This article is part of our March Madness series.
After 11 seasons as a player and 22 as a coach in the NBA, Mike Woodson is finally returning to March Madness, for the first time since his playing career under Bob Knight at Indiana. Tasked with returning the Hoosiers to their glory days, Woodson has his alma mater back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. But until Sunday, he took nothing for granted. Even after he had led Indiana past conference No. 1 seed Illinois in the Big Ten quarterfinals Friday, Woodson responded to a question about the NCAA Tournament by asking, “Are you sure we’re in the tournament?” (A reporter replied, “I would guarantee you’re in the tournament,” and sure enough, Indiana was.)
The Hoosiers snuck in as one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament, where they will play Wyoming in the First Four on Tuesday night. Jeff Linder, the coach on the other bench, will also be making his first trip to the Big Dance. In total, 18 of the 68 head coaches in this year’s men’s field are making their NCAA Tournament debuts this week, which ties the highest number of first-time coaches since the field expanded to 68 in 2011. (This year’s 18 include LSU interim head coach Kevin Nickelberry, who took over after the school fired Will Wade on Saturday.)1
But first-year coaches didn’t just make the bracket — many have a chance to win a game or even make a run. Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd, who earned Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors, has his team on the No. 1 line in the South region. Texas Tech coach Mark Adams, the Big 12 Coach of the Year, earned the Red Raiders a No. 3 seed in the West. Last year was the only other year, going back to 2011, in which two coaches earned top-four seeds in their first trips to the tournament.2 Lloyd, a longtime assistant at Gonzaga, is not just in his first NCAA Tournament but also in his first season as a head coach anywhere. The last coach to make a Final Four in his first season as a head coach was Steve Fisher at Michigan in 1989; Lloyd and Arizona have a 32 percent chance of playing until the final weekend, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.
Three other first-time coaches are also leading higher seeds in first-round games: Nickelberry and No. 6 seed LSU, Niko Medved and No. 6 seed Colorado State, and Hubert Davis and No. 8 seed North Carolina. And three more — Penny Hardaway of No. 9 seed Memphis, Todd Golden of No. 10 seed San Francisco and Drew Valentine of No. 10 seed Loyola of Chicago — are in first-round matchups that are virtual toss-ups.3 If even half of the top-10 seeds advance to the second round, and half of those move on to the second weekend, this will be the most successful tournament for first-time coaches in the past decade.4
These coaches took wildly different paths to get here: Some — such as Lloyd, Valentine and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s Steve Lutz — are in their first year as a head coach anywhere. At the other extreme, there’s Adams, who toiled at the lower levels of college basketball for decades. His lone previous Division I job was at the University of Texas-Pan American (now University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) from 1992 to 1997; his current ascent began when he joined Chris Beard’s staff at Little Rock in 2015 and then followed Beard to Texas Tech. Since he started coaching college basketball in 1981, Adams has not been a head coach on the game’s biggest stage.
It seems prophetic that an impressive number of coaches have made breakthroughs to the NCAA Tournament the same year Mike Krzyzewski makes his last trip with Duke and the year after Roy Williams’s last trip with North Carolina. Between those two, 66 tournament appearances, 176 tournament wins and 21 Final Fours are walking out the door. For the past 12 months, the sport has been defined by a changing of the guard. Davis succeeded Williams for his first head coaching job and made the Big Dance in that first season. And unless something goes awry with what is now the nation’s top-ranked 2022 recruiting class, Jon Scheyer will likely do the same in replacing Krzyzewski at Duke.
As for the eight coaches leading teams seeded 13th or lower, they’ll be wielding slingshots this week, but they could find themselves in good company. By definition, those low- to mid-major schools are typically led by up-and-coming coaches and not NCAA Tournament veterans. Since 2011, 11 of the 21 coaches to pull off first-round upsets from the No. 13 line or below were making their tournament debuts — proving that bracket busting requires no experience.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.