In college basketball, where there hasn’t been an undefeated champion in more than 30 years, imperfection is the rule, not the exception. That principle applies even to the most exalted of the game’s coaches, especially in an era when several of history’s greatest are competing against each other.
Florida’s Billy Donovan is the only coach in the last 20 years to earn back-to-back NCAA titles. For all that he’s consistently recruited some first-class post players to lead his teams, Donovan has been so reliant on the three-point shot that his big men sometimes get lost in the shuffle.
Herein, a closer look at the Gators’ bench boss, along with the weaknesses (large or small) that mar the rest of the country’s top 20 coaches.
Flaw: Game preparation skills are far from proven
Tom Crean is a superb talent evaluator who brought Dwyane Wade to Marquette and Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller to Indiana.
Once he gets those great players onto the court, though, Crean hasn’t enjoyed nearly the same level of success.
Last March’s disastrous showing against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is only the most dramatic case of a Crean team coming up short in a winnable matchup.
He’s had his successes, too—witness an upset win over Anthony Davis’ Kentucky squad—but his up-and-down postseason record suggests that extra preparation time doesn't translate into many wins for his teams.
Flaw: Serious lack of March Madness experience
Dana Altman has been a head coach for nearly a quarter of a century, and he’s failed to win 20 games in a season only once since 2000. For all that winning, though, he hasn’t gotten to see very much of the NCAA tournament.
Altman’s career Big Dance record is a mere 4-9, and he just made his first Sweet 16 trip last March.
Instead of being able to offer sage advice to his players under postseason pressure, Altman is almost as much a stranger as they are to winning on the game’s biggest stage.
Flaw: Lives by the sword, dies by the sword
John Beilein makes no secret of his approach to offense. He’ll keep his players firing up three-pointers all day, and that’s a strategy that brings its own downside.
The long-range shot is never as reliable as getting points from closer in, and when the jump shots aren’t falling, Beilein’s teams aren’t built to recover.
He can usually compensate by keeping plenty of shooters on the floor and hoping one of them heats up, but a team that leans so heavily on scoring at a distance is always vulnerable to that one bad game.
Flaw: His superstar recruits become NBA also-rans
With two Final Fours and two 30-win seasons in just nine years at the Buckeyes’ helm, Thad Matta has proven himself as a winner at the top level of college competition.
He owes much of that success to a couple of astonishing recruiting classes, but if current trends continue, he may have a tough time repeating his success in that arena.
So far, Matta’s talent-laden college rosters have landed in the NBA with a resounding thud.
Only one Matta recruit (PG Mike Conley Jr., part of the famed Thad Five) has managed to hold down a pro starting job, and even he winds up in the good-but-not-great category of NBA point guards.
Flaw: Too anonymous for his own good
Mike Montgomery is fifth among active coaches in career wins, but most fans outside the Pacific Time Zone couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.
Even when he was at his peak at Stanford—a seven-year stretch featuring three 30-win seasons and a Final Four—he never grabbed the spotlight the way his East Coast rivals have done.
That (relative) lack of reputation takes its toll on a Golden Bears program that hasn’t spent much time in the spotlight since Jason Kidd left for the NBA.
In Montgomery's five years in Berkeley, incoming freshman Jabari Bird is the only McDonald’s All-American he's managed to recruit.
Flaw: Defense isn’t everything
Like predecessor Rick Majerus, Jim Crews has shown his commitment to (and skill with) man-to-man defense.
For Crews’ Billikens to join the list of routine postseason winners, though, he’ll need to add more of the offense that Majerus’ best teams boasted.
When Crews’ mighty defense struggled even a little bit last season—his first as St. Louis’ head man—the offense had no answer.
Opponents who broke 70 points went 5-1 against the Billikens, including Oregon’s decisive 74-57 win in the NCAA tournament.
Flaw: Has yet to coach a game in a major conference
Andy Enfield grabbed the Trojans job on the strength of a magnificent Cinderella performance with Florida Gulf Coast. Now, he gets to join a long line of coaches who have learned that winning at the top level of Division I hoops is a whole different ball game.
Enfield, who has just two years of head-coaching experience to his name, does have the benefit of last year’s high-profile March Madness showing to help him recruit.
Still, bringing in the kind of athletes it takes to compete with UCLA and Arizona year in and year out is a serious challenge that he’ll be facing with precious little preparation.
Flaw: Havoc is not a system for big men
As a coach recruiting without the benefit of a power-conference program, Shaka Smart is always going to have trouble adding size to his roster. That problem is compounded by the frenetic style that has made his teams famous.
As much fun as the high-intensity “havoc” press is for guards, there are very few post players suited to surviving, much less excelling, in such an up-tempo environment.
That’s one of the biggest reasons that the Rams have had trouble scoring consistently in the half-court against the few opponents who can weather their pressure.
Flaw: Nothing in his record says he’s ready for the big time
Steve Alford is embarking on his fourth Division I head coaching job, and his first two can’t be called rousing successes.
He made one Sweet 16 trip in his only Big Dance with Southwest Missouri State and three NCAA tournaments (with a total of one win) in eight years at Iowa.
Even at New Mexico, where Alford did his best work, he won 28 games three times in six years but never made it past the Round of 32 in March Madness.
The level of success that made him a standout in Albuquerque will get him booed—and quite possibly fired—after a very few years at a program with the sky-high expectations of UCLA.
Flaw: Cinderella isn’t a sustainable role
Under Mark Few, Gonzaga has become an unstoppable force in the West Coast Conference. However, despite having guided the Zags to 15 straight NCAA tournaments (and counting), Few has yet to escape the Sweet 16.
Early in his career, getting that far in the Big Dance was still a major accomplishment for his mid-major program, but now expectations are higher.
The Bulldogs can count on a top-four seed most seasons, and Few’s March Madness success hasn’t yet caught up to those opportunities.
Flaw: Hasn’t learned how to stay on top
There are few things in college sports harder than building a program that can succeed over a period of years. For all Jim Larranaga’s virtues, that’s a mystery he hasn’t solved yet.
Larranaga has never made consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and after his George Mason squad made its magical Final Four run in 2006, it slumped to 18-15 the next year.
A similar fall looks to be in the cards for his Hurricanes next year, as all five starters must be replaced (mostly by newcomers to the program).
Flaw: Offense-by-committee can be risky
Gregg Marshall’s teams are notable for their remarkably balanced scoring. The 2011-12 squad that won his first Missouri Valley title, for example, had each of its three leading scorers average between 12.2 and 13.4 points per game.
Last year’s Final Four squad, with JUCO transfer Cleanthony Early carrying the offense, was the exception rather than the rule, and it’s not necessarily a coincidence that Early’s team was the big winner.
In the postseason, there are times when balanced scoring is great, but there are even more times when a game comes down to the final seconds and you need a go-to offensive leader, something Marshall has rarely developed.
Flaw: X’s-and-O’s ability doesn’t come close to his recruiting skills
Bill Self has an excellent case for being the second-best recruiter in the country after John Calipari. He’s also a fine developer of talent (see Withey, Jeff), but doesn’t always know what to do with it once he has it.
Self’s teams—at Illinois as well as Kansas—have frequently underachieved in postseason play despite their enormous talent. If Self had a better feel for matchups and in-game adjustments, he might have more than one national title by now.
Flaw: Took his mentor’s love of the trey too much to heart
When Billy Donovan was a player at Providence, Friars coach Rick Pitino was revolutionizing offensive strategy behind the then-new three-point shot.
But, where Pitino has learned to win even without dominating from beyond the arc, Donovan is still overly dependent on the shot that helped him lead Providence to the Final Four.
Even Donovan’s national title teams at Florida, which boasted future NBA All-Stars Al Horford and Joakim Noah in the post, ranked in the nation’s top 40 in three-point tries.
For all his success recruiting size (including rising senior Patric Young on the current Gators), he’s been surprisingly reluctant to pound the ball inside.
Flaw: Recruiting no longer on par with nation’s best
Tom Izzo has proven time and again that he can win without having the most talented players on the court. From 2006-07 to 2010-11, Izzo’s teams made two Final Fours but produced zero draftees who played a game in the NBA.
For a program at the level of Michigan State, that lack of star power is astonishing.
Izzo’s inability to land Jabari Parker is the latest indignity for a coach who knows how to get the most out of his players but would scarcely object to getting a few more talents along the lines of Jason Richardson or Zach Randolph.
Flaw: Can’t hold onto his players
In 2011-12, John Calipari proved that leadership from upperclassmen isn’t a prerequisite for an NCAA champ. In 2012-13, he proved that it doesn’t hurt, either.
The downside of Calipari’s astonishing recruiting touch is that every Wildcats freshman expects to be one-and-done.
Talent obviously helps balance that lack of continuity, but even one or two battle-tested juniors would make a huge difference on Coach Cal’s loaded rosters.
Flaw: The fast break is not a postseason weapon
No coach teaches transition offense like Roy Williams. The master of the fast break forces every opponent to worry about getting back on D, but those opponents who do can give Williams’ teams fits.
A big part of the reason Williams couldn’t win a title at Kansas was an inability to win close games against the postseason foes who weren’t instantly knocked for a loop by the fast break.
His half-court offenses have improved enough to win a pair of championships in Chapel Hill, but they still take second billing behind a strategy that’s always going to lose steam in the most important games.
Flaw: 2-3 zone is great but predictable
Syracuse’s win over Indiana last March was a clinic on the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has made his signature.
Two games later, that same great defense couldn’t quite shut down Michigan’s sweet-shooting guards, and the Orange were knocked out in the national semis.
Boeheim’s total reliance on the zone means that he has no fallback plan when an opponent gets in a rhythm from long range.
In addition, while no scout team can fully prepare the starters for the speed, size and skill of the ‘Cuse zone, it still never hurts to know exactly what your opponent is going to throw at you.
Flaw: Relies too heavily on team speed
The common thread among Rick Pitino’s best teams is that they want to turn every game into a track meet. The catch to that approach is that you won’t find Shaquille O’Neal or Dwight Howard winning many track meets.
Pitino’s love of the running game (and the full-court press) means that many elite big men aren’t an option for him in recruiting.
For all that he can obviously win in their absence, it still tends to put his teams in a hole when facing the nation’s best post players.
Flaw: Puts an awful lot of stock in the three-point shot
One of Coach K’s greatest strengths is that his teams always have exceptional floor spacing. That advantage is usually employed to set up the three-point shot, which has become the go-to weapon for the Duke offense.
Obviously, if you have a wealth of three-point shooters (as the Blue Devils generally do), a barrage of treys is a quick way to bomb an opponent out of the game.
However, Duke doesn’t always have an effective backup plan when the long ball isn’t falling, which is the closest thing to a legitimate complaint to raise about a coach with four titles and 11 Final Fours already under his belt.