There are 16 teams remaining in the men’s NCAA Tournament, and they’re not here by accident.
March Madness provides bracket-busting upsets that make advancing to the second weekend sometimes feel like it hinges on the luck of the matchup. But there’s an architect behind every Cinderella team, just as there is a pilot driving a top-seeded squad to meet expectations.
The coaches of this year’s Sweet 16 are a mixed bag of Hall of Famers, national-title winners, Final Fours-pedigree coaches, up-and-comers or underrated names in the sport. There’s also a couple first-timers.
An assessment by USA TODAY Sports of the best coaches remaining in Indianapolis, based on credentials, longevity and this year’s tourney run.
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1. Jay Wright, Villanova. The fact that the Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 after losing starting point guard Collin Gillespie right before the NCAAs is a testament to the championship culture Wright instills. Wright guided ‘Nova to two national titles in three years in 2016 and 2018, and he’s led the program to the Sweet 16 seven times while establishing it as the perennial kingpin of the Big East.
2. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse. At 76, the Hall of Famer is the oldest coach in Division I, having planned to retire in 2018 but deciding to keep on taking Syracuse to Sweet 16s. This is the second time he’s gotten a team this far as a double-digit seed, getting a No. 10 seed to the Final Four in 2016. He has five Final Four appearances and a 2003 national title to his name, while guiding the Orange in six different decades. His son, Buddy, is the star of this 2020-21 squad.
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3. Mark Few, Gonzaga. The best coach in college basketball not to win a national title, Few has lifted the ‘Zags from a Cinderella mid-major into a regular national title contender. He’s been the West Coast Conference coach of the year 14 times and took the Bulldogs to 21 consecutive NCAA Tournaments (excluding 2020). This year’s team is a product of Few’s dynamic offensive system and recruiting prowess of players who fit perfectly in his system.
4. Scott Drew, Baylor. Drew has his best team he’s ever coached this season. His second-best team might’ve been last year’s group before the tournament was canceled. Drew has five Sweet 16 appearances and he’s helped the Bears take over the Big 12 perch from Kansas.
5. Leonard Hamilton, Florida State. The 72-year-old coach has a dazzling resume, taking a Miami (Fla.) team to the Sweet 16 in 2000 before turning Florida State into a contender over the last two decades. He’s guided FSU to four Sweet 16s but is still seeking a trip to the Final Four.
6. Mick Cronin, UCLA. Cronin is as gritty and fiery as they come in the coaching ranks. While his credentials at Cincinnati – which included a Sweet 16 run in 2012, two AAC titles and nine 20-win seasons – showcase his success running a program, what he’s done in two years at UCLA has been most impressive. Last season he took a depleted team to the brink of the NCAA bubble before a cancellation. He has led this year’s team to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed after losing its second-best player eight games into the season.
7. Porter Moser, Loyola-Chicago. Moser is undoubtedly in line to land a power conference coaching job if he wants it, and his success in this year’s NCAA Tournament illustrates that Loyola Chicago’s Final Four run in 2018 wasn’t just a Cinderella story. It’s a well-coached program that leads the nation this year in defense (allowing 55.7 points a game to opponents).
8. Nate Oats, Alabama. Oats was USA TODAY Sports’ national coach of the year. The 46-year-old catapulted a football-centric school into the national equation of college basketball this year. Alabama won the SEC regular season and secured a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs. This comes on the heels of steering back-to-back first-round tourney upsets in 2018 and 2019 while coaching Buffalo.
9. Dana Altman, Oregon. The 62-year old Altman has helped Ducks teams overachieve in the NCAA Tournament, getting a No. 12-seed to the Sweet 16 in 2019. This year the Ducks have reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed. He’s guided Oregon to five Sweet 16s, including the 2017 Final Four. Before that, he coached Creighton to seven NCAA Tournaments in 16 seasons.
10. Juwan Howard, Michigan. The only reason Howard’s this low in these rankings has to do with this being his second year as a head coach. What he’s done this past season speaks volumes to the ceiling he has as a coach. The Big Ten coach of the year took a team picked to finish sixth to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He’s also helped silence doubters by getting UM here when top player Isaiah Livers went out with an injury and when fellow Big Ten teams were falling like dominoes.
11. Eric Musselman, Arkansas. Musselman started in the pros, and if we were counting his tenures there (we’re not), he’d be higher on this list. What he’s done in short stints at Nevada and now Arkansas speaks to his ability to run a program and coach well when it counts. He led Nevada to three consecutive seasons of 28-plus wins, including a Sweet 16 trip in 2018. Now he’s turned the Razorbacks into a Sweet 16 squad in just his second season.
12. Greg McDermott, Creighton. McDermott finally got the Bluejays to a Sweet 16 after decades of just-misses. He helped Creighton transition from a mid-major program in the Missouri Valley to a power conference team in the Big East, guiding the ‘Jays to a regular-season title last year.
13. Kelvin Sampson, Houston. The 65-year-old Sampson is making the most out of his tenure coaching the Cougars following an NCAA ban that cost him his job at Indiana. He’s taken Houston to two Sweet 16s and two AAC regular season titles. He took Oklahoma to the Final Four in 2002 and Elite Eight in 2003.
14. Andy Enfield, Southern California. Enfield got his start as the Trojans coach following Florida Gulf Coast’s magical run to the Final Four in 2013. Outside of this season, where USC is thriving, his teams have underachieved overall. This year’s team finished second in the Pac-12 and pummeled No. 3 seed Kansas to get here.
15. Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State. After starting his coaching career at Montana, Tinkle turned the program into the top team in the Big Sky on the way to three NCAA Tournaments in eight seasons. At Oregon State, Tinkle led the Beavers to the Dance in 2016 as an at-large bid – the school’s first trip since 1990 – and this year as an automatic bid by winning the Pac-12 Tournament.
16. Paul Mills, Oral Roberts. As far as cool stories go, the 48-year-old coach’s recounting of a near-fight with actor Kevin Bacon takes the cake. But Mills is last on this list solely based on NCAA Tournament experience as compared to the others. As a longtime assistant to Drew at Baylor, Mills has led the Golden Eagles to one of the most exciting runs in March Madness history this year.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.