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NCAA Final Four 2015: The Master Of March - K vs. Izzo

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Who's best? Well, depends on how big the sample is.

Mar 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts during the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the finals of the south regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium
Mar 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts during the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the finals of the south regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There is no doubt that Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is a fabulous NCAA Tournament coach.

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But is he the best – as ESPN and so many other so-called "experts" have been suggesting this week after Izzo reached the Final Four for the seventh time?

Or is he actually a weaker NCAA Tournament coach than the man he will be facing Saturday in the national semifinals – a coach who just reached the Final Four for the 12th time?

The debate between Izzo and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is actually an interesting one – if you carefully limit the parameters to put Izzo in the best possible light.

Without limiting parameters there is no debate whatsoever – Krzyzewski simply blows Izzo away – as he blows away every other active NCAA coach (and every inactive one not named John Wooden).

The raw numbers:

  • NCAA titles: Krzyzewski 4; Izzo 1
  • Final Four appearances: Krzyzewski 12; Izzo 7
  • Sweet 16 appearances: Krzyzewski 20; Izzo 12
  • NCAA wins: Krzyzewski 86; Izzo 46
  • NCAA winning percentage: Krzyzewski 76.8; Izzo 74.2

No unbiased, rational person can look at those numbers and suggest that Izzo is as successful an NCAA Tournament coach as K.

So why do so many ESPN and CBS talking heads tout Izzo as the Master of March?

It’s very simple, they narrow the playing field to artificially create an environment where Izzo can compete with the Duke coach. A recent ESPN tournament special touted Izzo by suggesting that he’s the "most successful NCAA Tournament coach this century".

I guess they chose that parameter because it includes Izzo’s lone national championship in 2000. I’m surprised they didn’t go back a year to 1999, when he made his first Final Four trip – and lost head-to-head to Mike Krzyzewski in the semifinals – but if that’s the playing ground they picked to make Izzo look best, I’ll take that challenge.

Let’s look at K vs. Izzo in this century alone:

  • NCAA titles: Krzyzewski 2, Izzo 1
  • Final Four appearances: Izzo 6, Krzyzewski 4
  • Sweet 16 appearances: Krzyzewski 12, Izzo 11
  • NCAA wins: Izzo 40; Krzyzewski 38
  • NCAA winning percentage: Krzyzewski 74.5; Izzo 74.1

It looks a lot closer, doesn’t it?

Izzo actually has an edge in Final Four appearances and overall NCAA Tournament wins. K leads in national titles, Sweet 16 appearances and NCAA Tournament winning percentage.

A cynic may point to K’s three opening round losses in NCAA play this century … except that Izzo’s Michigan State teams have lost their opening game four times since 2000.

I admit that I am biased, but I can’t see where Izzo’s two extra Final Four appearances overshadow K’s extra national title and his better overall NCAA Tournament winning percentage – although the latter is so tight that if Michigan State wins Saturday, Izzo will take the lead in that category (at least in this century).

Then again, considering that Krzyzewski has an 8-1 head-to-head record with Izzo, the odds are good that the Blue Devils will prevail in the semifinal matchup.

More than that, there is a serious flaw in Izzo’s resume – one that the talking heads rarely mention. As good as his teams are in the regionals and early rounds, they have been shockingly inefficient in the Final Four.

Izzo is Final Four record is 3-5 (3-4 this century). Two of those wins came in 2000, when Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and company won the title in Indianapolis. The other win came in the 2009 semifinals, before the Spartans were destroyed, 89-72, by UNC in the national title game.

By contrast, Coach K is 12-7 in Final Four games (only Wooden has more Final Four wins) – 4-1 this century. He’s 8-3 in the national semifinals and 4-4 in championship games.

So which coach has the better NCAA track record heading into Saturday’s game?

OVERACHIEVING … OR UNDERACHIEVING?

There’s one reason that Izzo’s NCAA success stands out – based on seeding and pre-tournament projections, his teams have overachieved.

Not at first – his 2000 national champions were a No. 1 seed. His 2001 Final Four team was a No. 1 seed. But his 2005 Final Four team was a No. 5 seed. His 2010 Final Four team (the one that lost to Butler on the day Duke beat West Virginia) was a No. 5 seed. And this year’s Final Four team was a No. 7 seed.

Izzo is the only coach in NCAA history to take three teams seeded No. 5 or above to the Final Four.

In contrast, K’s four Final Four trips this century have all been with No. 1 seeds. He’s had nine No. 1 seeds in this century – Izzo three.

By that measure, K should do better than Izzo in NCAA play. The fact that Izzo’s record is so close to K’s could be used to argue that he’s a better tournament coach – even if K’s tournament record is slightly better.

But that argument opens up another facet of debate.

I call it the Kansas issue.

In 1988, Danny Manning famously led an unranked Kansas team – nicknamed Danny and the Miracles – to the national title. But Kansas was only unranked because the Jayhawks massively underachieved in the regular season. Larry Brown’s team started the season at No. 7 in the polls, but gradually slipped out of the poll with its uninspired play.

In postseason, Manning and the Jayhawks played at the level that they were projected at before the season.

I think that factor applies to Izzo and his "overachieving" NCAA teams. They are only overachieving because his teams so consistently underachieve in the regular season.

Take his 2010 Final Four team.

The Spartans were ranked No. 13 and a fifth seed when they reached Indianapolis in 2010. Great achievement, right? Or was it? That team was No. 2 nationally in the preseason AP poll, yet played itself out of the top 10 and down to a fifth seed.

Now, that’s just one year, but in this century, Izzo’s teams have consistently underperformed in the regular season.

In fact, his teams have been preseason ranked in the top 10 10 times since 2000. They’ve finished in the top 10 just five times – two of those in 2000 and 2001. Four times they started in the top 10 and finished unranked.

Overall, Michigan’s average starting rank in this century is 10.1. The average finishing rank was 18.6. Just three Izzo teams in this span finished ranked higher than their preseason projections.

By contrast, Krzyzewski’s teams in this century have started the season with an average projected rank of 6.4. They’ve finished with an average rank of 6.1 – and it’s only that close because of the 2007 which started with a preseason rank of No. 12 and finished unranked. Overall, eight of K’s 16 teams this century improved on their preseason ranking and three more finished exactly where they were projected – including this season.

[Note – to figure these average rankings, I’ve arbitrarily assigned a No. 30 rank to any unranked team.]

Now, I don’t mean to diminish or belittle Izzo as a coach. He has done a fine job at Michigan State – a Hall of Fame caliber job.

But he’s not the best NCAA Tournament coach working today.

The guy he’s facing is.

21ST CENTURY COACHES

On paper, the two best coaches in NCAA Tournament history are UCLA’s John Wooden and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski – in that order.

At another time and another place, we can quibble about the circumstances of Wooden’s dominance -- the unbalanced tournament he coached in, his short path to the Final Four and the illicit behind-the-scenes support he received from Sam Gilbert.

But I just want to talk numbers now and 10 titles>4 titles. Wooden and K have the same number of Final Four appearances and K has more tournament wins, but Wooden has a better tournament winning percentage.

All-time, it’s got to be 1. John Wooden; 2. Mike Krzyzewski.

But what about the 21st Century? We just explored K vs. Izzo in depth, but what about other candidates?

Let’s break it down (all numbers from 2000-2015):

CONSECUTIVE TOURNAMENT APPEARANCES

Four coaches have reached the NCAA Tournament every year this century:

Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Bill Self and Mark Few

NATIONAL TITLES

2- Mike Krzyzewski, Billy Donovan, Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams

1 – Kevin Ollie, John Calipari, Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, Bill Self, Rick Pitino

FINAL FOURS

6 – Tom Izzo

5 – Roy Williams (two at Kansas; 3 at UNC)

4 – Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari (a fifth Final Four appearance in 2009 at Memphis was vacated by the NCAA), Billy Donovan

3 – Ben Howland, Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino

SWEET 16 APPEARANCES

12 – Mike Krzyzewski

11 – Tom Izzo

10 – Roy Williams, Bill Self

8 – John Calipari (9th Sweet 16 at Memphis in 2009 vacated),

7 – Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino, Bo Ryan

TOURNAMENT WINS

43 – Roy Williams

40 – Tom Izzo

38 – Mike Krzyzewski

36 – Bill Self

33 – Billy Donovan

31 – John Calipari

TOURNAMENT WINNING PERCENTAGE

81.6 – John Calipari (31-7)

75.5 – Roy Williams (43-13)

75.0 – Billy Donovan (33-11)

74.5 – Mike Krzyzewski (38-13)

74.1 – Tom Izzo (40-14)

71.1 – Rick Pitino (27-11)

70.6 – Bill Self (35-15)

Just a note – several of the coaches atop the win percentage list have benefited from not making the field on a number of occasions. For instance, Roy Williams missed the tournament in 2010 and played in the NIT instead. John Calipari missed the NCAA Tournament four times – three times at Memphis (plus a fourth that was vacated) and once at Kentucky. Billy Donovan missed three times, including this season. And a 0-0 tournament record is better for the ol’ winning percentage than 0-1 or even 1-1.

Still, taking everything into consideration, it’s tough to pick the best NCAA Tournament coach of the 21st century. Calipari has been very, very good for the last six years – if he adds a 40-0 season and a second national title this weekend, he would have a good case.

The same could be said for Krzyzewski and Izzo if they take the title home from Indianapolis. Roy Williams has a good case too – he might be in position to add another Final Four or national title with the team he has coming back next season.

But, as of this moment, I don’t see a clearcut "Master of March" in the 21st Century.

Of course, the century is just getting going. There is still a lot of basketball to be played. The John Wooden of the 21st Century might not even be born yet.