Tom Izzo and 9 College Basketball Coaches Who Maximize Talent
This list looks at the college basketball coaches who are best able to maximize the talent they have on their roster.
It is not about who produces the most NBA players, or who wins the most championships but about who excels at getting the very most out of their players. These are the guys who, if given John Calipari's talent, would win the championship nearly every year.
10. Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's
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It took a guy with Randy Bennett’s prowess to challenge Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. Bennett and the Gaels have finally made the conference competitive. Saint Mary’s had at least a share of the conference title for two years, winning it outright last year.
Beyond the West Coast, his team has played in the NCAA tournament four out of the last five years and went to the Sweet 16 in 2010.
Bennett wins at a school that has never had a Top 100 recruit and has never produced a first-round NBA pick.
In every game his team plays, he needs to get the most out of his players. He has done this for years. And Saint Mary’s is so confident that he can continue, the school signed him through the 2021 season.
9. Buzz Williams, Marquette
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A coach who receives little praise for all that he does is Buzz Williams. He has never had a recruit in the Top 40 but is able to win playing in the uber-competitive Big East.
Without big-name recruits, his teams have made the NCAA tournament in his first four years, gone to the Sweet 16 in his last two and finished second in the conference last season. And although it seems impossible, Williams is only 40 years old.
John Calipari gets all the noise about getting his kids NBA-ready. But when has Calipari turned a non-elite recruit into an NBA player?
Buzz Williams has already done it four times.
Four players have been drafted during his tenure, and none of those guys came to the program as top recruits. Williams makes the talent around him better than it would be without him.
8. Mike Montgomery, California
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In Mike Montgomery’s heyday, Stanford was to college basketball what, well, Stanford is to college football today.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Stanford was a perennial Top 25 team and finished in the Top Three on three occasions. In 2003-04, the Cardinals completed the season as the No. 1 team in the country.
Montgomery took the best of these teams to the Final Four in 1998. At California, he has turned a mediocre team into a NCAA tournament player in three of four seasons.
Montgomery has done a ton of winning without much top-end talent. He had two McDonald’s All-Americans in Casey Jacobsen and Josh Childress, but they were his only Top 60 recruits.
He is not higher on this list for two reasons.
First, he has produced 11 draft picks, which is many more than a lot of guys on this list.
Second, Montgomery has not won at a consistent level in the tournament. As a No. 1 seed in 1999-00 and in 2003-04, his team lost in the Round of 32. In fifteen seasons as a NCAA tournament coach, he has only moved beyond the Round of 32 three times.
7. Bill Self, Kansas
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At one time, Bill Self was a coach like so many others on this list. He was unable to get stellar athletes or many NBA-caliber players.
But he has built a career on making his program better year to year and his team better in March than in January.
He started at Oral Roberts by going 6-21. Three years later, the Golden Eagles were 21-7.
He then moved up the chain to Tulsa* (see below).
The Golden Hurricanes never had great talent, but Self didn’t let this stop him. He took his team from 12 losses in his first year to a conference championship in his second year. In his third year, he won 32 games and the conference, and he coached Tulsa to the Elite Eight. This showed the college basketball world what Bill Self was about.
He continued the trend at Illinois, where he went to the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. His best year would have been his fourth year, when Deron Williams and Dee Brown went to the final game after a 37-2 season. He left for Kansas after Roy Williams departed.
Kansas will probably be his last stop. He has done at Kansas what he has done at every other program. Now he has the players to win on a big-time level. With an NCAA championship and another visit to the final game, Self will do what he has done his entire career: maximize his players.
*Despite its size and location, Tulsa has been a factory of great basketball coaches. Nolan Richardson started it in 1980, when he coached there prior to winning a national championship at Arkansas. Tubby Smith spent four years there before he went off for Georgia and then a national championship at Kentucky. Bill Self left and won a championship at Kansas after his years in Illinois, and Buzz Peterson followed Self. Danny Manning is the new coach, and if the past can predict the future, Manning’s future looks bright.
6. Shaka Smart, VCU
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I would say a coach this young and new shouldn’t be on this list, but a guy just as young is listed at No. 2.
Despite his tender age of 35, Smart has been remarkable at VCU. With his “havoc” style of play—which is a full-court press on defense and a Mike D’Antoni-style offense—Smart’s teams aren’t only fun to watch, they are really good, too.
In Smart’s first year, he won 27 games. In his second year, he won 28 and then marched his team to the Final Four. In his third season, he won 29 and, as a No. 12 seed, upset Wichita State in the first round.
The Rams have become the team no one wants to play in March.
Smart has created this success without good players. He’s had no Top 100 recruits, and only one NBA player has left the other side of the program (who was Larry Sanders, but he left before the Final Four season). Shaka has won with his coaching alone.
Because of his rising star, he has single-handedly brought his school to another level. The Rams have moved from the CAA to one of the premier basketball conferences, the Atlantic 10.
Recruiting success is soon to follow, and when it does, “havoc” will be wreaked in March for decades to come.
5. Mark Few, Gonzaga
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Before there was a Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart, there was Mark Few.
Only once has Few had a recruit in the Top 60. In his12 years, he has produced a fair amount of NBA draft picks, three in the first round and three in the second, which is nothing compared to the powers. But his work with his teams commands recognition.
Starting in 1999, Few has done nothing but win. The Zags have gone to the NCAA tournament every one of Few’s 12 seasons, own 10 conference championships, have a winning percentage of .795 and can claim 14 tournament wins with four Sweet 16 appearances.
Maybe the most remarkable thing is that while coaching in the small West Coast Conference, without much talent, he has finished in the Top 10 in the AP Poll five times and in the Top Six three times.
Only the cream of the crop in the college basketball landscape are able to do what Gonzaga has done year-in and year-out. Mark Few is very, very good.
4. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
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Bo Ryan is a four-time national championship coach.
He just won his titles in Division III at Wisconsin-Platteville. Since his move to Wisconsin, the team has a .725 winning percentage and two conference championships. At Wisconsin, his team has won 30 games twice and 20 games in all but two years and has made the NCAA tournament every year.
Wisconsin has been to the Sweet 16 four times and to the Elite Eight once. He has only lost in the first round a single time.
His team are always prepared.
Ryan has accomplished this while having an aversion to high-level talent. Since his arrival, he only has had four Top 40 recruits. Only two players have been drafted in the first round.
It doesn’t matter for this guy, though. He just keeps on winning. If he were able to improve his recruiting, his team would be a fearsome matchup for any opponent. Bo Ryan is one of the best at getting his guys to max out.
3. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
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Coach K has recruited an immense amount of talent since he got to Duke in 1980 (maybe 1979). The list of McDonald’s All-Americans is absurd, with 52 in all.
However, winning with tons of talent isn't always that easy—just ask Ben Howland.
Yet Coach K gets his guys to play together in a Phil Jackson-type way. Duke has consistently been on top or near the top, and Coach K’s accolades are many.
With all the elite players that Duke and programs such as Kansas, UNC, UCLA and Kentucky bring in, the only way a coach could legitimately be this high on the list is to have a handful of championships.
Like four maybe.
And he would need to add in several Final Fours. Coach K has 11 of them.
And he would need to dominate his conference as well. Krzyzewski has 12 ACC regular season championships and 13 NCAA tournament championships.
Lots of coaches have championship-level players. But very few coaches are able to turn this talent into dominant seasons every year.
Coach Krzyzewski's teams never let up and are always a national championship threat. He is an all-time great who consistently maximizes the players on his roster.
2. Brad Stevens, Butler
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Stevens' resume speaks for itself.
In his first five years, his victory totals have been 30, 26, 33, 28 and 22. More impressively, he took his first four teams to the NCAA tournament and went to the National Championship game in year three and four. This would be an astonishing accomplishment for any coach, but Stevens coaches the Butler Bulldogs.
What Stevens has done over the past few years has never been seen in the history of college basketball.
The (former) mid-major school has an enrollment of 4,500 students. Before this year, it never had a Top 100 recruit. With players who do not match the size, athleticism, skill or NBA potential of players at most other top-tier schools, his Bulldogs have consistently been better than nearly everyone else.
The one knock on the guy is that he has only coached for a few years. If he continues for years to come, he will supplant No. 1 on this list, but the coach above him has been at it for two decades.
And if you watched the Bulldogs play North Carolina earlier this season, it seems like he is doing it all over again.
1. Tom Izzo, Michigan St.
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It's not like Michigan State is an underdog, or that the Spartans don’t have their share of talent coming into the program. But Tom Izzo doesn’t operate on the same playing field as Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or UCLA when it comes to recruiting.
According to Scout.com, his last eight classes were rated as: unranked (2005), 12th (2006), ninth (2007), 17th (2008), unranked (2009), 10th (2010), 19th (2011) and 13th (2012).
Izzo rarely has lottery picks (only one since 2001) but has been to three Final Fours in that time. His last first-round pick was in 2006, but in the six seasons since, he has gone to the Sweet 16 twice, the Final Four twice and the National Championship game once in 2009.
Despite this, his teams play on the same level as all the aforementioned powers. He maximizes what he has to use. His teams are always prepared when it counts and consistently play their best basketball in March.
Izzo has been part of an incredible six Final Fours and two National Championship games, and he won the title in 2000. He has not missed the tournament since 1997.
Tom Izzo’s program is no less dominant than Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina, and better than all the rest. He doesn’t have the elite NBA talent that these programs do, but he has the ability to squeeze the most out of his athletes.
For nearly 20 years, Izzo has been the best at maximizing players in Lansing, and that is why he is first on this list.