I’m often fascinated by the how we determine success and failure when watching sports.
College basketball provides a good example. Going to the Final Four is the ultimate mark of a great season ... unless you’re in Division II. At that level, the Elite Eight is what’s celebrated, because, well — because that’s how it is.
I’ve also thought about the differences in college football and basketball. In Division I football*, the regular season has greater significance, as it determines the final four teams who take part in the playoff. In college basketball, a great regular season only guarantees you a top seed and a spot in the final 64 — madness created by a tournament that is often loved for its ability to produce upsets.
* Division II football, of course, has a 28-team bracket because ... well ... just because.
Which brings me to this chart, where we’re going to look at two résumés. For this exercise, this is the ranking of both coaches in the final Associated Press poll before postseason play began over the last decade.
It won’t surprise you that Alabama’s Nick Saban is revered, with a quick Google search displaying multiple articles that declare him as the sport’s best coach of all time. Though his team was unranked at the end of one season and 16th in another, a median finish of second — along with four national championships in that timespan — make Saban a giant in his profession.
Kansas coach Bill Self has been pretty good too ... even if his Google search doesn’t include proclamations of him as the all-time best. There has been almost no dropoff with his teams year after year, with a worst finish over the last decade of 14th and a better average finish than Saban’s Alabama teams.
Still, Self’s dominant regular seasons don’t count for as much simply because, well ... because college basketball’s not like that.
This doesn’t absolve Self from his own postseason issues. He’d be the first to admit his teams have underperformed in March, and because he’s been a Vegas favorite in all seven of his Elite Eight games at KU, a 2-5 record looks even more disappointing.
Make no mistake either: Everyone understands the goal posts. For every top-ranked college basketball coach that secretly hates the randomness of the NCAA Tournament, there’s another one out there like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo who has used postseason success to build a hall-of-fame career.
Still, it makes you wonder: What if the 64-plus team NCAA men’s basketball tournament never became commonplace like it is now?
Think about this: If college basketball were like college football is now (the playoff version that began in 2014), KU would have made it to the Final Four in six of the last 10 seasons based on those AP rankings in the chart above.
And while KU has been awful in the Elite Eight — Self often has talked about the difficulty of that particular game for his teams — he has a 3-1 record in the Final Four, which would make you believe that given six opportunities over the last decade, the coach would have a decent chance of getting at least two national championships with that format, if not more.
No one should feel sorry for Self. His success led to a recent selection into the Naismith Hall of Fame, and KU’s ongoing 13-year conference title run is a streak that shouldn’t be matched again.
It’s still interesting to think about how it all might be different. Self’s Elite Eight record is his greatest flaw, as he’s been labeled as a coach who hasn’t been able to back up strong regular seasons with equally dominant postseasons.
Notice that Saban doesn’t have the same questions posed about him. His record in Elite Eight games? 0-0.
What’s the difference between being an all-time great and something less than that? The Saban and Self examples seem to point to a truth when it comes to college football and basketball:
It can be a big help when postseason tournaments are two games instead of six.