By Jason Keidel
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While there may not be a Final Four team befitting a glass slipper, there’s only one true blue blood on the hardwood this weekend.
North Carolina is not only favored to win its next game and the tournament, the Tar Heels were here last year, losing in most haunting fashion, on a Villanova 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Had the ball bounced another way, Roy Williams would now not only be a defending champion, but also seeking his fourth NCAA crown. And while that would have lifted him into a rather high historical orbit, Williams is still keeping some special company.
With his ninth Final Four appearance — four with Kansas, five with UNC — Williams only trails Dean Smith (11), John Wooden (12), and Mike Krzyzewski (12) on the all-time list. And if he wins two more games, Williams will pass his mentor (Smith) and join Coach K, Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight, and Jim Calhoun as the only coaches with at least three titles. And to do it at his alma mater, in the womb of his hardwood coaching career, has to give the opportunity extra heft.
There seems to be five coaches a bit above the pack, and Williams seems to stack up well against each.
Bill Self, who’s coaching at Williams’ old home (Kansas), appears to be eternally beguiled by the Elite 8. He enters every season with a roster stuffed with McDonald’s All-Americans, only to sputter before the Final Four. If not for Mario Chalmers, Self wouldn’t even be in the discussion. But still, suffice it to say, Bill needs a little more Self-help (sorry!) before he can lay claim to the top of the coaching totem pole. Frankly, another title, which would be his second, is the only way to get there.
John Calipari, a recruiting genius who has solved the cultural and emotional labyrinth of the one-and-done player, has reached four Final Fours with Kentucky, though winning just one NCAA championship so far. Overall, Calipari has climbed into the Final Four six times, including trips with UMass and Memphis. Like Self, he’s come agonizingly close several times, including that Chalmers jump-shot loss to Self in the 2008 title game. While Coach Cal was at Memphis, he had another nuclear roster led by Derrick Rose and fellow All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts, who had a brief career in the NBA.
Rick Pitino, for some reason, feels particularly tethered to Calipari. Maybe it’s all the vowels in the last name. Maybe it’s the similar age, wage, vociferous style, slick hair, slicker wardrobe, and national importance. Pitino has Calipari beat in national titles (2-1) and in Final Fours (7-6). He’s about six years Calipari’s senior, which could explain the slight lead. Just based on his bio, it looks like Pitino is Williams’ closest comparison, even if it doesn’t feel that way this week, with Williams in the Final Four and Louisville getting bounced way earlier than expected by the early darlings of March Madness, Michigan.
But if Williams is looking up, not down or to his side, it’s really a matter of Coach K, Williams’ colleague, competitor, and pal (so we hear). The iconic Duke coach has a pretty padded lead, with five overall titles, all with Duke, including two since 2010. If Williams can squeeze out a ring this year, he will have three since 2005 — and perhaps a claim as the preeminent active coach, or at least the most dominant over the last dozen years.
[graphiq id=”9PohpMr1yKh” title=”North Carolina Tar Heels Tournament History” width=”600″ height=”464″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/9PohpMr1yKh” link=”http://ncaa-basketball-teams.pointafter.com/l/195/North-Carolina-Tar-Heels-Mens-Basketball” link_text=”PointAfter | Graphiq” ]
What may surprise you is how alarmingly similar their records are. The aggregate total of wins depends largely on age. But the five biggest coaches in college hoops win at almost identical rates.
Williams has a career record of 814-216, for a .790 winning percentage. Pitino’s coaching mark is 770-271 (.740). Calipari sports a 694-193 record (.782). Bill Self has a 623-193 record (.763).
Krzyzewski? The only coach to crack 1,000 wins, Coach K’s coaching mark is 1,071-330, for a .764 winning percentage.
So, all of the esteemed coaches mentioned here have won between 74 and 78 percent of the games they’ve coached. But we all know the ultimate measure of the man and coach, the wholly American metric, is championships.
And if Williams can escape Phoenix with two wins, he will push himself past the pack of three, with only Coach K to pursue, nudging himself onto the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel