Candid Coaches: Who is the toughest coach to prepare for in college basketball?

CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed more than 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, the coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics in the sport. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be posting the results on nine questions they were asked.

Who's the guy who keeps you up at night? Who's the coach who, no matter how well you prepare and no matter how formidable the talent he's got may be, still puts your stomach in knots and instills a dark cloud over your head 24, 48, 72 hours before game time?

College basketball has a lot of talented and creative coaches, a lot of interesting minds with varying methods in how they succeed. But there's a subset of coaches who have an ability -- obvious, overlooked or fine-drawn -- to tweak, adapt, adjust ... and ultimately win. Win a lot more often than a lot of other coaches. Every profession has its great, its good, its average and its mediocre or worse. 

Some coaches are easier to go against than others. Some coaches are so good, there's often no stopping it, usually because of their roster talent.

Others, the ones we're talking about here, are so maddening for another reason: they're likely to have an answer for everything you throw at them. They're swift with a pivot and, because of that, some of the best in the business.

That in mind, here's our latest question we lobbed at coaches of across all levels of Division I men's hoops:

Who is the best in-game coach and/or hardest coach to prepare for?

CoachVotes
Tom Izzo, Michigan State 16%
Tony Bennett, Virginia 14%
Chris Beard, Texas Tech 11%
Kermit Davis, Ole Miss 5%
Matt Painter, Purdue 4%
Kelvin Sampson, Houston 4%
Mark Few, Gonzaga 4%
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke 4%
beard-bennett-izzo.jpg
Graphic by Mike Meredith

Quotes that stood out

On Tom Izzo

  • "No one has had more success vs. the blue bloods of college basketball, especially in March than he has over the years -- and most of the time it's with far less talent on his side. His teams also consistently rank in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and have the ability to win in different ways. Up-tempo, in the half-court, on the defensive end and sometimes they'll just flat out beat your butt on the offensive glass or at the free throw line by being more physical than their opponent. It was no surprise that it was his Spartans that took down Duke in the Elite Eight to advance to the Final Four last year on a go-ahead 3 after-the-timeout that he drew up!"
  • "Tom Izzo. Many sets and counters with their actions. And best coach there is in maximizing what he gets out of his guys."
  • "Competed against him when I was an assistant at [Big Ten school]. Teams are so prepared, physical and execute extremely well offensively."

On Tony Bennett

  • "Even know they have such a simple and methodical style offensively and defensively, they are so good at what they do it's crazy. When they have older players who have been in the system and culture, they make other teams look silly. Bennett also shows that he can coach and make adjustments. He made some key adjustments in the championship game, especially attacking Texas Tech along the baseline and putting them in tough positions."
  • "When you watch them on film, everything they do looks so simple, so you think it's easy to prepare for. Then you get out there and realize you can't prepare for how hard they play, how they don't beat themselves. You worry about scoring because their defense is so good, but you'll get open shots. This shots won't fall all game because their offense affects your teams legs. You have to chase through their blocker-mover offense. Tony Bennett makes subtle adjustments during the game and he's one of the best at substitutions."  
  • "Tough to answer. Taking talent out of the equation, I'd say Tony Bennett. His players always know how to make reads and take advantage of what even appear as small mistakes. Defensively, they give you a slow death. Often your players don't realize the measure of their compounding mistakes over a given stretch in any game versus his teams. You can be out of the game long before your team realizes it."

On Chris Beard

  • "That defense he had last year left many coaches scratching their heads. What they did to Michigan last year in the Sweet 16 was unbelievable. Usually when you give John Beilein a week to prepare for his next opponent, it's the other coach that's left scratching his head at the end of the game, but not this year. Countries have gone to war less prepared than a John Beilein-coached Michigan team in the Sweet 16 and it still made no difference. They had no answer for Texas Tech's defense and you could see it all over their face."
  • "He makes adjustments game to game that his team is able to execute. He's had one of the best defenses in the nation the last two years and they make people look totally uncomfortable on offense. It appears that he will adjust his schemes in game if the other team has success scoring." 
  • "Chris Beard ... the dude eats Xs and Os for breakfast like a bowl of Cheerios. I heard before going into games him and his staff watch the last four minutes of the opponents more recent games. He wants to know the ins and outs of his opponent. Dude gets it and just wins." 

On Kermit Davis

  • "You saw how good he was last season [in his first season in the SEC]. Straight ball-coach. He'll mix things up on you. Been really good for a long time."

On Matt Painter

  • "Painter. For us, we've been successful [against him], but we don't change a lot offensively. This past year, we went with more ball-screen stuff and so were less predictable. But we've been very good at what we do. For them, they run some motion but have plays in there with being a little less predictable and he's doing it with players that not a lot of people were recruiting [at the high level]."
  • "I wouldn't want to play Beilein, but he's gone now. I've had Painter's scout. That was my hardest scout, even my wife would tell you I'd be like, 'Don't talk to me right now. I need to be locked in.' I needed to be so focused and know what was next. They always had something, to me that, man, it was like they had me locked in more than any other team. They were so good at changing things around. With Carsen Edwards and [newer] guys turnings things around, he is able to use his players in the right way and knows exactly how." 

On Kelvin Sampson

  • "Kelvin is a phenomenal basketball coach. This is a business where some guys are blessed and born to do it. He was born with a pen in his hand. He adapts, sees things, pushes players at the right time, is demanding, loving, is very cerebral with the game. His adjustments are minute but they are excellent. He's gotten it done everyone he's ever been."

The takeaway

There were 34 coaches who received a vote for this question, obviously a testament to the profession, and no surprise that some small-school guys received some nods. Multiple votes were cast for Bill Coen of Northeastern and Mark Schmidt of St. Bonaventure, who had a coach outside of his league say this about him: "The hardest I've had to prepare for would be Mark Schmidt at St. Bonaventure. I coached against him quite a few times at both Robert Morris and St. Bonaventure. He gets the most out of his guys and has a million plays that they execute so well."

Looking for another coach who didn't receive a lot of votes but nonetheless was often mentioned? Virginia Tech might have somewhat quietly pulled off one of the better hires of 2019: Mike Young.

"He switched to a different offensive style at Wofford around 2007-08 and it changed the course of his career," one coach told me. "His teams are so tough, disciplined and together. It's nearly impossible to disrupt or rattle his teams. He has an adjustment for everything. He is a basketball genius. I've been telling people for years that Mike Young is the best basketball coach in the country. If he gets the players at Virginia Tech, look out."

There were also guys who are no longer in Division I who received would-be votes before those coaches were wound up picking an active guy. Of note: John Beilein was brought up five times, Rick Pitino thrice and Rick Byrd twice. 

But Tom Izzo winning this poll was fascinating. I detailed last season how he somewhat radically put a makeover on his offense. Yet I had some coaches tell me that a lot of what Izzo and his staff runs isn't all that complex. He won this poll as a testament to his teams' toughness and unwillingness to break. Michigan State plays a stubborn style with an envious mindset. It's no coincidence that Izzo's eight Final Four trips since 1999 is the most in college basketball.

And speaking of the Final Four, there's a bit of recency bias affecting this poll, as you can see. The top three vote-getters went to the 2019 national semifinals, with two of them coaching in the national title game. Plus, Matt Painter is fresh off his first run to the Elite Eight. Mark Few was in the national title game almost 2 ½ years ago. Swimming that deep into the NCAA Tournament should earn you votes for a question like this, though. 

The fact Kermit Davis broke through despite not having made it far in the NCAAs yet is a huge endorsement of his whiteboard acumen.

It's one thing to be a good coach who can recruit well, run a high-concept or highly efficient scheme that gets mimicked often among your peers or lower levels of basketball. That's flattery enough. But it's the coaches who have an ability to anticipate or adapt within a game that often get the most praise from their fellow coaches. Tony Bennett's tactics are tough enough to prepare for, but multiple coaches I spoke with noted how his team adjusts and tweaks after halftime; that's where his greatness lies. 

The same can be said of Chris Beard, whose rise in this profession is almost unparalleled. Beard's well-told story of basketball nomadism for the better part of the past 15 years has led him to an unpredictable place of prominence within the sport. He just coached Texas Freaking Tech to the national title game, which was truly unfathomable as recently as two years ago. Beard's knack for defensive acclimation is already being discussed on similar terms of Brad Stevens' shrewdness when Stevens was rising fast and becoming a star at Butler almost a decade ago.

These are the discussions I often find most interesting. Diving into the schemes of basketball and getting coaches to open up on who's truly respected, who's intuitive and, as a result, as feared as they are envied for their ability to wave the wand and affect the outcomes of games. Talent is the most important factor, but every name listed above was voted on in spite -- or due to the lack of -- the talent they have put on the floor over the years.

More Candid Coaches

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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