In our last installment, we analyzed Georgetown’s recent NCAA performances to see if we could get some idea why the Hoyas had performed so poorly. This to the tune of five straight exit to double digit seeds from 2008-2013. In looking at those games, we concluded that the Hoyas were at best slight favorites in three of the five games.
One of the other losses was easily attributable to the sort of fluke hot shooting performances that have sunk many a highly seeded team over the years. Only the 2013 first round loss to 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast looked like it might have been the sort of performance that suggested that there was an organic problem with Georgetown, its systems, or Coach John Thompson III.
Nevertheless, a significant and loud portion of the Hoya fanbase seems to blame Thompson for the losses, arguing that he is a poor tournament coach, who will never lead the Hoyas beyond the first weekend of the tournament. The feeling is understandable given Georgetown’s recent March performances, but we must ask the question of whether Thompson is unique in his problems in March. To help answer that question, we will compare him with other coaches. Namely, we will compare him with other coaches who have proven themselves at least once to be masters of March, those active coaches who have won championships.
To do this, we will look at each coach, take a look at what seed his team had coming into the tournament, how many games we would expect each team to win at that seed, and then compare it to how many games the coach’s team actually won.
Let’s look at Thompson as an example. He went to the tournament twice with Princeton, in 2001 (15 seed) and 2004 (14 seed). With those seeds, we would expect Thompson to have won zero games, and he indeed lost both times in the first round. His first Georgetown tournament team was his seventh seeded 2006 team. That team would be expected to win one game, but it in fact won two. His 2007 team was seeded second, and so had three expected wins. In actuality it won four on its way to the Final Four.
Future appearances came in 2008 (two seed, three expected wins, one actual), 2010 (three seed, two expected wins, zero actual). 2011 (six seed, one expected win, zero actual), 2012 (three seed, two expected wins, one actual), and 2013 (two seed, three expected wins, zero actual). So in nine tournament appearances, we would have expected Thompson to win 15 games. He has actually won 8.
That’s not a good ratio, but is this common? Let’s see.
Jim Boeheim (2003 Syracuse), 61 expected wins, 52 actual wins
Boeheim is sort of the poster child for this exercise. He has lost first round games to 12, 13, and 15 seeds, and came as close as anybody to dropping one to a 16. But none of his four Final Four appearances came as a one seed.
Larry Brown (1988 Kansas), 12 expected wins, 19 actual wins
This is a small sample size because Brown has spent most of his time in the NBA, but he took an 8 seed to the Final Four and won a championship with a team nicknamed "Danny and the Miracles". Many things have been said about Brown, but never that the man cannot coach.
John Calipari (2012 Kentucky), 47 expected wins, 45 actual wins
Calipari has been very successful over the last three years, notably getting to the national championship game as an 8 seed this year. Before that however, Calipari was experienced at failing to get to the Final Four with very high seeds. He is still underwater for his career, though it should be mentioned that he has never had a truly awful first round loss. Still, he also shows how one big run can turn around a reputation.
Billy Donovan (2006, 2007 Florida), 29 expected wins, 35 actual wins
Donovan does well on this metric, having won a championship with a three seed and taking another team to the final from a five seed. He’s also never had a truly terrible loss in March.
Steve Fisher (1989 Michigan), 19 expected wins, 25 actual wins
Fisher got an early reputation for tournament success, being named coach at Michigan just in time for the 1989 title run and taking a sixth seeded team to the finals in 1992. That latter team was the famous Fab Five freshmen, and much like this year’s Kentucky team, we might expect a team that young to peak at the end of the season. Since then Fisher’s March performances have not been notable. We might also ask, if Fisher is such a great clutch coach, how come Chris Webber did not know how many timeouts he had?
Tom Izzo (2000 Michigan St.), 33 expected wins, 42 actual wins
Izzo, more than anybody on this list, would seem to be a candidate for the title of March Overachiever. He has routinely taken lower seeded teams to the Final Four and has never lost a first round game as a top five seed. However, his championship did come as a one seed.
Mike Krzyzewski (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 Duke), 103 expected wins, 83 actual wins
Surprised? The funny thing about this is that according to this metric, Krzyzewski has gotten progressively worse in March, bottoming out with two awful first round losses the past three years. This doesn’t speak well for the idea that certain coaches are better in March. Coach K proves the key to winning the NCAA Championships, bring enough top seeded teams into the tournament and over time you’ll break through, even if you’re a terrible underachiever.
Kevin Ollie (2014 Connecticut), 1 expected win, 6 actual wins
It doesn’t get any better in measuring March success than to lead a middle of the pack tournament team to the title. Ollie is the undisputed king of tournament coaches, but it’s a small sample size.
Rick Pitino (1996 Kentucky, 2013 Louisville), 47 expected wins, 50 actual wins
For this exercise we are not counting a loss in a 1983 play-in game with Boston University. The difference between Pitino’s expected and actual win totals is completely due to his Final Four run with Providence in 1987. With Kentucky and Louisville his March performances have come out exactly as expected. Pitino has only really had one notable first round flameout which was to 13th seeded Morehead St. in 2011. But he has plenty of disappointments to go along with successes in later rounds. Still, it seems that Pitino succeeds in March because he brings great teams to the dance, rather than having some magic March pixie dust.
Bill Self (2008 Kansas), 48 expected wins, 37 actual wins
Before Thompson, Self was the March Choker de jour. Remember the back-to-back first round wipeouts to Bucknell and Bradley? Like most guys on this list, Self almost always has a high seed at the tournament but has a habit of losing early.
Tubby Smith (1998 Kentucky), 31 expected wins, 30 actual wins
In 1997, with Georgia, Tubby Smith lost to a 14 seed. In 1998 he won the championship. So much for consistency.
Roy Williams (2005, 2009 North Carolina), 78 expected wins, 65 actual wins
Unlike Krzyzewski, Williams seems to have become less of an underachiever North Carolina. Williams’s specialty was the Second Round upset loss in the 1990’s at Kansas. If it was anything other than random chance, he has gotten over it.
So, among this selection of "proven winners" we see basically no pattern to March performance. Some of these guys look like "overachievers", and some have won quite fewer games than they were supposed to. Bad first round losses have certainly been no bar to future championships.
Boeheim, Calipari, Krzyzewski, Self, and Williams have all had stretches of marked futility in March. What is the most common trait among these championship coaches? Most of these guys are consistently bringing highly ranked teams into the tournament. The Tournament, at its most basic, is an exercise in probabilities. The best way to win championships is to consistently have really good teams.
John Thompson III has done that during his tenure at Georgetown. There is nothing in his record to suggest that he cannot someday be on this list of championship coaches.