MEMPHIS, Tenn. – John Miller was hanging out in the Dayton locker room here Wednesday, basking in the glow of having fathered one-eighth of the head coaches in this NCAA tournament Sweet 16. He is the Bold Ruler of college basketball coaching sires.
Younger son Archie is here with the Flyers, who are tied with Tennessee for the lowest-seeded teams still in the tournament at No. 11. Older son Sean is out in California with Arizona, the No. 1 seed in the West. It's a great time to be a Miller, but the two Sweet 16 experiences are not created equal.
"Sean, if he loses early, it's a downer," John Miller said. "Because it's expected that he'd get farther. There's a lot more pressure there with a great team."
That's the truth, and it spurred this realization: Everyone still coaching in this NCAA tourney has something to prove. Even the guys with the championship rings and massive bank accounts.
That may not be fair in every instance, but that's reality. Media and fans can always find something a coach hasn't done – or hasn't done recently, or can do better – and turn it into a thing. Another milestone to reach, another barrier to break, another item to check off a never-ending list.
Coaches never stop having to prove themselves until they retire or surpass John Wooden.
With that in mind, here are the Sweet 16 coaches ranked in Burden of Proof order. Starting at the least and progressing to the coach with the most to prove:
16. Johnny Dawkins, Stanford. Job was on the line coming into this year, but he saved it by earning an NCAA tourney bid and No. 10 seed. Now he's gone from barely on the right side of the bubble to a pair of authoritative upset victories (New Mexico, Kansas) in which the Cardinal only trailed for 3:34 out of 80 minutes. So Dawkins has proved himself plenty – but now he gets a Dayton team seeded even lower, and from a perceived weaker league, in the regional semifinals. After arriving in this tournament with no expectations, this is now a Sweet 16 game Stanford is expected to win. Time to prove himself some more.
15. Archie Miller, Dayton. Certainly, Miller has proved himself to Dayton fans by guiding the Flyers to their first NCAA bid since 2009 – and done it in just his third year as a head coach at any level. But he's also spent an entire life as the Other Miller, continually following in Sean's footsteps – first as a player, now as a coach. This would seem like an excellent opportunity to prove himself outside Sean's shadow.
14. Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State. Approval rating through the roof. He could be Mayor For Life in Ames after guiding the Cyclones to their first Sweet 16 since the 2000 team went to the regional final. That's especially impressive after losing forward Georges Niang to a broken foot during the team's first NCAA tourney game. But now the third-seeded 'Clones have drawn a third straight lower-seeded opponent, No. 7 Connecticut, and are favored in Las Vegas. Hoiberg has a chance to prove he can take a team as far as Larry Eustachy.
13. Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee. Took the Volunteers from the wrong side of the bubble to three NCAA tourney wins and a spot in the Midwest regional semifinals against Michigan. That proved to a skeptical fan base that Martin didn't just fall off the turnip truck, and knows what he's doing. But it will take one more win to equal Bruce Pearl's best Big Dance run (in 2010), and the Volunteers fans still have a spot for Bruce in their hearts, and now Bruce is back in the league to haunt Martin's daily existence, and beating Xavier-Massachusetts-Mercer isn't exactly planting the flag on Iwo Jima. … So, yeah, beating the Wolverines would prove something.
12. Kevin Ollie, Connecticut. Did nice work coaching the Huskies through a comeback victory over St. Joseph's, and then an upset of No. 2 seed Villanova. If only former boss and program patriarch Jim Calhoun didn't choose this month to publicly campaign for the Boston College job and generally pine away for his time on the sidelines. The timing was tacky, and it only served to remind everyone that Kevin Ollie is no Jim Calhoun. At least not yet. If Ollie would like to put the Hall of Famer further in his rearview mirror, beating Iowa State would help.
11. Billy Donovan, Florida. What more could he have to prove after winning two national titles, going to three Final Fours, establishing Florida as a perennial basketball power and becoming the first coach to go 21-0 in a single Southeastern Conference season? Well, this: Since the program-changing group of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, Donovan has maxed out at the Elite Eight level. Winning a title with a different group of guys would further validate the coach's prolific status.
10. Steve Fisher, San Diego State. Has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a consistent winner can be built at SDSU, and the fan base is grateful for that. But can the program do what strivers like Memphis, Butler, VCU, George Mason have done – make the Final Four? At age 69, how many more trips to the March Madness proving ground does Fisher have left?
9. Rick Pitino, Louisville. Captured his second national title last year, becoming the first coach to win it all at two different schools. That cemented his legacy at Louisville and guaranteed that the school will name something after him when he's done. But the fans would also like to see him improve his record against John Calipari – it's 1-5 since Cal arrived at Kentucky. Louisville plays Friday in a game fraught with emotional peril for the Cardinals. It's high time for Pitino to prove he can beat Calipari on a neutral court with a comparable team – or a superior team, according to NCAA seeding and Vegas, which has Louisville favored by 4 ½ points.
8. Tom Izzo, Michigan State. Has two things to prove: that he can maintain his streak of getting every four-year player he's coached in East Lansing to a Final Four; and that the 2000 national title isn't some museum piece from his distant past. Otherwise, he's got nothing to prove. But that's a significant otherwise.
7. John Calipari, Kentucky. Did the Wildcats simply play one great game, against Wichita State? Or are they indeed transformed into the national title contenders they were billed to be. Calipari certainly changed the mood and the narrative surrounding this team, but a Sweet 16 elimination at the hands of Louisville would prevent this season from being considered a success. If he wants to prove that recruiting one-and-dones is a championship-caliber method, he needs to win a couple more games.
6. John Beilein, Michigan. Advancing to the Final Four last year was the next-to-last Prove-It Frontier for Beilein. Getting back with this team would be an even more impressive accomplishment – but winning it all remains the final frontier. And there is the burden of Big Ten proof that goes with the Wolverines, because no team from the league has won a title since Michigan State 14 years ago.
5. Scott Drew, Baylor. Bears have pulled a Kentucky redux, rallying from an underachieving regular season to live up to their talent in March. As such, everyone feels good about Drew and his crew – but the program's high-water mark since 1950 remains the Elite Eight. Can Drew prove himself more than an excellent accumulator of talent and coach a team to the Final Four? Especially one just up I-35 in North Texas?
4. Steve Alford, UCLA. Has proved quite a bit in his first year replacing Ben Howland – namely, he can play a more entertaining style and still win a bunch of games. That includes a Pac-12 tournament title and a presence here as a very live underdog against South No. 1 seed Florida. Alford also proved he's a better tournament coach than he showed at Iowa or New Mexico – but the standard at UCLA is not the Sweet 16. The standard is the Final Four and beyond. So there is work left to do.
3. Tony Bennett, Virginia. Wildly popular now in Charlottesville, thanks to the Cavaliers' deepest run since 1995. But Virginia didn't get a No. 1 seed for nothing – it has won 30 games and the Atlantic Coast Conference title. That ratchets up expectations of a Final Four. Even with dangerous Michigan State looming as the next opponent. And then there is the familial burden: can Tony do what his dad, Dick Bennett, could not do in the 2000 Final Four? Can he beat Izzo in an NCAA elimination game?
2. Sean Miller, Arizona. I don't know anyone who isn't convinced that Miller is the total package: tactician, motivator, recruiter, program builder. That's why Arizona is back among the elite, having spent eight weeks ranked No. 1 this season. To finish his resume, though, Miller has to live up to the standard set by Lute Olson – Final Fours and a national title. This team should get to North Texas, and anything short of that leaves Miller in strong contention for the Best Coach with No Final Fours label.
1. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin. Miller's primary competition for the Best Coach with No Final Fours label – and they could play each other for the right to shed that label in the Elite Eight. Ryan's Badgers have been to the NCAA tournament all 13 of his years at the school. They have been a top-four seed six times. They are a No. 2 seed this year, for the second time. Bo has never made it to the final weekend. To prove he is more than just a 25-game winner with a second-weekend ceiling, Ryan needs to get Wisconsin to the Final Four.