CBS Sports college basketball insiders Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander spent a month surveying 100-plus Division I men's basketball coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled across the sport's landscape: some of the biggest names in college basketball, but also small-school assistants in low-major leagues. Coaches agreed to share unfiltered opinions in exchange for anonymity. We asked them 10 questions, and will post the results over a three-week span.
No sport celebrates being one of the last four teams playing more than college basketball, where the entire season is literally labeled the "The Road to the Final Four." All people who make it are forever introduced as "Final Four coaches." They join a special club. They get invited to special dinners.
UConn's Dan Hurley, San Diego State's Brian Dutcher and FAU's Dusty May joined the club in April. A year earlier, North Carolina's Hubert Davis became a Final Four coach. A year before that, Baylor's Scott Drew and UCLA's Mick Cronin entered the group. In 2019, it was Virginia's Tony Bennett, Texas Tech's Chris Beard and Auburn's Bruce Pearl. In 2018, it was Loyola Chicago's Porter Moser. In 2017, it was Gonzaga's Mark Few, Oregon's Dana Altman and South Carolina's Frank Martin.
The past six NCAA Tournaments, on average, have featured 2.2 first-time Final Four coaches, which suggests at least one man -- and probably more than one -- will join the club next year by advancing to the 2024 Final Four in Phoenix. With this in mind, we asked roughly 100 coaches the following question:
Who is the best college basketball coach yet to make a Final Four?
|Matt Painter (Purdue)||56.3%|
|Sean Miller (Xavier)||11.6%|
|Randy Bennett (Saint Mary's)||8.9%|
|Greg McDermott (Creighton)||5.4%|
|Ed Cooley (Georgetown)||3.5%|
|Nate Oats (Alabama)||3.5%|
|Jamie Dixon (TCU)||2.7%|
|Leonard Hamilton (Florida State)||1.8%|
|Tommy Lloyd (Arizona)||1.8%|
|Eric Musselman (Arkansas)||1.8%|
|Jerome Tang (Kansas State)||1.8%|
|Cliff Ellis (Coastal Carolina)||0.9%|
Quotes that stood out
On Matt Painter
- "There's a lot of good coaches, man. It's hard [to make a Final Four]. You've got to get lucky; a lot of these guys [who haven't made it yet] are good [coaches] -- but Matt Painter is a good human being. He's easy to be around. He's easy to cheer for. He's good -- but what makes you want to [root for him is] that is he's so personable. He's so relatable. To be that good and [to have no] ego, man, you wouldn't know he's Matt Painter and [that] he's done what he's done when you're with him."
- "I've had the opportunity to coach against Matt for years and see it live. He's not getting these McDonald's All-Americans. He's taking these guys who fit his university, his program and every year they get better and better. He's an unbelievable offensive coach and an underrated defensive coach. I respect the way he does things."
- "The best active coach yet to make a Final Four is Matt Painter. He's had a brilliant run at a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten job with a blueprint that consistently has worked."
- "I think he will get there this season."
On Sean Miller
- "He's won at a high level everywhere he has been and rarely has a down year. First year at Xavier and already in Sweet 16. Really good coach."
- "An outstanding tactician and recruiter. He has been knocking on the door for years with multiple Elite Eights at both Xavier and Arizona. You do not win at the consistent level that he has without incredible pregame preparation and the ability to make outstanding in-game adjustments."
- "I know Sean's reputation took a hit [because of his NCAA troubles] at Arizona -- but I don't care. That guy is a helluva coach. Helluva coach. It won't be easy getting Xavier to a Final Four. But he might do it."
On Randy Bennett
- "Not sure many others could do what he has in a place like Moraga and in a league like WCC. Flat out ball coach!"
- "Bennett has consistently won for over two decades. His teams have been one of the most efficient offensive teams in that time. They have also been one of the top teams in defensive efficiency, giving up the fewest points allowed per game by taking care of the ball and controlling tempo."
On Greg McDermott
- "I'm a big McDermott fan. His team last year was good enough to make it [to the Final Four]. He's got a shot this season too."
On Cliff Ellis
- "For me, Cliff Ellis is the name. The man is the third amongst active coaches in wins. He has been coach of the year in the ACC and the SEC, amongst other coach of the year awards. He has coached numerous NBA guys and a guy who got the most out of his talent. He does not get the credit he deserves, plus he graduated his student-athletes. I have played for and worked for a lot of great coaches, and Cliff, from a preparation and strategy standpoint, was as good as any of them."
Look at those vote-totals, read the quotes, and it should be clear how much Matt Painter's colleagues respect him as a coach -- and as just the type of guy they enjoy being around. Hand to heart, I even had one coach who has a team theoretically good enough to win the 2024 NCAA Tournament tell me that he actually hopes Purdue wins the 2024 NCAA Tournament.
"I'm pulling for the Boilers," the coach said.
Coaches believe Painter will eventually break through -- at least to the Final Four. They also badly want him to break through -- at least to the Final Four. Yes, the coaching profession is a cut-throat business filled with backstabbing. Not everybody likes everybody. But, that aside, coaches largely understand how hard these jobs are, and a lot of them know first-hand how frustrating and deflating it can be to have quality teams fall short in March in part because of the randomness of a single-elimination tournament.
Nobody has gone through this more dramatically in recent years than Painter.
After nearly joining the Final Four club in 2019, when Purdue lost to Virginia in overtime of the Elite Eight, Painter returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2021 (after the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled) only to watch his Boilermakers lose to North Texas in the first round. In 2022, Purdue just needed to beat Saint Peter's in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite Eight, where the Boilermakers would've been favored to beat North Carolina and advance to the Final Four -- but Purdue was eliminated by the Peacocks despite closing as a 13-point favorite. Then, earlier this year, Purdue secured a No. 1 seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament but lost to Fairleigh-Dickinson as a 23.5-point favorite in the first round, becoming only the second No. 1 seed in history to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Add it up, and the Boilermakers have had realistic chances to make the Final Four in at least three of the past four NCAA Tournaments either because of the quality of their teams or the circumstances their teams found themselves in or both. Painter has been knocking hard on the door. He's been so close. But the 53-year-old Purdue graduate is still in search of his first trip to the final weekend of the season, and the coaches we polled identified him as the best coach yet to make a Final Four by a pretty convincing margin.
The good news?
The good news is that Painter is also arguably the most likely coach to next make the Final Four for the first time given that Purdue is No. 2 in the CBS Sports preseason Top 25 And 1. So it's possible Painter will be ineligible for this list this time next year. If things go as planned, he should be.