A near miss tonight won't alter marks of either coach

Ncaa Tournament

April 07, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

NEW ORLEANS - Either Syracuse's Jim Boeheim or Kansas' Roy Williams will walk away tonight with the title of Best Coach to Never Win The Big One.

It's a shame, because it's really undeserved. Regardless of who wins, Boeheim and Williams are two of the best coaches in men's college basketball, and they seemed unaffected by all this attention about being the ultimate loser. What you have are two coaches secure in their jobs, systems and themselves.

And they are treating this game the way they should, as just another game. And regardless of the outcome, the sun will come up in the morning, taxes have to be paid and the Ravens will have quarterback problems.

"It feels the same, like any other time I've been here," said Boeheim, 58, who coached and lost in two previous championship games. "I'm excited and I look forward to the challenge. If I don't win, it's not the end of the world. I'll feel bad, but I'll feel worse for the players."

Williams, 52, said: "I don't think he [Boeheim] lays awake at night worrying about that. I don't think either one of us is going to jump off the tallest building Monday night if we don't win."

Don't get the impression that Boeheim and Williams aren't competitors. You don't win as many games and survive as long as they have without an edge. But both guys have been in the business long enough to realize that truly the best team with the best coach doesn't always win the March Madness campaign.

There are just too many factors a coach can't control: Will his team remain healthy? Will his team run into a hot team? Will his team have one of those nights when it couldn't make a shot on a 5-foot rim? Will the officials call the game close, or let it turn into another Big Ten fight?

Plus, there is the age factor. These are college kids. It's hard to predict what an 18- to 22-year-old will do or how he will react. A bad romance can cause a couple of losses (see Sleepy Ryan Randle at Maryland at the end of the regular season and into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament).

It just takes one bad night to leave.

It also takes a lot of luck to win one.

Temple's John Chaney has never been lucky enough. Neither has Purdue's Gene Keady, Utah's Rick Majerus, Williams nor Boeheim. All are really good coaches, but may have been just been just a couple of bounces or blown calls away.

"I know people love upsets," Williams said. "That's part of what makes the tournament so special. I understand that. But as a coach, it's different. There are so many things beyond your control. More than anything, it takes luck."

That's what makes both coaches so special. Boeheim has been to the tournament 22 times in 27 years of coaching. He lost twice in championship games because he should have. People forget that the Orangemen entered the 1987 title game against Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers as 11-point underdogs, and the Hoosiers had to rely on a last-second shot from Keith Smart to pull out a 74-73 victory.

In 1996, Boeheim took a relatively unheard-of bunch to the championship game before losing, 76-67, to a clearly superior Kentucky team coached by Rick Pitino. And now, Boeheim is back. He has worked the magic again, taking a group of players whom most thought would be too inexperienced to make a serious national championship run. The team's star player is a freshman from Baltimore named Carmelo Anthony. The team's playmaking guard, Gerry McNamara, is freshman from Scranton, Pa. Another top player is sophomore Hakim Warrick, a slashing-style forward.

Boeheim has won 652 of 878 games while at Syracuse, and survived prostate cancer. He wants to know which were the biggest games and which weren't.

"Well, it's like I said, is the final of the regional a big game or is the first game here a big game? None of those are big games?" he said. "That's what some people's mentality is, that the only big game is the last game. I just don't buy into that theory."

"You try to win every game," Boeheim said. "There is no absolute difference between any of those games, absolutely none. Is it [the national championship game] more important to me? Yes. Is it more important to you? Yes. But you coach it the same way."

Williams agrees.

Win or lose, his style has not changed in the 15 years he has been at Kansas, which is why he has also been to four Final Fours. In his first 13 seasons as coach, Williams won more games than any other in college history.

But despite the highest winningest percentage among active coaches, Williams has been put in the category with Boeheim. He can't win the Big One, either. This season, though, Williams' team lost forward Wayne Simien to a shoulder injury. And when the Jayhawks lost back-to-back games to Colorado and Arizona in late January, a lot of people thought they were finished.

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