10 best coaches who have never been to the Final Four

Gonzaga's Mark Few may be known as the coach for the team that busts brackets, but he is one of the best coaches not to reach the Final Four.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

By David Fox

The Sweet 16 will feature its share of powerhouse coaches. Nine of the coaches in the regional semifinals have a grand total of 41 Final Four appearances. Five of those have five or more appearances in the final weekend.

On the other side, seven coaches this weekend are trying to reach the first Final Four of their careers, and for many of them, it’s been a long climb.

Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and UCLA’s Steve Alford have coached 20 years each in college basketball without a Final Four. NC State’s Mark Gottfried has coached 18 years. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has coached 16.

As the NCAA Tournament moves into the regionals, we wouldn’t be surprised if one coach does not reach his first Final Four, though it’s certainly possible all of them get left out yet again.

Suffice to say, no one wants to be on this list next season.

1. Sean Miller, Arizona

Closest call: Miller has lost three times in the Elite Eight, with Arizona in 2011 and 2014 and with Xavier in 2008.

What’s his story? In 11 seasons as a head coach, Miller has reached the Sweet 16 six times and the Elite Eight three times with two schools. The last two trips to the regional final have been heartbreakers — a 64-63 loss to Wisconsin last season and a 65-63 loss to UConn in 2011. At 46, Miller's first Final Four probably won’t be his last.

Can he reach the Final Four this year? Yes, but this region is a grinder. Miller will face his old school and former assistant in the Sweet 16 and then either North Carolina or a rematch with Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

2. Mark Few, Gonzaga

Closest call: An Adam Morrison-led Gonzaga team lost in a 73-71 heartbreaker to UCLA in the 2006 Sweet 16.

What’s his story? Gonzaga was a Tournament darling when the Bulldogs reached the Elite Eight under Dan Monson in 1999. Now, Gonzaga may be more well known for busting your brackets. The Bulldogs’ first No. 1 ranking and No. 1 seed was marred in 2013 when Gonzaga lost to Final Four-bound No. 9 seed Wichita State. This is Few’s second Sweet 16 since 2006.

Can he reach the Final Four this year? Yes. The Zags sliced through their first weekend opponents and draw an 11 seed — albeit a hot UCLA squad — in the Sweet 16. A potential matchup with Duke in the regional final would be the toughest matchup, but this may be Few’s best team in Spokane.

3. Tony Bennett, Virginia

Closest call: Virginia has lost twice in the Sweet 16, once as the coach at Washington State and once at Virginia, the latter a 61-59 loss to Michigan State in 2014.

What’s his story? After back-to-back regular season ACC championships, Bennett has all of three NCAA wins to show for it. He can coach, but running a slower offense doesn’t always translate to deep NCAA Tournament runs, as Bo Ryan could once attest.

Can he reach the Final Four soon? Yes, but remember Ryan didn’t make it to the Final Four until the Frank Kaminsky-Sam Dekker-Josh Gasser group became a dangerous enough offensive team to play at different tempos. Bennett also might be glad to go the rest of his career never seeing Michigan State in the Tourney ever again. Sparty has eliminated the Cavs the last two years.

4. Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

Closest call: Iowa State lost 81-76 to eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16 in 2014.

What’s his story? The Mayor has revitalized Iowa State basketball, but the Cyclones have yet to make a ton of noise in the NCAA Tournament other than being a tough out in the early rounds. The Cyclones went cold offensively for a mystifying loss to UAB in the round of 64 this season.

Can he reach the Final Four soon? Not if Hoiberg elects to try out coaching in the NBA.

5. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

Closest call: A No. 1 seed in 2009, Pitt lost on a buzzer-beating layup by Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds in the Elite Eight.

What’s his story? Dixon has been remarkably consistent at Pittsburgh in the Big East and the ACC, missing the NCAA Tournament only once in his 11 seasons as a head coach. Dixon’s two best teams, though, lost in heartbreakers in the NCAA Tournament. His 2009 team lost on a buzzer-beater by Villanova in the Elite Eight. And two years later, Pittsburgh committed two late fouls that enabled eighth-seeded Butler to hit the free throws to advance to the Sweet 16.

Can he reach the Final Four soon? Seems unlikely. Pitt hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since that close call with Villanova.

6. Bruce Pearl, Auburn

Closest call: Tennessee lost 70-69 to Michigan State in the 2010 Elite Eight.

What’s his story? Pearl has a tough enough job making Auburn relevant in the SEC, much less the NCAA Tournament. This is a place where winning two games in the most recent SEC tournament was a sign of major progress.

Can he reach the Final Four soon? No. A Final Four with Auburn? But in the next few years, Pearl probably will bring Auburn to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

7. Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech

Closest call: Williams led Marquette to the Elite Eight in 2013, where the Golden Eagles lost 55-39 to Syracuse.

What’s his story? Williams’ move from Marquette to Virginia Tech was one of the most stunning job changes in the coaching carousel in 2014. After going 11-22 in his first season with the Hokies, Williams has set back his career trajectory by several seasons. 

Can he reach the Final Four soon? No. Virginia Tech had a young team last season, and it showed as the Hokies went 2-16 in the ACC. Virginia Tech isn’t a place where coaches win with a quick fix.

8. Mike Brey, Notre Dame

Closest call: Notre Dame lost 88-71 to Arizona in the 2003 Sweet 16

What’s his story? Not many coaches get to stay at a program 15 years reaching only one Sweet 16. But Brey is universally liked, and he did make the Irish a viable program in the Big East (and now the ACC) even if great NCAA Tournament showings didn’t always follow.

Can he reach the Final Four soon? Maybe, but it will take a heck of an upset to get there. This is perhaps Brey’s best team at Notre Dame and one capable of knocking off Wichita State and West Virginia in its reason. Unfortunately, Kentucky is also in this region. 

9. Dana Altman, Oregon

Closest call: Oregon lost 77-69 to Louisville in the Sweet 16 in 2013.

What’s his story? Altman has taken three teams to the NCAA Tournament and failed to win 20 games only once since 1999. This year may have been his best coaching job, taking a team that was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 to the NCAA Tournament

Can he reach the Final Four soon? Maybe. Altman has had some off-court issues that could have threatened his job in Eugene, but the man can coach. Coaches this good eventually get the right group players (or breaks) to make a run in the Tournament.

10. Scott Drew, Baylor

Closest call: Baylor lost in the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012

What’s his story? Drew is a divisive coach for some reason, despite taking over one of the toughest situations in college basketball and creating a viable Big 12 program. Drew has twice led Baylor to the Elite Eight where the Bears lost to the eventual champions (Duke in 2010 and Kentucky in 2012). Baylor’s loss to Georgia State in the round of 64 was the second Thursday/Friday loss in five trips to the Tourney.

Can he reach the Final Four soon? Why not? He’s been to two Elite Eights and usually has a talented Big 12 roster. This is the kind of coach who makes the Final Four when no one is expecting it.

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