This Year's Sweet 16 Secret: Coaching Really Matters

Jeff WaddingtonContributor IMarch 25, 2009

Getting ready for the 2009 Sweet 16, most fans are focused on the players that will be taking the court. They can’t wait to see how players like Blake Griffin, DeJuan Blair, Tyler Hansbrough, and Jonny Flynn perform under the pressure of making it to the Final Four.

Obviously, there are some great players in this year’s tournament, and that talent will matter significantly in the outcome of each game. But unlike years past when you would see two or three teams wearing Cinderella’s glass slipper into the Sweet 16, the on-court talent gap this year seems to be fairly minimal.

As I mentioned in this article yesterday, this year’s Sweet 16 games could rank as the most competitive in a very long time due, to the relatively equal dispersion of talent. So if these teams can't be separated exclusively based on players, what will make the true difference in getting to Detroit?

I believe it will come down to which teams have the best coaches and I've decided to analyze each of the Sweet 16 match-ups to determine which teams hold the edge on the bench. At the end of the weekend, we’ll see if these predictions, based on the coaching advantage, hold true.

Louisville vs. Arizona

Without question, this is the easiest match-up to predict. Rick Pitino has been to round 16 nine times and taken three different schools to the Final Four. While the head coach at Kentucky, he turned the 1996 trip to the Final Four into a national championship.

Russ Pennell is an interim coach that likely won’t make it to next season, regardless of outcome.

Advantage:  Louisville

Kansas vs. Michigan State

Each coach has one national championship on his resume, with Bill Self winning in 2008 and Tom Izzo in 2000. 

What seems like an even match-up on the surface becomes fairly simple after a little research. Bill Self has only been to one Final Four in his career, while Izzo has been to four, including three in a row from 1999-2001.

Combine those numbers with a more experienced team and Michigan State should come out on top.

Advantage:  Michigan State

Connecticut vs. Purdue

On 12 different occasions, Jim Calhoun has been to the Sweet 16, and UConn’s two Final Four trips resulted in national titles.

In only his fourth year, Matt Painter has coached Purdue into the NCAA Tournament for three straight seasons. But this is his first trip to the Sweet 16.

Experience definitely wins out and the choice is pretty obvious here.

Advantage:  Connecticut

Missouri vs. Memphis

Mike Anderson’s Missouri Tigers may be one of the biggest surprises of the season. In his third year in Columbia, Anderson’s Tigers won the Big 12 Conference Tournament and have made it into the Sweet 16.

While Anderson’s accomplishments might have been unexpected, John Calipari’s were not. Memphis once again steam-rolled through Conference USA to earn a two-seed in this year’s tournament.

Calipari has made the round of 16 seven times in his career and turned two of those trips into Final Four appearances.

Advantage:  Memphis

Pittsburgh vs. Xavier

Don’t let this match-up fool you: it’s much closer than it would appear. Jamie Dixon has led Pittsburgh to six straight NCAA Tournaments, including three appearances in the Sweet 16. 

Sean Miller has guided the Musketeers to four straight tournament appearances, including two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight. I’m going with Pittsburgh in what many would consider a toss-up.

Advantage:  Pittsburgh

Villanova vs. Duke

As much as I love Jay Wright and what he’s accomplished at Villanova, there’s just no way this one works out in his favor.  For the record, Wright’s Wildcats have been to five straight tournaments, including three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight appearance.

Mike Krzyzewski’s 18 trips to the Sweet 16, nine Final Fours (including five straight from 1987 – 1992) and three national championships, make this the most lopsided contest on the board.

Advantage:  Duke

North Carolina vs. Gonzaga

Since 1999, Mark Few has taken Gonzaga to the NCAA Tournament every year and has appeared in the Sweet 16 four times. Few’s record has been clearly remarkable as he has built Gonzaga into a national program.

Unfortunately, Few is up against North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who has been to the Final Four six times in his career. The Tar Heels gave Williams his first national championship in 2005, after having been a runner-up twice while the coach at Kansas.

Advantage:  North Carolina

Syracuse vs. Oklahoma

If there is going to be an upset based on this analysis, here's where it happens. Jeff Capel at Oklahoma may have the national player of the year in Blake Griffin, but his coaching resume is not in the same universe as Jim Boeheim.

Capel is only in his seventh full season as a head coach, so it’s almost an unfair comparison. However, he has been to the NCAA Tournament three times, with this year’s Oklahoma team representing his first Sweet 16 appearance.

Compare that to Boeheim’s 13 appearances in the Sweet 16, two runner-up finishes and a national championship for Syracuse in 2003. Blake Griffin and Willie Warren are huge on the court, but Boeheim wins the war on the bench.

Advantage:  Syracuse


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