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NCAA Tournament Performance Metrics: Counting Wins

Let’s dig a little deeper into the numbers of the NCAA Tournament to better understand the greatness that is Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-UCLA at Michigan State
Yes, Coach Izzo, you are No. 1
IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-2021 men’s basketball season might be over, but now is a good time to reflect on the results of the NCAA Tournament, both this year, and historically. In my previous analysis, I showed how Michigan State University head coach Tom Izzo dominates all other coaches when it comes to NCAA Tournament performance relative to expectation.

However, being the best relative to expectation is just another phrase for overachieving. On some level, it’s a moral victory. What is more important is actual victories, and fortunately, Coach Izzo has plenty of those as well. In today’s contribution, we will see that Izzo is still one of the best coaches in history in the month of March. Period.

Overall Wins and Percentages

Let’s begin by simply looking at some wins and losses. Table 1 below give the NCAA Tournament win-loss record for the 30 head coaches with the most total games played in the modern era (from 1979 on).

Once again, 1979 was a landmark year in the history of the tournament, as it was the first time that the teams were seeded, and it was the first time that the tournament was comprised of over 32 teams. I do not track win, loses, or any other stats prior to 1979. In other words, John Wooden will not be appearing in this analysis.

Table 1: Summary of overall wins and losses of the top 30 NCAA coaches in the modern era.

In terms of total games and total wins, Coach Izzo sits in sixth place in the modern era with 74 total games played and with 52 total wins. In comparison to coaches that are still active, Izzo is essentially neck-and-neck with Rick Pitino (Boston, Providence, Kentucky, Louisville, and now Iona) and John Calipari (UMASS, Memphis, and Kentucky) and just ahead of Bill Self (Tulsa, Illinois, and Kansas).

Coach Izzo has now also passed legends Lute Olson (Iowa and Arizona) and Jim Calhoun (Northeastern and UCONN). But, Izzo also trails Mike Krzyewski (Duke), the recently retired Roy Williams (Kansas and North Carolina), and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse).

I could imagine Izzo passing the 76-year old Boeheim in total wins depending on when each coach retires, and if Pitino does not return to a high major, I would expect Izzo to pass him as well. However, passing Roy Williams is unlikely, and passing Calipari and even staying ahead of Self will be difficult, at least as long as I am still counting vacated and potentially future vacated wins.

Another March metric that often gets mentioned is tournament win percentage, which is also shown in Table 1. Relatively high win percentages are highlighted in green, while relatively low numbers are highlighted in orange. If memory serves correctly, a few years ago Coach Izzo was in first place in this metric, but it has a tendency to change quickly and is a bit quirky.

For example, the coach with the best overall win percentage in the modern era is former UCONN coach Kevin Ollie with a record of 7-1 (87.5 percent). Coach Ollie won the national title in 2014 in his tournament debut, but then only made the tournament one other time (2016) before he was fired in 2018.

Coach Izzo’s win percentage of 70.3 ranks 21st overall, but above Izzo on the list are 11 coaches who have appeared in five or fewer tournaments (such as Brad Stevens of Butler, Chris Beard of Texas Tech, and several coaches that I have never heard of). Coach Izzo currently ranks 10th all time in the modern era in winning percentage of coaches who have appeared in at least eight tournaments.

King of the Underdogs

Table 1 also gives a breakdown of record and win percentages based on whether the coach was the higher or lower seed. Of the 74 total NCAA Tournament games that Coach Izzo has appeared in, the Spartans were the higher seed in 45 of those games. As the higher seed, Izzo has only lost eight times and boasts a winning percentage of over 80 percent in the white jerseys. Less than half of the coaches shown in Table 1 can make this claim.

But, the area where Coach Izzo truly dominates is in the role of the underdog. Under Izzo, Michigan State has played in 29 total tournament games as the lower seed and won 15 times. Only eight other coaches in the history of the tournament have over a .500 record as the seed underdog and only four of those other coaches can make this claim with over 10 attempts (Larry Brown of Kansas and SMU, Jim O’Brien of Ohio State, Rollie Massimino of Villanova, and Leonard Hamilton of Florida State).

Furthermore, only three coaches in history have 10 or more career wins as the underdog in March: Massimino (11), Lute Olson (11), and Jim Boeheim who just this year tied Izzo with 15 wins as the underdog. That said, Boeheim’s overall record as the underdog (15-16) is a shade below Izzo’s and it took him 10 more tournament attempts to get there.

As Table 1 highlights, Izzo is the only coach with over 35 total tournament games played with over an 80 percent winning percentage as the favorite and with over a 50 percent winning percentage as the underdog. Only three other coaches are a member of this club with more than eight total tournament games: Massimino, Chris Beard, and Larry Brown. Clearly, Coach Izzo is the King of the Underdogs in March.

Round-by-Round Achievements

Another important way to measure achievements is to count things like appearances in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four. Table 2 below summarizes the round-by-round achievements of each coach in the modern era with at least one national title or at least two Final Fours appearances.

Table 2: Round-by-round achievements of NCAA Tournament coaches with at least one championship or two Final Fours

For each round, I have tabulated the total number of appearance and the faction of times each coach has reached that round per total number of tournament appearances. For the first round, I instead have tabulated first round upset rates, as losing in the first round as a high-level coach is more notable than winning.

Table 2 also highlights the rates that are either particularly strong (in green) or weak (in orange). As a general rule, getting upset in the first round more than a third of the time is not great, while getting upset less than 15 percent of the time is pretty good.

As for the higher rounds, I have set the threshold for notable good performance as making the Sweet 16 in more than 60 percent of tournament appearances, making the regional final at least 40 percent of the time, making the Final Four at least 25 percent of the time, and winning the national title in at least 10 percent of all tournament appearances.

In these five categories, only Coach K, Roy Williams, and North Carolina legend Dean Smith are in the “green zone” in all five. Of coaches with more than two tournament appearances, only Billy Donovan and John Calipari appear in the green zone in four of five categories. Donovan had a more average rate of reaching the Sweet 16, while Calipari’s sole title in 20 tournament appearances puts him outside of green area in that category.

Coach Izzo scores in the green zone in a total of three categories: Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four appearances. Izzo’s three first round upsets (to Nevada in 2004, George Mason in 2006, and Middle Tennessee in 2016) are a bit more average and similar to Calipari. Also, Izzo probably should have more than one title by now.

But, in the other three areas, Coach Izzo’s numbers are impressive. His 14 Sweet 16 appearances are good enough for sixth place in the modern area and only one short of a tie for fourth place. Izzo’s 10 Elite Eight appearance are good enough for a tie for fifth place in the modern era, while his eight Final Four appearances ranks third only behind Roy Williams (nine) and Coach K (12).

Coach Izzo has reached the Final Four in just below 35 percent of every tournament that he has played in which is the best in history for coaches with more than eight tournament appearances. Only Larry Brown (three Final Fours in eight attempts) and Brad Stevens (two Final Fours in five attempts) can boast a better percentage.

Masters of the One-Day Prep

In addition to Coach Izzo’s total win count, underdog victories, and Final Fours, he is also famous for his ability to usually win the second game of the weekend in NCAA Tournament play. Izzo’s process and result in the one-day prep scenario is legendary in East Lansing, but does the historical data back up his superiority?

Table 3 summarizes the winning percentages for the same group of 30 coaches shown in Table 1 on both the first game and second game of the weekend in NCAA Tournament play. In both cases, a win percentage of 75 percent or better is highlighted in green.

Table 3: First and second game win percentages for all NCAA Tournament coaches with more than 35 total games.

As the table shows, only three coaches in this group can claim a second game win percentage greater than 75 percent: Louisville legend Denny Crum, Coach K, and Tom Izzo. Coach Izzo does have an edge on Mike Krzyewski in this category, but the historical champion of the one-day prep seems to be Coach Crum, whose record of 18-4 edges out Izzo’s record of 23-6 by a few percentage points. Second place is still pretty good.

It should be noted that there are several other coaches with higher second-game win percentages, but with far fewer attempts. There are 39 total coaches who are perfect in this situation, but none of those coaches had more than four total attempts. A few coaches, including Steve Lavin, Tom Crean, and Jim Larranga have second game win percentages over 80 percent in five or six attempts, but only the three coaches mentioned above clear 75 percent with more than eight attempts.

As for experts in the longer, first game of the weekend prep, a total of six coaches clear the 80 percent win rate in this situation, including Roy Williams, Calipari, and Bill Self. But, the best in history at this particular metric seems to be Georgetown legend John Thomas with a record of 22-3 on the first game of the weekend.

Performance Versus Seeds

The final bit of data that I wanted to share today is the records that each of the top coaches have been able to accumulate versus some of the individual seeds in tournament play. Table 4 below summarizes the record for the top 30 coaches shown in Table 1 and 3 when facing seeds No. 1 to No. 7. In addition, I also lumped together the records for No. 8 and No. 9 seeds as well as for all of the double-digit seeds.

Table 4: Performance versus each NCAA Tournament seed for the top 30 coaches based on total games played

A few things jump out in this table. Starting with each coach’s record against No. 1 seeds, Coach Tom Izzo record is 5-9 all-time. The five wins over No. 1 seeds is tied for fourth all time with Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino and behind only Coach K (eight), Lute Olson (seven), and Roy Williams (six).

Furthermore, Izzo’s 14 total games against No. 1 seeds is tied with Roy Williams for second place and only one short of Coach K’s record of 15. That said, Coach Izzo accumulated all of these wins since 1998, and in that time frame, his five wins over No. 1 seeds is unmatched. Jay Wright of Villanova and Boeheim have four, while Williams, Self, Calpari, and Donovan only have three. All other coaches, including Mike Krzyewski, have two or fewer.

Moreover, Izzo’s 14 games against No. 1 seeds since 1998 is five more than the coach in second place, Roy Williams with only nine. It certainly cannot be said that under Izzo Michigan State has avoided the toughest of competition in March.

Coach Izzo hasn’t just had success against No. 1 seeds either. What is even more surprising is his performance against teams seeded No. 2 to No. 6. Coach Izzo is a staggering 17-5 (77 percent) against this collection of seeds. No coach with more than six tournament appearances can match this percentage.

As for the lower seeds. Coach Izzo is perfect against No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, but is oddly 0-3 versus No. 7 seeds and has five career losses to double-digit seeds, including an 0-3 career record against No. 11 seeds. That said, two of those No. 11 seeds wound up making the Final Four (George Mason in 2006 and UCLA in 2021) and the other one was coached by Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim.

As a final note, I will leave you with this final fact. Coach Izzo has coached in a total of 23 NCAA Tournaments. He won one of those tournaments and lost in the other 22. Of those 22 losses:

  • Seven losses came in the Final Four
  • Seven additional losses came to teams that went on to play in the Final Four
  • Two losses came to other No. 1 seeds

Only six of Coach Izzo’s losses (27 percent) fall outside of these three categories.

What more needs to be said? Coach Tom Izzo is simply one of the best to ever coach in the month of March.