Mark Story

Now that Tony Bennett is in, who is the best coach who has never made the Final Four?

The world of sports is filled with designations of “the best (fill in the job) who has never (fill in the achievement).”

There is “The best golfer who has not won a major” (Jon Rahm? Bryson DeChambeau?). Move to “The best quarterback who has never won the Super Bowl” (Matt Ryan? Philip Rivers?).

In college basketball, the complimentary but dubious description is “The best coach who has never made the Final Four.”

With Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Texas Tech’s Chris Beard all making their coaching debuts in the men’s NCAA Tournament national semifinals on Saturday (along with Final Four perennial Tom Izzo of Michigan State, making his eighth trip), the list of accomplished coaches who have not taken a team to the Final Four has gotten smaller.

So who is now “The best coach who hasn’t made the Final Four?”

Here are five names — all from major conferences — to consider:

5.) SEAN MILLER, Arizona

Career record: 394-136, 73.8 winning percentage in five seasons (2004-09) at Xavier and 10 years (2009 through the present) at Arizona.

NCAA Tournament track record: Miller, 50, has coached in 11 NCAA tourneys (four at Xavier, seven at Arizona) but is 0-4 in region finals.

In 2008, Xavier fell to UCLA 76-57 in the West Region round of eight. Arizona under Miller has lost in region finals in 2011 (65-63 to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut); in 2014 (64-63 to Wisconsin); and 2015 (85-78 to Wisconsin again).

Odds of breaking through: Highly uncertain. Miller has reportedly been notified he will be subpoenaed to testify in one of the federal college basketball bribery trials later this month. Until that plays out, Miller’s future at Arizona seems murky.

Sean Miller
Arizona Coach Sean Miller is 0-4 in his career in NCAA Tournament round-of-eight games, 0-1 at Xavier and 0-3 with ‘Zona. Ted S. Warren Associated Press

4.) CHRIS MACK, Louisville

Career record: 235-111, 67.9 winning percentage in nine years (2009-18) at Xavier and one (last season) at Louisville.

NCAA Tournament track record: Mack, 49, took Xavier to the Dance in eight of the nine seasons he was head coach, then got Louisville in the NCAA tourney this past season as a No. 7 seed.

At X, Mack reached the round of 16 four times. In 2017, Mack had Xavier in the round of eight, but was routed by Gonzaga, 83-59, in the West Region finals.

Odds of breaking through: A coach of Mack’s ability working at a university with Louisville’s tradition and resources would seem a cinch to eventually reach the Final Four.

However, U of L under its prior coaching staff was linked in the FBI probe of college basketball corruption to alleged NCAA recruiting violations — while already on probation. That remains a source of lingering uncertainty over the future of the Cardinals’ program.

3.) MIKE BREY, Notre Dame

Career record: 516-273, 65.4 winning percentage in five years at Delaware (1995-2000) and 19 seasons (2000 through the present) at Notre Dame.

NCAA Tournament track record: Brey led Delaware to the NCAA Tournament in 1998 and ‘99, and has taken Notre Dame 12 times. Three times under Brey, the Fighting Irish have advanced to the round of 16.

In both 2015 and 2016, Brey directed Notre Dame to the round of eight. In 2015, Notre Dame lost 68-66 to undefeated Kentucky in the Midwest Region finals. The following season, the Fighting Irish fell to North Carolina, 88-74, in the East Region finals.

Odds of breaking through: After three straight NCAA trips in 2015-17, Notre Dame is 35-34 the past two seasons. Hard not to wonder if Brey, 60, has missed his best chances for a Final Four.

Mike Brey.JPG
Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey led the Fighting Irish to the NCAA Tournament round of eight in 2015 and 2016 but is still seeking his first Final Four trip. Robert Franklin AP

2.) MATT PAINTER, Purdue

Career record: 364-164, 67.8 winning percentage in 15 years, one at Southern Illinois (2003-04) and 14 (2005 through the present) at Purdue.

NCAA Tournament track record: After coaching in 11 NCAA Tournaments (one at SIU, the rest at Purdue) without ever winning more than two games in one tourney, Painter, 48, finally got the Boilermakers through to the round of eight this season.

Carried by the torrid shooting of star guard Carsen Edwards (42 points), Purdue led Virginia by three points with 5.9 seconds left in the South Region finals — only to see the Cavaliers improbably tie the game and win, 80-75, in overtime.

Odds of breaking through: Perhaps finally getting past the round-of-16 barrier will allow Purdue and Painter to become viable Final Four threats moving forward.

Purdue's Matt Painter
This season was the first time since Matt Painter became Purdue head coach in 2005-06 that the Boilermakers won more than two games in an NCAA Tournament. Darron Cummings Associated Press


Career record: 253-155, 62.0 winning percentage, in 12 seasons, one at New Orleans (2006-07), six at Marquette (2008-2014) and five at Virginia Tech (2014-2019). Was announced this week as new Texas A&M head man.

New Texas A&M head coach Buzz Williams, the former Virginia Tech head man, posed with his family during Tech’s practice before the Hokies faced Duke in the 2019 NCAA Tournament round of 16. Alex Brandon AP photo

NCAA Tournament track record: Williams took Marquette to the NCAA tourney five times in six years, with three round-of-16 trips and a visit to the 2013 round of eight where it lost 55-39 to Syracuse.

At Virginia Tech, Williams led the Hokies to three straight NCAA tourneys (2017-19) for the first time in school history. This year, Tech won two games in an NCAA Tournament for the first time in 52 years.

Odds of breaking through: Williams, 46, did strong work at Marquette and overachieved at Virginia Tech.

Texas A&M has more resources than Amazon and is located in a populous state rich with basketball prospects. So Williams has a golden chance to take the Aggies — who have never advanced beyond the round of 16 in school history — to the promised land.


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Men’s Final Four

Saturday at Minneapolis

6:09 p.m.: Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9)

8:49 p.m.: Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6)


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.