NCAA tournament a showdown of coaches: Calipari, Izzo, Pitino et al.

NCAA tournament a showdown of coaches: Calipari, Izzo, Pitino et al.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo gathers his players during a timeout during their NCAA tournament victory over Georgia on March 20. (Bob Leverone / Getty Images)

Sixteen stars have emerged and aligned at the pivot point of this year's NCAA tournament.

Players? "Goodness gracious, no," Verne Lundquist might say.


Would you recognize any player among Xavier's starters?

The Musketeers do have a famous name in their lineup: A trumpet introduction, please, for Myles Davis.

Duke has (first name starts with J) Okafor and Kentucky boasts an extraordinary collection of twins and gifted post men with hyphenated names.

Wisconsin features "Frank the Tank" and … ?

The story lines this week, for good reasons, are dominated by coaches.

The best players, in this endless era of one-and-done, are ephemeral beings. The coaches come back year after year, richer and tanner than ever.

Their names become so household even the toughest ones are easy to spell and pronounce: Krzyzewski (She-shef-ski).

Never mind that the major headlines entering regional weekend have combined for zero points in the NCAA tournament:

• Former UCLA coach Ben Howland accepted a job at Mississippi State, where he figures to have an immediate impact with his no-nonsense emphasis on defense and calling timeouts after made baskets.

• Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall, the hottest commodity on the market, said on Jim Rome's radio show he would listen to an offer from Alabama. Marshall might want to wait to see if the Texas job opens, which could open a bidding war between football powers with more money than Dubai.

• Arizona State fired Herb Sendek after nine seasons and word is the school is eyeing Duke assistant Jeff Capel. If he falls through, might UC Irvine Coach Russell Turner become an option?

Meanwhile, at the West Regional in Los Angeles, an emotional drama is playing out between Arizona's Sean Miller and Chris Mack of Xavier.

These close friends would really rather not play each other.

Mack was an assistant under Miller at Xavier before being elevated to head coach after Miller left six years ago for Arizona.


"I could share a few stories that may either get him embarrassed, maybe even arrested, but I won't do that," Mack joked Wednesday of Miller.

Miller lamented having to face a Xavier program that remains "very dear to my heart."

If we've learned anything from our busted brackets, it's that coaching is a significant difference maker.

We should have known Michigan State, no matter how mundane it looked at times this season, was going to be tournament ready. The Spartans have the ultimate X-factor in Coach Tom Izzo.

Maryland, in retrospect, was at a disadvantage because West Virginia is led by the artful codger, Bob Huggins, so old-school that he coaches wearing a sweat suit.

The best coaches might be worth two or three points in the tournament, if only because of their experience and ability to work officials. Was it a surprise, last week in Seattle, that Irvine's Turner got the short end of a call in a game against Rick Pitino?

The second weekend of the NCAA tournament boasts a staggering level of coaching accomplishments. This Sweet Coach 16 has combined for 426 NCAA tournament wins, 10 national titles and 47 Final Four appearances.

The only coaches with losing tournament records are Notre Dame's Mike Brey (8-11) and Wichita State's Marshall (8-10). And Marshall took a lot of first-round exits while at always-the-underdog Winthrop. His tournament record the last three years is 7-3.

The coaching matchups by region, leading with the best:


• Kentucky vs. West Virginia (John Calipari vs. Huggins)

This is a heavyweight clipboard bout. Kentucky has the better team but Huggins owns an 8-2 career record against Calipari-coached teams.

Huggins and his players won't be intimidated. In 2010, Huggins reached his only Final Four by defeating Calipari's Kentucky, led by John Wall, in a regional final.

Edge: Huggins.

• Notre Dame vs. Wichita State (Brey vs. Marshall)

It says something about the field to think these are the only two coaches with losing tournament records.

Edge: Marshall.


• Wisconsin vs. North Carolina (Bo Ryan vs. Roy Williams)

Williams has a more impressive resume, with two national titles and seven Final Four appearances. Yet very few people outside Chapel Hill would give him the advantage in this matchup. Ryan earned his first Final Four trip last year, but no coach remaining is better at his job.

"Bo is a big-time coach," Williams said Wednesday. "I mean really a big-time coach."

Edge: Ryan.

• Xavier vs. Arizona (Chris Mack vs. Sean Miller)

Miller owns the NCAA record advantage, 16-7 to 6-4, but both men have earned national reputations at their respective institutions.

Edge: Miller.


• North Carolina State vs. Louisville (Mark Gottfried vs. Rick Pitino)

It's a mismatch on paper, with Pitino owning two NCAA titles and seven Final Four appearances. However, the underrated Gottfried was an assistant on UCLA's 1995 NCAA title squad and this year has the better team.

Edge: Gottfried.

• Oklahoma vs. Michigan State (Lon Kruger vs. Tom Izzo)

Izzo has done another remarkable job getting his team to peak level just in time for postseason play. Kruger has quietly become the first coach to lead four different teams to the round of 16.

Edge: Izzo.


• Duke vs. Utah (Mike Krzyzewski vs. Larry Krystkowiak)

This battle of "Coach Ks" is probably the biggest mismatch on the board. Krzyzewski is 84-26 in the tournament, with four NCAA titles and 11 Final Fours. Krystkowiak's NCAA record is a baseball full count (3-2).

Edge: Coach K (the one from Duke).

• UCLA vs. Gonzaga (Steve Alford vs. Mark Few)

An interesting battle of coaches leading big-time programs that are trying to break through to the next level. Alford is 9-8 in the tournament and owns a title as a player at Indiana. Few is 18-15, although six losses came against top-seeded schools.

Edge: Few.