The most important thing a college coach can do to help his team win the NCAA tournament isn’t to draw up killer plays or give inspiring halftime speeches — it’s to build a perfect roster.
Sure, luck plays a huge part of winning during March Madness. But it ultimately comes down to matching the skill sets of your best players with the rest of your roster. The tournament is when you find out whether the sum of your team is better or worse than its parts. Recruiting McDonald’s All Americans is great, but just like a GM at the next level, you need to surround those blue-chippers with complementary pieces.
Consider John Calipari and some of his recent Kentucky teams. Given the kind of individual talent he recruited, Calipari probably should have three national titles. The DeMarcus Cousins team in 2010, the Anthony Davis team in 2012, and the Karl-Anthony Towns team in 2015 all featured Naismith Award–worthy (or winning, in Davis’s case) players. But Calipari has built a roster capable of winning the big dance only once, with Davis in ’12.
Accumulating future lottery picks is great, but winning a national title is more about finding the right mix of players. In something of a mirror image of this season’s Thunder failing to complement Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with adequate outside shooting, Kentucky’s inconsistent big men have let down their playmakers. And this isn’t the first time that Cal has gone into March with an imbalanced squad.
Calipari had Boogie, John Wall, and Eric Bledsoe in 2010, but no shooting around them. When that Kentucky team faced West Virginia in the Elite Eight, Bob Huggins dared the Wildcats to shoot, and they couldn’t, going 4-for-32 from 3-point range. When Cal did have knockdown shooters — Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, and Kyle Wiltjer — around Davis in 2012, Kentucky rolled to a title. In 2015, the Wildcats again had shooters — Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker — to go with a big man in Towns, but Calipari decided he wanted to die on the Harrison twins hill, and Aaron and Andrew took only two 3s in the Final Four loss to Wisconsin.
This season’s Kentucky team has playmaking and shooting, but finding the right balance of scoring and defense from some combination of Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, and Derek Willis might be impossible.
The most complete team in this year’s bracket is probably Michigan State. Even when they don’t have a lot of high-level talent, Tom Izzo’s teams generally play well in March because they don’t have a lot of defined weaknesses. With two future NBA players in Denzel Valentine and Deyonta Davis and a balanced team around them, Sparty is going to be a tough out.
Winning the tournament is about answering a series of personnel questions. The stats and résumé are important, but it’s just as important for a coach to get the personnel balance right. You have to ask yourself questions like: Does this team have a great 1-on-1 scorer? Does it have a guy who gets everyone else involved? What about a guard who can control tempo? Can the team get offense from multiple options? Does it have enough shooting to complement its best players? What about rim protection and rebounding? Can the team guard all five positions?
If a coach has done his job as GM, and he can say “yes” to enough of those queries? That’s when you get to celebrate while “One Shining Moment” plays.
This piece originally appeared in the March 14, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.