By Brad Thompson–
The coaches in the Final Four consist of two seasoned veterans and a pair of young guns who are taking college basketball by storm. All four teams have taken very different roads to get to Houston and would not have made it without the direction and leadership of their head coach.
A closer look at what makes each coach excel and how he has dealt with adversity exemplifies why their teams are playing in the Final Four.
Brad Stevens – Butler
Stevens, in just his fourth season as a head coach, has led his team to their second Final Four appearance in as many years. That fact alone is enough to put him in an elite class of coaches. What makes his accomplishments even more impressive is that he achieved this while at a school that’s considered a mid-major. While Butler’s mid-major label is a discussion for another time, it’s hard to overlook the fact that he has taken a team from the Horizon League to consecutive Final Fours.
The 34-year-old Stevens has been a part of Butler’s basketball program since the 2000-2001 season. He steadily climbed up the ranks to head coach. While he doesn’t have the championships rings like Jim Calhoun, or the long-term success at multiple programs like John Calipari, Stevens’ does have an approach and a personality that’s a perfect fit for a program in Indiana, where college basketball is as important as religion.
What makes this year’s trip to the Final Four even more unlikely is that the Bulldogs lost two starters from last season’s NCAA championship game. Stevens has plugged the holes left by Gordon Hayward, the team’s best player and the ninth pick overall in last year’s NBA draft, and Willie Veasley, a member of the Horizon League All-Defense team last season. Teams like Butler aren’t supposed to be able to reload, but Stevens is great at pushing his player’s to reach their full potential.
The amount of success and wins that Stevens has racked up in just four years makes him one of the hottest coaches in the NCAA right now. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, he seems content to stay at Butler. After last season, he signed a new contract that’s good through the 2021-2022 season.
John Calipari – Kentucky
Kentucky’s run this year marks the third program that Calipari has guided to the Final Four. Even though the Final Four banners have been taken down at UMass and Memphis, there’s no denying that Calipari knows the game and can recruit.
Calipari has done an incredible job of blending the talents of his young, inexperienced players with senior role players. Let’s not forget that Kentucky became the first school in history to have five first round picks in last year’s NBA draft. As unbelievably talented as that team was, this season’s squad has achieved more under Calipari’s tutelage.
During the regular season Kentucky was having trouble closing out games. In the tournament, Calipari has turned that weakness into a strength. Freshman Brandon Knight has hit game-winning shots against Princeton and Ohio State. Calipari understands matchups and maximizes his player’s abilities.
Even after losing John Wall and four other Wildcats to the NBA, Calipari’s team is still loaded with talent. Critics will say that he should be winning with that much talent, but talent alone won’t live up to the ridiculous expectations that fans demand of Kentucky basketball. In just his second year, Calipari has returned one of the most storied basketball traditions to where Kentucky fans think it rightfully belongs, and that is remarkable.
Jim Calhoun – Connecticut
Even with Calhoun and UConn facing NCAA sanctions for several major recruiting violations, the Huskies managed to bounce back from a disappointing 2009-2010 season. Although Calhoun’s reputation has taken a hit from the sanctions occurring on his watch, he’s still a Hall of Famer and has won two national championships.
Calhoun, 68, has the most experience out of the coaches remaining in the tournament. This is his fourth trip to the Final Four. He also has the luxury of having the best player left in the tournament – Kemba Walker.
Walker’s been brilliant thus far, but the growth and development of his supporting cast has advanced the Huskies. Credit Calhoun. In the Huskies Elite 8 matchup against Arizona, Calhoun started three freshman, one sophomore and Walker, a junior. He’s getting solid contributions from freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. Lamb has emerged as the second best scoring option for the Huskies behind Walker. Lamb poured in a season-high 24 points against SDSU and added 19 points versus Arizona in the Elite 8.
After finishing 9-9 in the Big East and losing four of their last five regular season games, UConn has won nine straight win or go home tournament games. Calhoun has instilled confidence in his young team and the results speak for themselves.
Shaka Smart – VCU
Smart may be doing the finest job of all the coaches in the Final Four. The First Four to Final Four run that VCU has made is unprecedented. For Smart, a Wisconsin native, to take his team to the Final Four in just his second season as a head coach is extraordinary.
Smart is definitely getting the most out of his players. As an eleven-seed, no one expected the Rams to advance this far. And even with Jamie Skeen, a transfer from Wake Forest, Smart has the least talented team in the Final Four. He hasn’t let a meaningless factor like talent stop the Rams from demolishing teams from power conferences.
Smart’s turned the negative sentiment surrounding his team’s questionable tournament bid into motivation for his players. He’s compiled video clips of experts who said VCU didn’t belong in the tournament and played this video montage for his team. He has used the doubter’s comments to fuel his team’s performance, and VCU has been playing with a chip on their shoulder since.
It’s truly hard to explain how magical VCU’s run through the tournament has been. At age 33, Smart is inexperienced, yet his team has the largest margin of victory in the tournament of the four schools left. It’s hard to believe that in his very first NCAA tournament as a head coach, his team has done so well. He’s become the hottest coach in college hoops.
The four head coaches heading to Houston this weekend have done an outstanding job leading their programs and are a main reason why their respective teams have advanced to the Final Four. One coach will try to add another championship ring to his collection, while the three others will attempt to achieve college basketball’s ultimate glory. No matter who wins, each coach has been successful and deserves to be commended on a spectacular season.
Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.
Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.