The coach who wins the 2021 NCAA Tournament will be a first-time champ
Bill Self didn’t make it to the Final Four. Neither did Jim Boeheim.
Tom Izzo couldn’t get past the First Four, and John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski didn’t get into the Big Dance at all. Roy Williams? He retired Thursday.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this lineup of coaches in the NCAA Men’s Final Four. All of them are undoubtedly accomplished, yet none of them is an icon of the game. Is this a random blip or a sign of a major shakeup in college basketball? One thing is certain: Whichever of the four remaining coaches ends up cutting down the nets after winning the national championship, he'll be doing so for the first time.
This is an exceedingly rare occurrence in a sport in which the coach is often a bigger star than his players, a sport in which the ability to recruit, win games and please boosters can create a cycle of winning that builds on and sustains itself.
In fact, this is the first Final Four without a championship-winning head coach since 2006, when Florida’s Billy Donovan, UCLA’s Ben Howland, LSU’s John Brady and George Mason’s Jim Larranaga squared off in Indianapolis.
Donovan beat Howland in the championship game that year, marking the first of the back-to-back championships he won with the Gators before making the jump to the NBA.
Fifteen years later, here we are again, guaranteed to have a coach as a first-time champion. Let’s take a deeper look at each of the candidates.
MARK FEW, GONZAGA
Record: 629-124 (.835) in 22 seasons, all at Gonzaga
NCAA Tournament appearances: 21
Final Four appearances before 2021: 1 (2017)
Few was an assistant on Dan Monson’s staff when the Bulldogs started their current stretch of what would have been 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances (last year’s tournament was canceled due to COVID-19).
Monson left for Minnesota after that season, Few was promoted to the head coach position, and the rest is history. Since then, it has been a steady climb from West Coast Conference dominance to national prominence, with the Zags consistently scheduling – and beating – big-time programs in their preconference schedule before cruising through the WCC slate.
Despite all the success, however, this is the Bulldogs’ second trip to the Final Four. The first came in 2017, when a team led by Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski reached the championship game and lost 71-65 to Joel Berry and the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Now Few has the best Gonzaga team of his career and just the sixth team to win its first four tourney games by at least 15 points each since the field expanded to 64 teams 36 years ago.
Should Gonzaga (30-0) win the championship, the Bulldogs will go down in history as the first undefeated national champion since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
Few is one of only four active head coaches who have reached each of the past 10 NCAA Tournaments. Two of the others – Izzo and Self – are now at home. The fourth comes next on this list, as he’ll be trying to stop Gonzaga’s high-powered offense in the Final Four.
MICK CRONIN, UCLA
Record: 406-192 (.679) in 18 seasons at Murray State, Cincinnati and UCLA
NCAA Tournament appearances: 12
Final Four appearances before 2021: 0
Cronin built a great résumé at Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament nine times in 13 seasons.
Still, the Bruins didn’t have him at the top of their list after firing Steve Alford in 2019. According to reports at the time, UCLA was thinking big. Kentucky’s John Calipari, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, Virginia’s Tony Bennett — that kind of big.
It’s funny how things work out because the guy they eventually got around to hiring turned out to be a great fit, taking the 11-seed Bruins on a stunning run to the Final Four in just his second year at the helm.
UCLA finished fourth in the Pac-12 in the regular season, then squeaked into the NCAA Tournament with a berth in the First Four. The Bruins knocked off Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans and went on an incredible streak the included wins over 6-seed BYU, 2-seed Alabama and 1-seed Michigan.
The Bruins have done it with toughness and defense – they’re holding tournament opponents to 24.7% shooting from 3-point range. They’re also riding the hot hand of Johnny Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky who is averaging 21.6 points in five tournament games.
UCLA is trying to become the first Pac-12 team to win a championship since Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats won in 1997. But to do so, the Bruins will have to take out the tournament favorite.
Do they have another upset in their tank? Cronin might just be the guy to solve the Gonzaga puzzle.
SCOTT DREW, BAYLOR
Record: 390-226 (.633) in 19 seasons at Valparaiso and Baylor
NCAA Tournament appearances: 9
Final Four appearances before 2021: 0
What a journey it has been for Drew and the Baylor Bears. It calls for a brief look back in time.
It was 2003, and Drew had completed his first season as a head coach at Valparaiso in Indiana. He had taken the reins after working as an assistant under his father, Homer, for a decade. He led the Crusaders to a 20-11 record and NIT berth.
In his first season, the Bears went 8-21. It was five years before Drew had a winning season – 21-11 in 2007-08 – and took his team to the NCAA Tournament.
Since then, it has been a slow build toward greatness, as Drew has built Baylor into a Big 12 power. Now it seems as if his Bears and Few’s Bulldogs have been circling each other as the nation’s best teams for two years running.
Last season, Baylor was ranked as high as No. 1 in the AP poll, finishing No. 5 before the NCAA Tournament was canceled. This season, the Bears have been the consensus No. 2 team behind Gonzaga pretty much the whole way. The teams were supposed to play each other in early December, but the game was called off after two people in the Gonzaga program, including a player, tested positive for COVID-19.
If fans are going to finally see that matchup, it’ll come in the championship game, but there is one veteran coach with a very talented team standing in Baylor’s way.
KELVIN SAMPSON, HOUSTON
Record: 592-290 (.671) in 28 seasons at Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana and Houston
NCAA Tournament appearances: 17
Final Four appearances before 2021: 1 (2002, Oklahoma)
Sampson is the clear-cut veteran of this group. Like Few, this is his second appearance in the Final Four, as he led Oklahoma there in 2002. Sampson is joined by only Calipari, Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins as active head coaches to take multiple programs to the Final Four. He also has led each of the four teams he has coached to the NCAA Tournament at least once.
But there were stumbles along the way. Sampson ran afoul of the NCAA by breaking rules regarding contact with recruits while at Oklahoma. With the NCAA hot on his tail, he moved to Indiana. But he broke the same rules there and was ultimately banned by the NCAA for five years. He took a buyout from Indiana and ended up as an NBA assistant.
Sampson returned to college after his ban expired, joining Houston in 2014. His first team went 13-19, but he hasn’t had a losing season since, going 154-44 (.778).
His current team is athletic and balanced. It’s led by Quentin Grimes, who scores 18 points per game, and has four others averaging at least 8.0.
This is the first time two Texas teams have met in the Final Four, and only one team from the state has ever won it all — the famed Texas Western team that made history in 1966 by starting five Black players.
Now, Houston will try to reach the championship game for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon led the Cougars there in 1984.