Every coach in the NCAA men's tournament feels a measure of pressure to advance. Yet all pressure is relative.
Here are six who may be feeling the most to deliver some measure of success — from at least one victory to a national title.
Nate Oats, Alabama
Oats leads the No. 1 overall seed and one of the betting favorites to win the national championship. The Crimson Tide have never reached a Final Four. They’ve also never been this good. Alabama (30–5) enters the NCAA tournament having won both the SEC regular season and tourney titles.
This is the team to beat.
Championship expectations are just part of it, of course. Oats’ program is at the center of controversy after members of the team were involved in a Jan. 15 shootout in Tuscaloosa that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old single mother. One, Darius Miles, was indicted on capital murder charges last Friday. Two others, star freshmen Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley, were also on the scene.
Miller, his attorney acknowledges, drove Miles his gun, after receiving a text request to do so, to the scene of the incident where it soon became the alleged murder weapon.
Neither Miller nor Bradley have been charged with a crime and are referred to as “cooperating witnesses” by law enforcement. Citing that, the school declined to suspend or discipline the players. It did not conduct its own investigation into the incident.
That inaction has drawn widespread criticism about the discipline and values of the program. The victim’s family has also repeatedly ripped Oats and the program for its perceived lack of concern or accountability.
Alabama’s reputation has been torched, viewed by many as a win-at-all-costs operation that exceeds anything in recent college athletics memory.
Even by Alabama standards, a national championship may not be worth all of that. Anything less though, with many nationally celebrating the Tide’s defeat, would certainly fall short.
Matt Painter, Purdue
There may be no program in the country that has been as consistently and historically as good, but never truly great, as Purdue.
The Boilermakers have appeared in 30 of the last 43 NCAA tournaments. During that stretch they’ve won at least 20 games 28 times, finished nationally ranked 20 times and won 10 Big Ten regular season championships. They have a devoted fan base and tradition that dates back to the 1930s, when John Wooden played there for the legendary Piggy Lambert.
Yet Purdue has never won a national title and hasn’t reached the Final Four since 1980. Since then there have been just three trips to the Elite Eight, including a crushing overtime loss to eventual champion Virginia in 2019. Then there was last year, when a 29-win team featuring top-five NBA pick Jaden Ivey was somehow upset by Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16.
Well, Purdue is back to take another crack at this. Behind national player of the year candidate Zach Edey, the Boilermakers (29-5) are champions of the Big Ten and the No. 1 seed in the Midwest.
Here in Painter’s 18th season of otherwise excellent success, it’s fair to wonder, if not now for a Final Four breakthrough, then when?
Or considering it’s been 43 years … ever?
John Calipari, Kentucky
The Wildcats haven’t won a NCAA tournament game since 2019 and haven’t been to a Final Four since 2015. In fairness, they were national contenders in 2020 when COVID-19 shut the tournament down, but still, such a drought — including an opening-round loss to Saint Peter’s a year ago — has led to massive frustrations among parts of the fan base.
Kentucky entered this season with high expectations. They returned national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe and the roster was full of quality transfers and Calipari’s usual freshman stars, including top recruits Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston.
Instead of looking like a true contender, they dragged their way to a 21-11 season and a 6 seed in the East, opening against Providence.
This is a team that has the talent to make a significant run. It also has shown itself capable of another early round loss. Calipari is in the middle of a 10-year contract with an enormous buyout (nearly $40 million) and another astounding group of recruits coming, so he isn’t getting fired.
That doesn’t mean Cal couldn't really use a few tournament victories to restore some sense of pride and excitement around the program. Another first-round knockout — especially to a Providence team that is 4-6 in its last 10 — might make life untenable in Lexington.
Kelvin Sampson, Houston
The work Sampson has done in building up the Cougar program is the stuff of legend, including a trip to the 2021 Final Four. He may have found NCAA trouble at Oklahoma and later Indiana, but there has never been a doubt about his ability to coach.
UH is 31-3 and the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region. It is also the top-ranked team in the respected KenPom ratings, where it is fourth in adjusted defense and 11th in adjusted offense. Oh, and it has a lottery pick in Jarace Walker among a deep and athletic group.
Winning a national title at a school from the American Athletic Conference should never be the expectation. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a team capable of doing it. Sampson, 67, has been coaching a long time and assuredly recognizes these opportunities are rare. Adding to the situation: The Final Four is in Houston, and the Cougars are in a region with both Texas and Texas A&M.
The potential for a magical three weeks for the program and the school is right there.
Bill Self, Kansas
Pressure is actually the wrong word for Self. He led the Jayhawks to a national title last year and has a so-called “lifetime” contract with the school. This is more about opportunity.
KU (27-7) is the No. 1 seed in the West. The Jayhawks are deep and talented and possibly the only team in the country that is capable of going toe to toe with Alabama. That gives Self a legitimate chance to join Billy Donovan (Florida, 2005, 2006) and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke 1991, 1992) as the only coaches since John Wooden to win consecutive national titles. When you are already a Hall of Famer, there are only so many distinctions to still chase.
Adding to the storyline is that Self missed the Big 12 tournament due to a health issue. He was released from the hospital on Sunday and is expected to coach the team throughout the NCAAs, making his return a rallying point for the program.
Jon Scheyer, Duke
It’s never easy taking over for a legend and when the Blue Devils fell to 17-8 in mid-February, it was fair to wonder if year one post-Krzyzewski just wasn’t going to quite work out.
Instead, Scheyer has led Duke to a nine-game win streak, including two over rival North Carolina and an ACC tournament championship. The 35-year-old played on the Blue Devils 2010 national title team and was a longtime Coach K assistant. More recruits are coming and the program appears very solid. Nothing would serve notice that Duke isn’t going anywhere, though, more than a trip to the second or even third weekend of this tournament.
Krzyzewski will always loom large, but this is Scheyer’s first real attempt to stamp himself into the national consciousness.