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March Madness Metrics: Counting Wins

Around these parts, we know that Coach Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches of all time in March. Let’s start to quantify his accomplishments by counting wins compared to his peers.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament wrapped up on April 4 with the Kansas Jayhawks defeating North Carolina to claim the school’s fourth national title and the second national championship trophy for head coach Bill Self. Meanwhile, No. 7-seed Michigan State advanced to the second round of the tournament by beating No. 10-seed Davidson before succumbing to eventual Final Four participant, No. 2-seed Duke.

For Hall-of-Fame head coach Tom Izzo, it was his 24th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. When the calendar turns to April and as we wait for the transfer portal and roster to shake out, it is a good time to reflect back on the recently completed 2021-2022 season and tournament to best understand exactly how lucky Michigan State fans are to have Coach Izzo on the bench in East Lansing.

In any sport, there are countless ways to quantity success or failure. Simple wins and losses is perhaps the most straightforward way. This is true for the NCAA Tournament as well. In addition, it is also reasonable to examine how far a coach advances in the tournament. Today, we will review both metrics following the 2022 Tournament.

Overall Wins

Table 1 below gives a summary of overall wins and losses for a selection of 30 of the best NCAA Tournament coaches of the modern era. The “modern era” refers to the time period starting from 1979 when the tournament expanded to 40 teams and all teams were seeded. Table 1 generally includes all active coaches with at least 15 NCAA Tournament wins, as well as all inactive coaches with at least 30 wins. Notable former Big Ten coaches John Beilein (Michigan) and Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) are also included as references.

Table 1: Summary of overall NCAA Tournament wins for a list of 30 notable coaches in the post-1979 era.

When it comes to overall wins in the modern era, Coach Izzo currently ranks No. 7 with a total of 53 wins. Now retired Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski finished his career with 101 wins, which is a record that most likely will not be broken any time soon. In second place is former Kansas and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, who retired in 2021 with 79 career NCAA Tournament wins.

In third place overall is current Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim with 61 total wins. At 77 years old, Boeheim is not likely to add a significant number of wins to that total in however many years he decides to continue coaching.

Behind Boeheim is a cluster of active coaches with very similar tournament resumes. John Calipari of Kentucky currently checks in with 56 total tournament wins. Bill Self of Kansas has 55 wins, Rick Pitino (now at Iona) has 54 and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has 53. It is notable that these four coaches now have more wins (in the modern era) than several legends including Jim Calhoun (UCONN), Dean Smith (North Carolina) and Lute Olsen (Arizona).

With Pitino (age 69) likely to retire at Iona in the next few years, Izzo is very likely to pass the former Kentucky and Louisville coach in these standings. However, as Izzo (age 67) is older than both John Calipari (63) and Bill Self (59), it is going to be challenging to catch and/or stay ahead of either.

That said, Table 1 is counting wins that have been vacated by the NCAA. The “official” record shows Jim Boeheim with four fewer wins and Calipari with 10 fewer wins. The NCAA has also been swirling around Kansas for years. When all the dust settles, Coach Izzo could finish his career as high as third place in the official record books in total wins since 1979. In any event, Izzo will certainly remain in the top-10 for the foreseeable future.

The main reason for this is that Coach Izzo has a sizable lead in wins over the next grouping of active coaches. Mark Few of Gonzaga is currently in sixth place in wins among active coaches with 38. Jay Wright (who just announced his retirement from Villanova) and Bob Huggins (West Virginia) are tied for seventh place with 34 wins, and the next coach on the list is Rick Barnes of Tennessee with 25 wins. None of these coaches are likely to catch Izzo.

Win Percentage

While the win count is a great metric, it does give an advantage to coaches with very long tenures. Naturally, coaches tend to only have long tenures when they win consistently in March. However, looking at the NCAA Tournament win percentage gives a little more information about the success of each coach.

Tom Izzo’s current winning percentage of 0.697 (53-23) is ranked No. 23 all-time in the modern era. That said, seven of the coaches ahead of Izzo on this list have coached in three or fewer tournaments. Maintaining an NCAA Tournament winning percentage above 0.700 over a long period of time is very difficult. A coach would need to average a bit better than a Sweet 16 appearance every year to surpass this value.

Within the group of active coaches who have appeared in more than two tournaments, Coach Izzo’s win percentage is currently ranked No. 4 behind only Calipari, Pitino and Self. Overall, Coach K’s final winning percentage of 0.765 in 132 total games is the highest of any coach with more than eight total tournament game appearances. This value will likely be the benchmark for many years to come.

Favorites versus Underdogs

Krzyzewski’s final record and winning percentage is obviously very impressive. However, the right side of Table 1 provides a bit more context to those numbers. While all wins and loses count, it is a bit easier to rack up wins as a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed, which has been the case 26 times in Coach K’s career.

While there are several ways to measure performance in the NCAA Tournament against the expectation of a given seed, the easiest thing to measure is simply a coach’s record as either the favorite or the underdog in any given NCAA Tournament matchup. The right side of Table 1 provides this data.

Somewhat shockingly, Coach K was only the seed-based underdog 12 times in his entire career as Duke’s head coach. Duke won only five of those games with the most recent upset win occurring back in 1994 (against No. 1 seed Purdue).

By contrast, Michigan State’s Izzo has played in 27 of his total 76 NCAA Tournament games as the underdog, and Izzo has won 15 of those 27 games (56 percent). As Table 1 shows, that win total as the underdog is tied with Boeheim for the most all-time. In fact, former Arizona coach Lute Olson is the only other coach in history with more than 10 upset wins.

But it is not as though Izzo hasn’t won as the favorite in March. Izzo’s 82.6 percent winning rate as the favorite is still good for seventh place in Table 1 and eighth place all-time among coaches who have played at least 10 tournament games as the higher seed. Izzo is unique in his ability to win both as a favorite and as the underdog at a high level. He is the only coach in history who has won over 80 percent of his tournament games as the favorite and over 55 percent of his games as the underdog with more than eight total tournament games played.

Round-By-Round Performance

Coaches that tend to win more NCAA Tournament games naturally tend to advance further into the tournament. Table 2 below digs into this aspect of tournament performance in more detail for the same group of 30 coaches highlighted above. Similar to Table 1, particularly good or poor performance in each category is shaded in either green or in orange.

Table 2: Round-by-round performance of 30 notable college basketball coaches, including both the raw number of appearances and the rate advancing to each round. The winning percentage on the first and second day of a given weekend is also summarized.

The first column of note summarizes the number of times (and rate) that each of the 30 notable coaches has been upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by a lower seed. As we can see, almost every coach on the list has been bounced from the tournament on the first day by an underdog at least once. Only Smith, Wright and Bruce Pearl (at Tennessee and Auburn) have avoided this fate.

Several coaches have only suffered one first round upset in their careers. This list includes Williams, Pitino, Calhoun, Georgetown great John Thompson, Ryan, and Beilein (on slightly lower volume).

As for Izzo, his three upset losses in the first round (to No. 10 seed Nevada in 2004, No. 11 George Mason in 2006 and No. 15 Middle Tennessee State in 2016) are slightly higher than several other coaches. But, the rate of just 16 percent is certainly reasonable relative to his peers.

Advancing to the Sweet 16 is also a notable accomplishment, or so I am told. Izzo has been to a total of 14 Sweet 16s in his career, which is tied with Self for sixth all-time in the post-1979 era. To put this number into context, Izzo personally has more Sweet 16 appearances than every Big Ten program except for Indiana (which also has 14). Izzo has advanced to the Sweet 16 in close to 60 percent of every tournament that he has appeared in, which is competitive with the top coaches on the board in Table 2.

Coach Izzo’s 10 regional final (Elite Eight) appearances are also tied for sixth place in the modern era, this time with Smith. Once again, this number is greater than any other Big Ten school back to 1979, and Izzo’s 42 percent rate is also impressive.

It should come as no surprise that advancing to the Final Four is one area where Coach Izzo stands out. Izzo’s eight total Final Four apperances put him in third place in the modern era behind only Krzyzewski (13) and Williams (nine). Izzo is at the top of this list among active coaches, as his is 33 percent rate among coaches with more than two tournament appearances.

That said, Izzo’s lone national title in 24 tournaments (four percent rate) is a tad low. There are several coaches on the list with a championship rate closer to or over 10 percent. That said, in the modern era, only 10 total coaches have won more than one national title. Hopefully, Izzo will be able to join that list before he retires.

Finally, the rightmost two columns in Table 2 summarize the winning percentage that all 30 coaches have broken down by the first day and the second day of the weekend. Anecdotally, Coach Izzo is thought to be very strong in the second game on the weekend (the second round, Elite Eight round and the national title game). The data suggests that this is correct.

Of the 30 coaches listed in Table 2, only seven have a winning percentage over 70 on the second game of the given weekend. Izzo is now second all-time in this metric of coaches with more than 12 NCAA Tournament wins. Only Louisville legend Denny Crum, with an 82 percent rate, was better. Even considering Michigan State’s second round loss to Duke in 2022, Izzo still appears to be the master of the two-day-turnaround.

Counting wins and round-by-round performance is a great place to start in the analysis of NCAA Tournament performance, but not all NCAA paths are created equally. Next time, we will dig into more advanced March Madness Metrics that look at performance relative to expectation. Stay tuned.