The student manager who once planned on being a lawyer. The former girls’ junior varsity coach. The lifetime assistant. The barrier-breaker who grew up in a house with no running water. The alum who came home. The Final Four guard. The elder statesman of college basketball.
Who are these guys? Just some of the coaches who would seem to have the best chance of celebrating a national championship in a couple of months. Imagine it’s April 6 in Atlanta, and waving to the crowd is . . . well, we don’t know who yet. We do know, looking at the latest various rankings and power ratings as a guide, that there’s a good chance it’ll be a compelling story. Because there are a bunch of potentials out there.
Start at the top of the polls. Imagine it is Baylor’s Scott Drew.
He once went to Butler figuring to go into law, spending spare time as a student manager for the Bulldogs. But father Homer was a coach, and Scott caught the bug, coming home his senior year to tell his dad he was choosing basketball over the law. Flash forward to 2003, when he took over a Baylor program in shambles, the Bears only allowed to play conference games one season because of NCAA infractions. But by 2010, Drew had them in the Elite Eight for the first time in 60 years. By 2017, they were ranked No. 1. Now they’ve back. And through all that, Drew has never even been named Big 12 coach of the year. Not once. What a turn it would be in the journey, to the first Monday night in April.
Imagine it is Gonzaga’s Mark Few.
Any list of active Division I coaches by winning percentage starts with him. It is staggering when you study the numbers. In his first 20 seasons, the Zags never missed an NCAA Tournament, and won or shared the conference title 18 times. His victory rate edges at 83 percent. Gonzaga went 23-11 in 2007, and that’s been his worst season. And he has done all that refusing to leave the friendly confines of Spokane, for brighter lights and bigger paychecks. There is truly only one thing left for him to do, and this might well be the team to do it.
Imagine it is San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher.
For eons, he sat next to Steve Fisher as the able assistant, waiting for his chance. He finally got it, and worked the first game of his life as a college head coach at the age of 58. Three years later, his Aztecs are the last unbeaten in the land. A title would send a powerful message in so many ways; for the West Coast, for schools outside the power leagues, for basketball lifers still wondering if opportunity will ever come.
Imagine it is Louisville’s Chris Mack.
His coaching road started by leading a girls’ junior varsity program in a Cincinnati high school. Later, wayyyy up the ladder, he would have his alma mater Xavier annually in the national conversation. Best active coach still waiting to get to a Final Four? He’s always on the short list. He elected to leave the comforts of home to leap into turbulent waters at Louisville, and now he has a team capable of taking him to a place he has never seen. Light years away from those JV games.
Imagine it is Dayton’s Anthony Grant.
You could tell he was a possible future coach during his Dayton playing days, the team captain who was also MVP. Look what he has his alma mater up to this season, charging into poll territory the Flyers have not occupied in half a century. Dayton has been a successful and renowned program for a long time, but it is still the Cinderella story of the top-10. Grant is only the second Dayton alum to ever be head coach. The other is Don Donoher. He took the Flyers to the national championship game in 1967. Just mentioning it.
Imagine it is Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
He would be 73 that Monday night in Atlanta, the oldest championship coach in history, passing Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun by more than four years. It would also give him titles in four different decades, and appearances in the Final Four in five. Amazing.
Imagine it is Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton.
His life has been about breaking down barriers, this man who grew up poor in North Carolina in a four-room house with eight people and no running water. He was the first African-American ever to play for Tennessee-Martin . . . or be an assistant at Kentucky . . . or be a head coach in the old Big Eight, at Oklahoma State, where he once hired a Cowboys alum as an assistant, Bill Self. He later won big as coach at Miami — the Hurricanes played in their first postseason tournament in 31 years and also went to their first Sweet 16 on his watch — and even bigger at Florida State. And now he’s in top top five all-time in victories in the hallowed ACC. That’s some journey, accomplished to surprisingly little fanfare. But all that would change with a national championship. He’s 71, by the way, so like Krzyzewski, would be the oldest winner ever.
Imagine it is Maryland’s Mark Turgeon.
He has what these other coaches don’t; the memory of playing in the Final Four. His five assists as a Kansas guard in 1986 could not stop the Jayhawks from losing to Duke 71-67. Duke, led by the young coach with so many consonants in his last name. Imagine if Maryland would get to Atlanta and actually play against the Blue Devils. That means Turgeon would be facing Mike Krzyzewski as an opposing coach in the Final Four, when he once faced him as an opposing player. Surely a Final Four first. As for now, his Terrapins lead the wild, rollicking world of the Big Ten.
Imagine it is West Virginia’s Bob Huggins.
Up the all-time Division I coaching victory list he goes, just passing Adolph Rupp, with Dean Smith dead ahead. Two more victories will put Huggins at No. 6. Among the top eight men, seven of them have combined for 21 national championships — or better than one of every four ever decided. It’s glorious to be the winningest coach in history without a title. For Huggins, it’d be even more glorious not to be.
Imagine if it’s Kevin Willard at Seton Hall.
He followed his father into the profession. Ralph Willard once coached six NCAA Tournament teams, and his son played for him. If this is starting to sound like Dick and Tony Bennett, it should. Sons and former players of NCAA Tournament coaches winning back-to-back national championships? It could happen.
There are other stories. Imagine Bill Self’s second at Kansas, a legacy enhancer amidst some turmoil. Or Tom Izzo’s second at Michigan State, after he’s waited so long since his first. Or Bruce Pearl at Auburn, one year after suffering one of the most painful Final Four defeats any coach has ever endured, a berth in the championship game suddenly going poof with 0.6 seconds left on the clock. The last coach standing always has a story to tell. This season, there just seems to be an unusual assortment of good ones.