#1 Duke defeated #2 Gonzaga

Mark Few finally made the Elite Eight this year. But there sure is a different feeling between making the Elite Eight and making the Final Four. Mark Few remains arguably the best active coach to have never gone to the Final Four.

My opening table shows the average offense and average defense of active D1 coaches over the last eight years. Coaches are ranked based on the Pythagorean winning percentage.



Current Team

Avg Off

Avg Def

Final Four


John Calipari






Bill Self






Mike Krzyzewski






Rick Pitino






Bo Ryan






Thad Matta

Ohio St.





Roy Williams

N. Carolina





Tom Izzo

Michigan St.





Jim Boeheim






Mark Few






Sean Miller






Billy Donovan






Jamie Dixon






John Thompson III






Jay Wright





Among the coaches with the best per possession numbers over the last eight years, Mark Few and Sean Miller are the best coaches without a Final Four appearance.

This table includes Miller’s time at both Xavier and Arizona. And it’s that first year at Arizona that really drags Miller down. The team Miller inherited was not in great shape, and it took him a few years to bring in his kind of players. If not for that one bad year, Miller would have even better numbers than Mark Few. You can argue that Miller has had a higher peak.

On the other hand, lots of coaches have one or two great seasons, but sustaining success for over a decade is quite an accomplishment. You can argue that if I had a longer time window that Mark Few would look like the more impressive coach. I like the eight year cut-off because it shows that over a relatively long period of time, both coaches have been dominant at the D1 level.

But this weekend, both Few and Miller came up short.

-Notably, every coach in the Final Four this year is in the Top 8 in the table.

-The table also shows that Mike Krzyzewski has been the best offensive coach over the last eight years. A large reason for that is when players step into the lineup for Duke, they are all capable of making shots. I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of Matt Jones. He’s made some threes this year, but he hasn’t been a particularly aggressive player in big games. But that changed on Sunday. Matt Jones made four threes in a game, for only the second time in his career (the first was against Furman in November). And his steal and basket in the final minute was the exclamation point on Duke’s win.

Jahlil Okafor’s struggles continued for a second straight game. Domantas Sabonis did an admirable job guarding him in the first half. Even when Sabonis had two fouls, Sabonis managed to draw a critical charge on Okafor at the end of the half.  We also saw how Okafor has things to learn. In the second half, Okafor was trying to front Przemek Karnowski, and Karnowski decided to just go with it. Karnowski blocked Okafor out of the paint which allowed Gonzaga to get a wide-open drive to the bucket. That’s the kind of savvy veteran move Okafor will have to learn to guard against in the NBA.

But I think if people think Okafor’s stock is dropping, they are being a little too critical here. Karl Anthony-Towns may have just had a dominant game against Notre Dame, but Okafor had 28 against Notre Dame a couple of weeks ago. Okafor just went up against two of the only teams in the tournament with multiple quality centers. Clearly, he didn’t play his best, but he still did some good things. Okafor’s opening steal, and nerf-the-ball bucket to open the game was pretty impressive.

In the end, the determining factor was that young talent continued to trump experience. Gonzaga’s perimeter players had played in a lot of games in their career, but Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos both had poor games. Meanwhile, a slightly hobbled Justise Winslow, and an always aggressive Tyus Jones continued to play nearly flawless basketball. Duke had only three turnovers in the whole game.

#1 Wisconsin defeated #2 Arizona

Who didn’t love Frank Kaminsky’s letter to the Wisconsin fans when he decided to return to school last year? He was a player with goals, and he realized that becoming a historic player for the Wisconsin Badgers was as important as NBA glory. This is a heartwarming story that really does seem to have a happy ending.

But we should not take this season for granted. These types of stories often don’t have happy endings. When Marcus Smart returned for his sophomore year at Oklahoma St. everything went wrong. Player injuries derailed his team. Stuck in the spotlight, Smart couldn’t handle the taunting of rival fans and lashed out. And Oklahoma St. failed to advance deep in the NCAA tournament.

We like to think that if a player returns to school and nearly everyone is back that success is automatic. But success isn’t given, it is earned. Halfway through Wisconsin’s season, PG Traevon Jackson was injured and the Badgers lost to Rutgers. If Wisconsin had faded down the stretch, they would have had a good excuse. But they never sought an excuse. The Badgers went out and won an outright Big Ten Title, a Big Ten Tournament Title, and now they are making a return trip to the Final Four. And Frank Kaminsky demanded that it happened. He demanded it with his leadership in practice. And he demanded it with his actions on the basketball court.

Against Arizona, more than he had all season, Kaminsky demanded the basketball. In the first half, he almost single-handedly got Arizona’s entire front-line in foul trouble. He wasn’t Wisconsin’s best player on the day, that honor belonged to Sam Dekker. But Kaminsky set the tone, and demanded that his return to college was validated with another Final Four trip.

And what more can I say about Sam Dekker? Obviously he was on fire from three point range. And obviously that also made his drives more difficult to defend. But I still can’t forget the image from 1:10 left in the game. I have said all year that I consider Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to be one of the best defenders in college basketball. And with the shot-clock winding down, Dekker drove on Hollis-Jefferson. At first it looked like maybe Dekker drove and pushed off Hollis-Jefferson. But the replay showed it clearly. Hollis-Jefferson couldn’t stay in front, reached in, and pushed himself backward because of Dekker’s momentum. Dekker was a star in every way on Saturday.

My heart goes out to Arizona’s TJ McConnell who so desperately wanted to get his team to the Final Four. Arizona deserved a Final Four bid after how well they played the last two years. 

But playing Wisconsin is like a test. If you make the right decisions throughout the game, you can beat them. But if you make poor decisions at any point, they always seem to capitalize. There were times in the second half when it felt like Arizona was starting to figure the test out. With Arizona down 55-48, Kaleb Tarczewski took a tough 14 foot jumper along the baseline. He missed and the lead ballooned to nine. Then the next possession, Tarczewski posted up, and got a bucket and one. Meanwhile TJ McConnell took a tough line-drive three. But shortly thereafter, he drove, posted up, and drew contact in the paint.

Wisconsin absolutely never fouls. In 2013, Wisconsin ranked 8th in free throw rate against. In 2014, Wisconsin ranked 3rd in free throw rate against. This year, Wisconsin ranks 1st in free throw rate against. But Arizona figured the test out. They weren’t going to beat the Badgers by chucking up bad jump shots. They were going to beat the Badgers by posting up, driving, and drawing contact. Arizona got 30 free throws on the day, and they made 28. It was the worst free throw rate against Wisconsin since January of 2010.

But a funny thing happened. Even though Arizona mastered the test, Wisconsin changed the rules. People sometimes use the analogy of a video game that refuses to lose. Well Arizona was playing against a Wisconsin team set on the “impossible” setting on Saturday. Wisconsin made 10 of 12 threes in the second half. And no matter how much Arizona figured things out, there is nothing you can do against a team that makes all its tough shots.

#7 Michigan St. defeated #4 Louisville

I was ready to write the Michigan St. postmortem. There were lots of what-if moments. What if Louisville’s Mangok Mathiang had been called for goaltending when he stuck his fingers through the net on a Matt Costello reverse dunk attempt late in the game? What if Michigan St.’s Marvin Clark Jr. didn’t miss those two free throws at the end of regulation? What if Mathiang hadn’t gotten such a fortunate bounce on the game-tying free throw attempt? What if Michigan St.’s Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling didn’t foul out in OT?

I was ready to write a game-story about Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear.  Blackshear began his career as a Top 30 recruit, but he was injured most of his freshman season. As a sophomore, Blackshear seemed like a player without a position. He was undersized in the paint, and not a good enough shooter on the perimeter. But as a junior Blackshear broke out. He improved as an outside shooter (40% on the season), and saw his ORtg rise to 121. He also improved as a defender, posting solid block and steal numbers. And yet in every key moment last season, Blackshear was subbed out for Luke Hancock. No one really believed he could do his damage in crunch time in a key game. In the preseason, stats folks certainly saw reason for Blackshear to be Louisville’s breakout star. But almost every expert wrote how they didn’t believe it. Blackshear couldn’t produce in the key moments. But here Blackshear was, in Louisville’s biggest game of the year, scoring 28 points on 13 shots. And Blackshear nailed a huge three pointer late in the game to draw Louisville within one. This was supposed to be his story of redemption.

Instead it was Michigan St.’s Branden Dawson’s story of payback. Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell was quoted as saying Branden Dawson didn’t have Harrell’s motor or his energy. But Dawson got the last laugh. In OT, with Michigan St. leading by just 2 points, Dawson went at Harrell, saw he wouldn’t have an open look and kicked to the corner. Bryn Forbes missed the three, but Dawson got the offensive rebound, and his offensive put-back made it a two possession game with just 36 seconds left. Louisville wouldn’t get close again.

I thought for a long time that I had jinxed the Spartans. On Friday night I wrote about how Michigan St. had become better at protecting the basketball after struggling in that area historically. And turnovers are critical in NCAA tournament games. Other than margin-of-victory, turnovers are the one stat that tends to swing the difference and we saw exactly why in this game. Louisville couldn’t make shots from the floor in the second half. In the first 16 minutes of the second half, the only FGs Louisville made were on three steals. I thought Louisville was going to steal the game, because after struggling mightily from the floor, they had to have one more hot streak in them.

But Michigan St. refused to yield those easy buckets. When Louisville got offensive rebounds or drove into the paint, Michigan St. made Louisville earn their points at the line.

And Michigan St. had just enough offense. Louisville has played Top 5 defense all year, and remember that table at the start? Rick Pitino’s teams have played the best defense in the NCAA over the last eight seasons. You have to execute to score on a Louisville squad. And Michigan St. did just enough, scoring just over 1 point per possession.

I said last weekend that Michigan St. is a team that refuses to accept its failures this year. Well, at 2-5 in OT games on the year, they were not going to lose again. And even though CBS flashed a graphic that Louisville had won 94 games in a row when leading by 6+ points at half-time, Michigan St. didn’t care. The Michigan St. team with the least recruiting talent in a decade is headed to the Final Four.

#1 Kentucky defeated #3 Notre Dame

Notre Dame is a smart offensive team. Kentucky started out the game hugging three-point shooters on the perimeter, and Notre Dame kept sliding cutters behind the defense for easy baskets. If you have read my Notre Dame recaps in this tournament, I have been critical of Notre Dame’s only real post player, Zach Auguste. But Auguste had some of the biggest and most memorable offensive rebounds of this entire tournament.

Yes, Auguste was totally out-matched defensively guarding Karl Anthony-Towns. But no one else on Notre Dame really got beat up in the paint. And Notre Dame mostly kept Kentucky’s players from driving and getting easy lay-ups.

But I think the game swung because of the play of Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. Every time Notre Dame seemed to be on a run scoring baskets, he came up with a game-saving play. When it was 26-25 Notre Dame in the first half, and Notre Dame had reeled off several buckets in a row, Pat Connaughton caught the ball in the corner, and drove on Cauley-Stein. But Cauley-Stein held his ground, and forced the tough shot. A normal center would have been beaten in that situation, but no one recovers like Willie Cauley-Stein. In the second half, it was 46-42, and Zach Auguste got another huge offensive rebound. But this time Cauley-Stein came all the way back from guarding on the perimeter, and his help defense swatted the ball out of bounds. And with 35 seconds left, Cauley-Stein blocked Jerian Grant’s jumper to essentially seal the game. Grant had just made a shot-clock beating three moments earlier, but with Cauley-Stein switched on to him, Grant wasn’t going to get an open look.

Of course, Karl Anthony-Towns was the offensive star. He looked great scoring in the paint. But that was to be expected given Notre Dame’s personnel. I was more impressed that almost everyone chipped in during the final comeback. Tyler Ulis hit a huge three. Aaron Harrison had a critical drive and a critical three late. And Andrew Harrison got fouled leading to the game winning free throws. It was a total team effort for Kentucky. “Team” is a word people hate to use for a group of super-athletes, but Kentucky doesn’t win that game if they play selfishly.

Rest of the Top 30

I started this post with the Top 15 coaches on a per possession basis over the last eight years. Here are the next 15.

The longer time horizon dings a coach like Gregg Marshall, who needed time to build up the Wichita St. program, but who has reached a higher peak than some of the other coaches on this list.



Current Team

Avg Off

Avg Def


Scott Drew





Tony Bennett





Steve Alford





Mike Brey

Notre Dame




Matt Painter





Fred Hoiberg

Iowa St.




Shaka Smart





Bob Huggins

West Virginia




Dave Rose





Ben Howland

Mississippi St.




Steve Fisher

San Diego St.




Gregg Marshall

Wichita St.




John Beilein





Kevin Ollie





Chris Mack




-Mississippi St. was somehow able to hire a Top 25 per possession coach. Not bad for a program that has struggled in recent seasons.

-I was surprised how high Matt Painter was on the list, but the first five years of that eight year span really set the bar for him.

-13 of the 16 head coaches in the Sweet Sixteen this year made the Top 30. The exceptions are Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak and Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, who get dinged for how bad Utah and Oklahoma were when they took over. But both coaches have been program-builders and with a few more years of success, they will be on this type of list too. The Sweet Sixteen also featured Mark Gottfried, who has been relatively inconsistent over this time period, but has been a great giant-killer at times.