College Hoops

Ranking 2023 NCAA tournament men’s basketball coaches as players

Ranking 2023 NCAA tournament men's basketball coaches as players

If you hold the belief that college basketball playing greatness is a meaningful prerequisite to college basketball coaching greatness, 2022 was your year.

Each of last season’s Final Four coaches — Kansas’ Bill Self (Oklahoma State), North Carolina’s Hubert Davis (UNC), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (Army) and Villanova’s Jay Wright (Bucknell) — had Division I basketball playing experience, the first time in 10 years that each of the men’s Final Four coaches played at the D-I level.

It was quite a switch from 2021, when none of the men’s Final Four coaches — Baylor’s Scott Drew, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, UCLA’s Mick Cronin and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson — played D-I, and only Sampson (a UNC Pembroke grad) played college basketball at all.

Will the coaching stars of March Madness 2023’s third weekend be serious ex-ballers, or something less than? As history has demonstrated, it doesn’t matter. But after the retirement of Coach K and Wright, and given Davis’ inability to get the Tar Heels back to the Dance, we know the sideline mix at NRG Stadium in Houston on April 1 will bring different origin stories ranging anywhere from “former NBA All-Star” to “never played in high school.”

(Annual disclaimer: Our ranking of the 68 NCAA tournament coaches as players was devised in largely unscientific fashion by the writer, who still has not discovered a method to reliably compare a Division III star to a D-II reserve to a D-I walk-on. Feel free to vent your frustrations like this guy did if you take issue with the ranking.)

First, the breakdown of the highest level of basketball achieved from this year’s group:

NBA (regular-season roster): 6
Other professional basketball experience: 10
Division I college basketball: 19
Lower NCAA levels, NAIA, NCCAA or junior college: 22
High school (varsity roster): 8
No varsity high school experience: 3


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68. Bruce Pearl, Auburn Tigers — Pearl did not play basketball at Sharon (Massachusetts) High School, as an injury suffered playing football during his freshman year prevented him from pursuing the sport. The Quincy (Mass.) Patriot-Ledger reported in 2008 that Pearl played high school baseball, primarily as a designated hitter. Pearl’s path to basketball coaching started when he was hired as a student assistant at Boston College under Tom Davis, and was later added to Davis’ coaching staff at Stanford.

67. Leon Rice, Boise State Broncos — Rice played junior varsity basketball at Richland High School in…

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