HOUSTON — The most diverse collection of Final Four coaches in recent memory includes a 68-year-old Hall of Famer who is older than two of the others combined; the recruiting aficionado with two previous Final Four berths stricken from record books because of NCAA violations; and two former Division III players leading mid-major programs on historic runs.
The one commonality among Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Butler’s Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart is that they all confronted a crisis point during four uneven regular seasons. How they handled the adversity is a prime reason why they survived what has been the most topsy-turvy first two weeks of the NCAA tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams more than a quarter-century ago.
VCU was almost an NCAA tournament afterthought following a late-season slide and a fourth-place regular season finish in the Colonial Athletic Association. Butler’s midseason slump appeared to derail long-shot hopes to return to the Final Four. Connecticut faded to a ninth-place finish in the deep Big East. And Kentucky struggled to blend freshmen with veterans.
All four coaches exhibited a deft touch at pivotal times to steer their teams on course for the Final Four.
“I don’t care who you are coaching,” Calhoun said, “it is tough to get there.”
The Rams’ NCAA tournament hopes were slim when they closed February with four losses in five games. That’s when Smart, the team’s second-year coach, gathered his team at the Franklin Street Gym for a now-famous meeting. In front of his players, Smart pulled out a calendar — a big desk calendar — and took a lighter to the month of February, burning away a month that his team wanted to forget.
“We are done with February,” Smart announced. “It is over. We can’t go back.”
When the month started to disintegrate, literally, Smart dropped it into a garbage can below. “If I would have held onto it one second longer,” Smart said, “my hand would have caught on fire.”
Smart’s players were infused with confidence. They believed the season started anew in March. But they still had to make changes on the court, and it started defensively. The Rams edged Drexel by two points in the CAA tournament quarterfinals — a loss likely would have eliminated them from NCAA tournament at-large consideration. Then came the breakthrough: a 16-point win over George Mason, which had owned the nation’s longest win streak.
As Smart said, “That demonstrated to them, if we follow the plan, we can do this same thing against anybody.”
The low point for the Bulldogs can be traced to the night of Feb. 3, when the Bulldogs sat in the visitors’ locker room following a stunning 62-60 loss at Youngstown State, a team that wound up with nine wins all season. Butler’s third straight loss dropped the defending national runners-up to 14-9 and 6-5 in Horizon League play. The NCAA tournament, much less another Final Four run, looked like a pipe dream.
That’s when Ronald Nored stood and led a 15-minute impassioned discussion as Stevens and the rest of the coaching staff met privately. Rather than continuing to say things needed to change, Nored noted, he and others made clear that the Bulldogs’ players needed to make the changes immediately.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world losing three games in a row, but we thought, ‘It’s only three games, and it could be worse,’ ” guard Chase Stigall said. “We recalculated our roles.”
They placed an emphasis on details. They began communicating better with one another and with coaches in practice. They made an effort to rotate better defensively. They started moving the ball better, working for open shots and not settling for a contested look with 30 left on the shot clock.
The Bulldogs have not lost since.
“I told people we were going to get back to Houston,” guard Shawn Vanzant said, “and that’s where we are.”
Despite losing five first-round NBA draft picks, Kentucky had the makings of an NCAA tournament team by mid-February, but concerns loomed: The Wildcats struggled to win on the road in Southeastern Conference play. Mixing high-profile freshmen with veterans was a difficult chemistry act. As junior DeAndre Liggins said, “Everyone was trying to get their shots, and everyone wanted to get their points.”
Then came the one-point loss at Arkansas on Feb. 23. With games against Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee on the immediate horizon, Calipari said, “Shoot, we lose those three and maybe we are not in the tournament.”
“A crisis will bring about change,” Calipari added. “We were in that crisis mode after the Arkansas game.”
Calipari usually doesn’t have much faith in players-only meetings, but the Wildcats wanted to understand one another. The veterans talked about committing to what they needed to do, and the freshmen listened. There were not wholesale changes. Calipari kept telling them that it’s up to them; they have the potential to accomplish anything this season.
Toward the end of the season, veterans started taking more responsibility, while the young players took a slight step back. Freshmen Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight did not have to carry the scoring load. In fact, Jones took 41 shots in three Maui Invitational games early in the season; he has taken 32 shots in four NCAA tournament wins.
“This team went from me dragging them to them dragging me,” Calipari said.
This Huskies team has been one of the most enjoyable for Calhoun to coach. They’ve shattered preseason expectations and continued to improve with all-American Kemba Walker and five mostly unheralded freshmen. But the Huskies closed the regular season by losing four of their last five games, including a disheartening home loss to Notre Dame.
Calhoun thought his team was playing not to lose, and he needed to shake things up. So he held a brutal 21 / 2-hour practice less than 24 hours after the loss to the Irish.
Calhoun started the practice with a thought of the day: He told them very few people get a second chance, but that they have new life. And players recalled him saying, “I am not going to quit on you and I’m not going to let you quit on yourselves.”
The Huskies have won all nine games since that practice, winning five games in five days to win the Big East tournament title. And they beat San Diego State and Arizona to win the NCAA tournament West Region in what amounted to road environments. Players point to the black-and-blue Sunday practice as the catalyst for the run.
“For the next 21 / 2 hours, the basketball was not as important as the activity, how physical we were with each other,” Calhoun said. “We just attacked the new season.”
As have all the Final Four teams that will take the court Saturday at Reliant Stadium.