Final Four coaches separating themselves from peers

The Final Four isn't the only barometer for a coach's success, but it never hurts. This year's crop of four is showing itself to be elite, writes Andy Katz.

Originally Published: March 27, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

The Final Four isn't the only barometer for a coach's success. Shoot, neither Gene Keady nor John Chaney ever got to one and that doesn't seem to crush their credentials.

It sure doesn't hurt, though.

John Thompson III and Thad Matta made it to Atlanta in year three at Georgetown and Ohio State, respectively. Ben Howland is making back-to-back appearances in years three and four at UCLA. This is Billy Donovan's third Final Four at Florida, with a chance for consecutive national titles. It's clear we're dealing with four top coaches who have elevated themselves to a higher level in the sport.

Donovan can put himself on a Hall of Fame fast track if he wins the title again Monday night. Howland has built three different programs, getting Northern Arizona to the NCAAs, resurrecting Pitt and then taking UCLA to consecutive Final Fours -- and with Kevin Love arriving in the fall, a third straight trip is hardly a reach. JT3 turned around the Hoyas in a short time, too, taking a Princeton-based offense and letting it fly with better players. Matta hit the jackpot with the best center recruit since at least Tim Duncan, packaged with teammate and MVP playmaker Mike Conley Jr. He did that while also using veteran players who fit into their roles at the right time.

So, as the four coaches prepare for this weekend's national stage, it's worth reflecting a bit with their colleagues about how they did it.

Billy Donovan

Turning point: Once Donovan decided to go after players he wanted to coach, ones who would fit his style rather than carrying five-star recruiting ratings, things changed. Sure, Corey Brewer was a McDonald's All-American, and Al Horford originally committed to Michigan, but Donovan still saw plenty of upside in Joakim Noah (who was recruited by high majors, too), took a gamble on point guard Taurean Green, and took on a shooter in Lee Humphrey who wasn't necessarily first on everyone's list, either.

Billy Donovan
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDonovan would reach a rare level with back-to-back national titles.
The result? His players have gotten better in the program, and Donovan hasn't had to deal with the agent/NBA- related issues in the past couple of seasons that he did with guys like Mike Miller, Donnell Harvey, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson.

Handling pressure: Of course, Donovan had a huge boost in getting back to the Final Four once Horford, Noah, Green and Brewer decided to return after winning the title last year as sophomores. But how he handled the fishbowl is what impresses his colleagues most.

"He has been unfazed," Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings said. "I'm amazed how he handled all those expectations. I don't know if anyone has ever handled that as perfectly as he has over the past year. It is brilliant, and there should be a study on how to do it in the future, using him."

Larry Shyatt, who has worked with coaches like Rick Barnes in the past, is now Donovan's defensive mind on the bench.

"He has an unbelievable gift to strike the right chords," Shyatt said. "Everybody can run a practice, but not everyone can push the right buttons. We've dealt with everybody's bull's-eye.

"I've worked with outstanding people, and he wants to find out more about offense, defense and always [is] questioning to get better," Shyatt said. "That's what separates him for me."

What's next? Of course, the expectation is that Donovan is on the move to Kentucky or the Miami Heat or wherever. But as of now, all sources indicate he's staying put at Florida -- and if that's the case, you can expect Donovan's name to be all over everything basketball in Gainesville since he is the face of the program. Recruiting is never easy, but there's no reason to expect Florida to fade in any facet, which should keep Donovan and the Gators at elite status for years to come and provide the chance that Donovan could one day join his mentor, Rick Pitino, in the Hall of Fame.

Ben Howland

Turning point: This may sound simple, but when Howland got Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo to commit, he was making the statement that UCLA can lock up the best players in Southern California. Recruiting them -- and getting them to adopt to his system and avoid outside influences -- has enabled Howland to build UCLA on his terms.

Howland did get Steve Lavin-era players Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins to buy into what he wanted, but as Kerry Keating, Howland's assistant, said recently, the Bruins also did a good job identifying players who fit their system -- like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya and Darren Collison -- guys who weren't necessarily first on the lists of other top programs.

If there was one game, one play, that seemed to identify Howland's style, system and substance, it was probably against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 last season. Farmar's steal on J.P. Batista helped lead the Bruins to a thrilling win that got the Bruins on their run that ended in the title-game loss to Florida.

Handling pressure: Few handle it better than Howland. He runs his program like a strong man, with his influence at every spot: the way they play, the schedule, the staff, etc.

"It's not just one thing, it's everything," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, Howland's good friend who worked for Howland at Northern Arizona and Pitt and lost to him in this season's Sweet 16. "He gets good players and gets them to play well. And he's at home [near where he was raised] and he's getting players to stay home. The timing was perfect. He's a good coach, at the right program, at the right time."

What's next? Lavin once told me that you can't go to another college job from UCLA, and that's the case for Howland. He's not going to go anywhere else. The only other option could be the NBA at some point -- and, if anything, it would probably be in L.A. Howland isn't running for the money anytime soon, though. He is loading up in talent to ensure that the Bruins are the team to beat in recruiting and on the court, and coaching his dream school back to elite status is enough to keep him in Westwood for a while.

John Thompson III

Turning point: Well, making the decision to come to Georgetown is a good place to start. It wasn't a slam dunk. If you remember, JT3 was perfectly happy at Princeton. He wasn't running to follow in his father's footsteps, even though there was a Craig Esherick era in between, since he was completely comfortable at Princeton. He played there. He coached there. His mentor was Pete Carril. But once Thompson got on board (and the Hoyas decided to pay a bit more than they had in the past), it was quickly obvious he was going to be a hit.

"He's done an unbelievable job," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who should know since he has coached against both father and son in the Big East. "I knew they were better right away. They could have gotten [to the Final Four] last year." Georgetown narrowly lost to Florida in the Sweet 16 in '06.

"He's incorporated the fast break with the Princeton offense and is also very good defensively," Boeheim said. "I knew in the first year that there was a marked improvement."

It's hard to pinpoint one game, but this season's NCAA Tournament run, which has included money shots by Jeff Green (against Vanderbilt) and Jonathan Wallace (to tie the game against North Carolina on Sunday) is easy to point at. Moreover, Thompson has been able to get his players to quickly pick up his system and has gotten his father involved again as an influential force in the program.

Handling pressure: There are still some remnants of Hoya Paranoia, like assistants not talking to the media, but that's a small thing. Thompson, at least from this perspective, has been as inviting as any coach in the country and doesn't seem to be bothered by any added stress. Any pressure is self-inflicted. Thompson's late-game management of games against Vanderbilt and North Carolina was exceptional. He never seems rattled, and his intense-but-not-frantic face is a huge plus for a team going this deep in the NCAAs for the first time.

What's next? Georgetown is going to have to pay up. The Hoyas need to ensure that Thompson is one of the highest-paid coaches in the Big East. He has earned the right to renegotiate. If the Hoyas go cheap (which would be foolish and seems unlikely), his moving on at some point isn't a stretch. If he stays, the school should simply name everything around the hoops facilities "John Thompson" and let the family name rule.

Thad Matta

Turning point: Recruiting. Recruiting. Recruiting. Matta already had made inroads on the Thad Five while he was still coaching at Xavier, so getting Greg Oden, Mike Conley, David Lighty, Daequan Cook and Othello Hunter (a juco player) was done early in his time with the Buckeyes.

"You can't forget that they had an unbelievable recruiting class," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of Matta reaching the Final Four in year three. "And he did it with a great blend between that and players like [Ron] Lewis and [Ivan] Harris. Everyone talks about the freshmen, but they don't win it with just the freshmen. It was Lewis and [Jamar] Butler, too."

If there was a turning-point game, it may have been the win over Illinois in Matta's first season. Beating the Illini in the final regular-season game to hand them their first loss of the season (when the Buckeyes weren't allowed to go to the postseason) was a monumental win. It proved that Matta had something special brewing in Columbus. He has talked about the importance of that win on a number of occasions.

Of course, winning the Big Ten title in year two also was a major coup. That also was a credit to his hard work that clearly translates to his players.

Handling pressure: Matta has done just fine during his stints at Butler, Xavier and now Ohio State. His late-game management hasn't been called into question, and his ability to recruit, under pressure, to close the deal, also is a huge plus. He's about as intense a game coach as there is in the sport. His desire to win, his passion for every possession, is clear. But his players also genuinely enjoy playing hard for him. That's not an easy thing to get done, but he's been able to do that without a hiccup at his various stops.

What's next? It's hard to see Matta leaving Ohio State. He has the Buckeyes rolling as well as anyone could imagine. Like Thompson, Matta is recruiting well for next season, allowing him to keep the Buckeyes as the team to beat in the Big Ten and as a national contender. No, the Big Ten isn't easy. Wisconsin and Michigan State always will be thorns for the Buckeyes as long as Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo are coaching at those schools. Indiana has Eric Gordon coming in and Kelvin Sampson in charge. Bruce Weber and Illinois have a monster home court in Champaign. Purdue should be a factor in the coming years. Minnesota could be on the rise with Tubby Smith. Still, Matta doesn't appear to be looking to do anything else but keep this program as a flagship in the Big Ten.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com