few days in March outweigh a lifetime's worth of coaching performance.

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