Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Reputations built in tournament

By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas - Rick Barnes will be the only coach at the Alamodome this weekend who hasn't won a national championship. Not that he's worried. Besides, the Texas coach has beaten Gary Williams, Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun at various stops in his career. Only now the stakes are a lot higher.

"We're on center stage," he said.

Of the 16 teams still playing in the NCAA tournament, several have coaches whose names are synonymous with success: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Arizona's Lute Olson and Kansas' Roy Williams, to name a few.

But with four wins in the next two weeks, several other coaches could build reputations that would last a lifetime - Barnes, Notre Dame's Mike Brey and Butler's Todd Lickliter are among them.

Barnes is a veteran of 16 seasons with successful stops at Providence, Clemson and now at Texas, where the Longhorns earned a berth in the round of 16 in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The Longhorns are the No. 1 seed in the South Regional.

Texas plays Connecticut on Friday night at San Antonio, followed by Maryland against Michigan State.

Connecticut's Calhoun (1999), Michigan State's Izzo (2000) and Maryland's Williams (2002) have won three of the last four titles.

In an atmosphere where the coaches often dominate the scene, Barnes said he'll try to keep the attention focused on his players more than himself.

"I want the identity of the program to be about the players," Barnes said. "It will be like that as long as I'm at Texas."

During the regular season, top teams can count on a number of wins against less-talented opponents. The tournament can be a coach's time to shine. He can't make the shots or grab the rebounds, but he can make the substitutions, call the defenses and draw up the plays that make the difference between a one-point win or a loss.

Krzyzewski, who has won three national titles, said tournament experience can give a coach an edge, whether it's in the nuances of the game or just keeping a team emotionally in check.

"I've coached in 75 games in the NCAAs," Krzyzewski said. "That's a lot of games to learn, and you try to use that experience to see if it helps.

"That's not being arrogant because anybody can beat anybody in this tournament - anybody," he said. "That fear, that sense of urgency, if you can get that across to your team along with enthusiasm and competitiveness you've got a chance. That's how we prepare."

Izzo said he was overwhelmed by his first tournament in 1998 when the Spartans lost to North Carolina in the round of 16.

"Since then, I've at least had a clue of what to expect," he said.

Logistical experience, such as just knowing where to sleep and how to get to the games, also is important, Izzo said. Among active coaches with at least 10 NCAA tournament games, his winning percentage of .818 (18-4) is the best.

Teams should get ticket requests done early and make sure the hotel is near the arena, he said. At Izzo's first Final Four, in 1999 at St. Petersburg, Fla., the Spartans' hotel was a 90-minute drive from the arena.

"I found out the other three teams were staying much closer," Izzo said. "I felt like a sucker after that experience."

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson took the Sooners to the Final Four last season and they're the top seed this year in the Midwest. Sampson said that while some juggling may be required, a coach must focus on the game.

"There's some Hollywood coaches and there's ball coaches. Ball coaches aren't going to get distracted," Sampson said. "It doesn't matter if you're Mike Brey or Lute Olson. He's coaching his team, he's taking them to an arena, he's going to play a game.

Notre Dame is the fifth seed in the West Regional in Anaheim, Calif., where the Fighting Irish will play top-seeded Arizona. Brey went to the Final Four six times as an assistant at Duke but this is his first regional semifinal as a head coach.

"I think as long as you've been there in some way, shape or form, you're OK. I've been part of the NCAA tournament so much and some deep runs, so that helps me prepare," Brey said.

"If you never were part of it as assistant or player, you probably would be a little wide-eyed and distracted," Brey said. "I've done this dance a few times."

Izzo said experienced players ultimately make the biggest difference. Nine of this year's final 16 teams made it to this round in last season's tournament.

Williams is back with a Maryland team that won the national title last year. Well, sort of. The Terps won it all but guard Steve Blake is the only returning starter. Kansas got to the Final Four last year and heads to the round of 16 with a lineup built around two savvy seniors, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, that any coach would love to have.

"I've never won it before. I want to, but I never have," Barnes said. "I'll tell you this, they've won it, but they want to win it again."

Barnes also said a national title shouldn't define greatness in a coach.

"There are guys who will never get a chance but are great coaches," Barnes said. "I hope I'm going to have a lot of chances."

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