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Hall Of Fame Coaches Could Be The Giant-Killers This Year

It’s the first week of the men’s NCAA Tournament. Your team is on a roll, having won its past 14 games, along with regular-season and conference tournament championships. That leads to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which means it should be favored, and the game will be your team’s best opportunity to advance since 2015 (after the tournament was canceled on last year’s elite team). Then tip-off arrives, and the teams take the floor. The No. 11 seed on the other sideline is Syracuse. The coach is Jim Boeheim.

That’s the fate San Diego State will meet in this year’s NCAA Tournament, as a top-20 team pitted against the rare lower-seeded Hall of Fame coach. And the Aztecs have company in this year’s Big Dance. If FiveThirtyEight’s predictions hold for the First Four, BYU will have the pleasure of facing Tom Izzo and No. 11 Michigan State in a first-round matchup. (The Spartans have to get by fellow No. 11 UCLA first.) In the same region, No. 2 seed Alabama, which has its best team in school history, drew the most overqualified underdog of them all — Rick Pitino, the Hall of Fame coach of No. 15 seed Iona.

From the tournament’s expansion to 64 teams in 1985 to 2019, only eight teams seeded ninth or worse were led by someone who had already been inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach. (And only two games featured a Hall of Famer as low as a No. 11 seed.) There could be three such games this weekend alone. The nation’s top programs suffered some historic struggles this season, and now those struggles have translated into a most unusual sight: coaching icons wielding the proverbial slingshot.

Only a few Hall of Fame coaches were underdogs

Hall of Fame-coached men’s basketball teams seeded ninth or worse in the NCAA Tournament, since 1985

NCAA Tournament
season school coach seed Finish
2017-18 Syracuse Jim Boeheim 11 Lost regional semifinal
2016-17 Michigan State Tom Izzo 9 Lost second round
2015-16 Syracuse Jim Boeheim* 10 Lost national semifinal
2011-12 Connecticut Jim Calhoun 9 Lost first round
2006-07 Texas Tech Bob Knight 10 Lost first round
2003-04 Arizona Lute Olson 9 Lost first round
1994-95 Indiana Bob Knight 9 Lost first round
1994-95 Louisville Denny Crum 11 Lost first round

*Boeheim was suspended for nine games during the 2015-16 regular season.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

In fact, this obscure club could have gained a couple more members, had the end of the season gone differently. Roy Williams’s North Carolina, which finished 10-6 in the ACC, narrowly escaped the No. 9 line and ended up as a No. 8 seed against Wisconsin. If the Tar Heels advance, they could provide Baylor with an abnormally stressful second-round game. Mike Krzyzewski and Duke — the highest-ranked team not selected for the tournament, according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metrics — might also have grabbed one of the last few bids if the Blue Devils could have advanced in the ACC Tournament. (A positive COVID-19 test ended their season.) Kentucky and its Hall of Fame coach, John Calipari, missed the tournament altogether but could have joined the underdogs had they managed to win the SEC Tournament. And Bill Self and Kansas were at one point tracking for a lower seed, after having fallen out of the AP Top 25, but rebounded for a No. 3 seed. 

Only seven men’s Hall of Fame coaches are currently active in Division I,1 and the giant-killer role is almost completely unfamiliar to them. Krzyzewski was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2001; his team had been a No. 6 seed or better every year since 1997. North Carolina has missed the NCAA Tournament once2 since Williams went into the Hall of Fame in 2007 but has never been in the underdog’s position in the first round. Kentucky was a No. 5 seed or better for five straight years entering last season’s cancellation. Kansas owns the nation’s longest active NCAA Tournament streak at 31 tournaments and has been a No. 4 seed or better in 29 of those 31 trips.

Boeheim and Izzo have brief experience as underdog Hall of Famers, along with Denny Crum (at Louisville), Lute Olson (at Arizona), Jim Calhoun (at Connecticut) and Bob Knight (at Indiana and Texas Tech). But interestingly, these legendary masterminds haven’t always overachieved on the lower seed line. In five of their eight tries, they lost in the first round. Izzo (at Michigan State in 2017) beat No. 8 seed Miami in the first round and then lost to Kansas.

The master of the Cinderella run, at least in Hall of Fame circles, is Boeheim. In the past seven seasons, Syracuse has finished no better than 9-7 in the ACC, so the Orange have been forced to make NCAA Tournament runs the hard way. In 2016, they reached the Final Four as a No. 10 seed, and two years later, they snuck into the Sweet 16 via the First Four. They beat Arizona State, TCU and then Izzo’s third-seeded Michigan State team, before losing to Duke.

Perhaps Boeheim has some March magic left for this year’s team. In the last week of the regular season, Syracuse beat North Carolina and Clemson — not marquee wins, exactly, but they were enough to bring its NCAA Tournament resume to life — and then won its ACC Tournament opener against NC State before losing to Virginia on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Michigan State, similarly, made its case only in the last two weeks of the regular season, when it upset Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan.

The wild card here is Pitino, who is four seeds lower than any Hall of Famer has ever gone. In his first season, Iona paused multiple times with COVID-19 complications, didn’t play from Dec. 23 until Feb. 12 and completed just 17 games. But Pitino, who has twice cut down the nets at the end of the season, still found a way to take the Gaels dancing with four wins in five days last week. “I told them I was packing eight suits,” he told reporters Saturday night. It turns out old habits die hard.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Villanova coach Jay Wright is a finalist for this year’s class.

  2. The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled, but had it been held, North Carolina would not have been invited.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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