Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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For Three Coaches, A Final Four First Brings Uncertainty and Opportunity
By DENNIS CHAMBERSGLENDALE, Ariz. — The final stage of this college basketball season is bringing in a slew of firsts for most of those involved.
This edition of the Final Four features just one program with championship head coaching experience. That distinction belongs to blue-blood North Carolina and their lead man RoyWilliams. Through his time at Chapel Hill, and previously at Kansas, Williams has made it to nine different Final Fours, winning championships in 2005 and 2009.
After that, though, MarkFew, FrankMartin, and DanaAltman combine for a whopping zero coaching appearances during college basketball’s final two contests. In fact, the programs they represent — Gonzaga, South Carolina, and Oregon, respectively — have just one Final Four appearance between them, Oregon’s 1939 championship during the inaugural NCAA event. In comparison, this latest trip marks the 20th time North Carolina has been one of the final four teams remaining.
This level of disparity in coaching experience so late in the season is by no means a norm for college basketball. In fact, this is just the first time since 2006 that three coaches will be making their Final Four debuts simultaneously. Back then, it was Ben Howland of UCLA, John Brady of LSU, and Jim Larranaga of George Mason, who broke into the last weekend of the tournament together.
Coaching and preparing for big-time games like the Final Four requires a different demeanor than most other games. Usually, that demeanor is obtained by getting the reps in those situations. Being that Williams is the only one of the current head coaching quartet that has that experience, himself and North Carolina would seem to have an edge.
Just ask Martin.
“I’m a big believer that experience helps you for the next time you’re in that same situation on how to manage everything that leads up to the game,” Martin said. “What I do think it’s a huge advantage is that Roy, his players, his staff members, everyone at the university, being through it as recently as last year, they’re fresh on the preparation, on the things to expect, what’s coming. That way they can better manage their time, their days, to eliminate any distractions that can prevent them from being as prepared as they can for the game itself.”
Of the four coaches that have guided their teams to Glendale, Martin may have the least experience when it comes to preparation of this magnitude. The Gamecocks head coach secured the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1973 with an opening round victory over Marquette. Since then, Martin has guided South Carolina to the school’s first-ever Elite Eight and Final Four cameos.
Both Altman and Few have been consistently successful with Oregon and Gonzaga. Altman is in his fifth straight NCAA Tournament, getting the Ducks to the Elite Eight just last season. Few as well has been a staple in the tournament, dancing for the 18th consecutive season with the Bulldogs.
However, regardless of each coach’s individual success, none have quite reached the pinnacles that Williams has. As Martin pointed out, that seems to leave the three Final Four rookies at a disadvantage. While previous experience may lend a slight edge to how Williams approaches the games, he certainly isn’t disregarding the jobs done by his peers to get their teams here, nor is he counting them out.
“Once you get there, you’ve got to play the game,” Williams said. “And, yes, I think it helps for me and some of our guys that were there last year to know the hoopla and everything around it. But each coach is good enough to get their guys to focus on the games, and that’s what’s important.”
Beyond just getting their teams to the Final Four, Williams is excited for the other three coaches, whom he considers friends. Not to get blindsided by his joy though, Williams is keeping a close eye on one particular contemporary.
“‘I’m happy for all of them,” Williams said. “Probably really more stressed about Mark because he’s had such great teams and came so close. And I think that it was just so satisfying for Gonzaga to get there. But I love them all.”
For the first-timers, the feeling of admiration is mutual.
“His consistency year in, year out, first of all, the longevity,” Altman said of Williams. “I mean, he’s been there and done that for a long time at Kansas. Now at North Carolina. Outstanding teams year in, year out.”
“It’s a treat of mine that I can call him a friend,” Martin said about his relationship with Williams. “It’s something that one day I’ll be able to sit back, when I don’t have to worry about working anymore, I can just, God willing, sit around and say stories to my grandchildren, I can tell them that I considered Roy Williams a friend. That’s a huge thing for me.”
During a weekend that features more inexperience on the big stage than anything, the newcomers are making sure to pay homage to the one man who’s been here before as they gameplan how to join him as a national champion.
“At the end of the day when it all shakes out, he’ll be one of the Mount Rushmore types in college coaching,” Few said about Williams. “I certainly believe that.”
Photo: ESPN Insider
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