The 64-team tourney has been in place for 29 years—and Mike Krzyzewski has played in 28 of them. He’s also cut down the nets four times since 1985, twice as many as any other coach. So it should come as no surprise that Coach K is the winningest coach of the modern tourney era. What’s surprising, however, is how close his nearest competition is to unseating him. Take a look at the top five coaches based on winning percentage:
Top Five Winningest Coaches (2012 rank)
- Mike Krzyzewski (1) .774
- Rick Pitino (5) .762
- Roy Williams (2) .747
- John Calipari (3) .745
- Billy Donovan (4) .738
With his second tourney crown last year, Pitino jumped from fifth to second on the list of winningest coaches and he could overtake Coach K with one superior tourney run. Still, it would take a first- or second-round loss by Duke and another Final Four run by Louisville for Pitino to unseat Krzyzewski.
It’s impressive enough that Coach K has 13 Elite Eight runs in 28 tries, but to then convert those 13 opportunities into 11 Final Fours and four championships is…well…legendary. The only coaches who come close to Coach K for hardware acquisition are Pitino and Roy Williams, who both have 11 Elite Eight trips, seven Final Four appearances and two tourney crowns.
Winning percentage and hardware are just two measures of tourney coaching talent. After all, a team’s seed predetermines a certain level of success—and Coach K has earned the highest average seed of any active coach. His 28 teams have entered the dance with an average seed of 2.2. Only two other coaches have a better average seed than three (John Calipari at 2.6 and Roy Williams at 2.7). When you consider that the average one seed owns a .799 winning percentage, you understand how much seeding influences tourney win rates.
Any evaluation of coaching performance needs to factor in the bias—justifiably earned or not—that seeding confers on tourney outcomes. Put it this way: How can you tell whether Duke’s performance, when adjusted for seed bias, isn’t actually worse than some schools with solid records built from lesser seed positions?
For a decade, I’ve used a statistic called “Performance Against Seed Expectations,” or PASE, to compare a coach’s actual winning record to his expected performance based on seeding. PASE is a simple concept. Every seed has recorded an average number of wins per tourney in the modern era. The average top seed wins 3.35 games per dance, two seeds win 2.41 (almost one game less), three seeds win 1.86 , four seeds 1.53 and so on. When the coach of a top-seeded team wins four games to reach the Final Four, he overperforms by .65 games. But when a four seed does it, like Michigan and Syracuse last year, they beat expectations by 2.47 games.
If you add up a coach’s year-by-year performance, you can come up with the average games per tourney that he deviated from the expected victory total. Take someone like Mark Few, who many consider to be a successful tourney coach. Based on his seeding, Few should’ve won 17.4 games in his 14 tourney appearances. In fact, he won just 15—below seed expectations. His PASE value is a disappointing -.175 (the 2.4 game deficit divided by 14 appearances), making him only the 39th best performing coach among 61 active coaches with at least five dance trips.
So if Mark Few is a weak tourney performer, who’s an elite overachiever? Here are the top 20 active PASE performing coaches in the modern era (out of 61 qualifiers with at least five appearances):
If you’re surprised that John Beilein is the top performing coach, take a quick look at his record of beating expectations:
- 1998 – Sprung a 3v14 upset with Richmond (17 of 116 14 seeds have done that)
- 2005 – Went to the Elite Eight as a seven seed with West Virginia (only seven of 116 seven seeds have done this, to which I say “Pittsnogle”)
- 2006 – Reached the Sweet 16 as a six seed with West Virginia
- 2009 – Sprung a 7v10 surprise with Michigan
- 2011 – Won an 8v9 toss-up with Michigan
- 2013 – Reached the championship game last year as a four seed (just three of 116 four seeds that accomplished this feat)
Beilein failed to live up to expectations only twice—losing in round one with Canisius as a 13 seed in 1996 (no shame) and getting shocked by Ohio in a 4v13 match-up two years ago. Altogether, he’s beat expectations six times in eight tries (that’s what SOAR measures above) and owns a +.775 PASE. That’s means he’s better than seed-projected wins by more than three-quarters of a game per dance.
Beilein’s PASE skyrocketed after last year’s improbable run to the finals. Before the 2013 dance, he was just the eighth-best PASE performer. Rick Pitino also improved significantly, while Sean Miller, Billy Donovan and Tom Izzo basically held steady. These results have created a logjam at the top of the PASE list. Just look at the first five coaches on the chart. They all have PASE values over .700—and just .036 separates them. Interestingly, while Beilein has overachieved at a higher rate than any coach, Sean Miller has beaten expectations more frequently (five times in six tries).
So…how does the most successful coach of the modern era rate in terms of performance against expectations? Coach K is definitely an overachiever, with a PASE of +.346, good enough for ninth best out of 61 veteran coaches. But he’s clearly a notch below the top PASE performers. Part of the reason for that is Duke’s recent penchant for underperformance. In the last nine dances, the Blue Devils have exceeded seed-projected wins just twice, posting a underperforming -.688 PASE. The fact is, Duke isn’t just the winningest school in modern tourney history; they’re also the biggest victim of upsets. Coach K’s squads have lost to teams seeded four or more positions below them an eye-popping ten times.