- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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The college game is stiflingly overcoached. Very few fans seem to mind. Some even seem to like it that way. How can this be?
Coaches are the stars of the college basketball show. Fans identify with these guys not only because they look and act like fans on the sidelines, but because they got to that place through an entirely relatable pathway: They were smart, and they worked hard.
Very few people can play the game at a level worth dreaming about. There probably aren't very many more capable of coaching it that well, either, but that's not the point. The point is we all like to think we can.
Which brings us to today's argument, one of the college game's classic prompts for exactly the reasons listed above: All else being equal, including talent, resources, venue and crowd, which coach is the college game's best? "Best," in this instance, removes recruiting and season-long development, which are the two most important factors in any coach's success.
This is the thought experiment: Say you had two generic, identical teams set to play this Saturday. A coach gets between now and then to prepare his team. He coaches from the sideline throughout. The players in this scenario are essentially chess pieces sitting on a life-sized board. Your job is to pick a Grandmaster. Whom would you choose?
I've been having some version of this argument with friends and fellow fans since I was 10 years old, and I'm pretty sure there is no right answer. But here are a few nominees:
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: Coach K's inclusion in this list shouldn't need a lot of explanation; the dude has won more games than any other coach in college hoops history, and should top the unfathomable 1,000-win mark some time in the next couple of seasons. Duh, right? And yet, there is sure to be some backlash here. Some would argue that Coach K's talent has been so good for so long he hasn't had to be strategically superior to his coaching opponents.
That might be true more often than not; Duke does take in more than its fair share of All-Americans every year. But for all of the borderline militaristic discipline Krzyzewski evinces, the fact is there has never been a better basketball coach in the sport's history at adapting his tactics to his talent and his matchups every season -- even every game.
The past decade of Duke basketball tells the story: The Blue Devils have played very fast (2006, 2008), very slow (2010) and at an average pace. They've created offense through spread-floor shooting, iso pick-and-roll attacking and brutish offensive rebounding (see: Zoubek, Brian). They've slapped the floor and created tons of turnovers, or sunk into a rebound-obsessed defensive shell. Often, these philosophical changes happen from one year to the next.
And all the while, Coach K has posted some of the most consistent after-timeout efficiency numbers in the sport, according to Synergy scouting data. A sample: 0.91 points per possession in 2009-10, 0.974 in 2010-11, 0.93 in 2011-12, 0.976 in 2012-13. Whatever impact coaches have on games between whistles, it is felt most acutely when they have spent the previous 60 seconds (or three minutes) with the clipboard in their hands. Coach K has been one of the best -- maybe the best -- then, too.
In other words, don't overthink it. Dude really is that good.
Rick Pitino, Louisville: This is slightly trickier. That's not to say Pitino isn't an immensely good game coach. Indeed, there is no more entertaining sideline presence in the sport, and I'm not talking about anguished facial expressions and bulging eyes. Pitino is entertaining because he's the one coach in the game that can genuinely convince you he has Jedi powers. His amorphous defense shifts between ball pressure and trapping seamlessly, and sometimes it looks like Pitino is genuinely moving players with his mind -- the closest thing to the chess metaphor college basketball has. Then he snaps his fingers, and on cue his team traps that hapless opposing point guard into a turnover and a score. It's strange and oddly beautiful in a way.
The only concerns here might arise from the fact that Pitino's personnel typically fits a certain type. He is at his best when he has put together talented, deep teams with guards quick enough to press and shot-blockers dominant enough to change shots when the dribble is allowed past Louisville's outer layer; it is not easy to put these kinds of teams together.
But Pitino is so good on short prep and with halftime adjustments that I'm not sure, for our purposes, the personnel stuff really matters. Go back to the 2012 West Regional, when the Cardinals pressed Michigan State into oblivion and changed their whole defense for a second-half rally against Florida. No matter who you put in the laundry, that guy is going to figure something out.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State: For many years, Izzo was the undisputed king of the one-game-one-coach argument (at least in Big Ten country, where I grew up). His success in the NCAA tournament -- Izzo has gone to six Final Fours since 1999, including a couple with players no one would describe as "vintage" -- helped cement this reputation. So did Izzo's apparent specialty: A seemingly endless cache of out-of-bounds plays.
Has some of the luster worn off? Not really, even if he would have to admit Pitino outscouted and outcoached his No. 1-seeded Spartans in 2012. The argument against Izzo is not about his output -- it was just a few years ago that Michigan State made back-to-back Final Four runs, after all -- but about the fact that his greatest strength is his ability to pace his team's development throughout the season. By March, MSU is (usually) firing on all cylinders. That's not a coincidence.
That concern aside, though, let's be real: If you go to that many Final Fours in a relatively short period of time, you clearly have a special knack not only for building your team all season long but for short scout turnarounds and on-the-fly adjustments. You can't not. It's how the Spartans' coach earned his reputation 15 years ago, and it remains as viable as ever.
So those are probably my top three -- with a special nod to former Butler coach Brad Stevens, who would have made it a top four, and an emphasis on "probably." There are a handful of others worthy of honorable mention: Marquette's Buzz Williams hasn't missed a Sweet 16 in the past three years, and uses advanced stats in his game preps more fluently than any coach in the country. John Calipari was long dogged as an all-talent, no-chops recruiting wizard, and while I wouldn't put him in the same space tactically as Coach K or Pitino, he's about eight bajillion times better than a lot of people still seem to think. Bill Self may have a few tournament hiccups on his otherwise sterling résumé, but after-TO data reveals a consistently high rate of in-game success (plus there is, you know, all of the wins). And I'll be interested to see what Syracuse fans (or others) will say about Jim Boeheim, whose greatness is undeniable, even if his coaching style doesn't typically involve constant adjustments. (It's more like: Hey, here's our zone. See if you can score against it. Probably not.) Billy Donovan? Shaka Smart? Fred Hoiberg?
Of course, there are plenty of less-heralded but very smart guys out there, even at major programs -- people like Dana Altman, Gregg Marshall and Lon Kruger -- and dozens upon dozens of more in the mid-majors and lower divisions. But I can't name them all. Even if I could, the argument would rage on forever. We all might think we can be the head coach, but it's surely just as much fun to argue from a distance.