In the first 22 years of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco, we’d had an actual rock star — Mike Mills, bassist/keyboardist/vocalist for R.E.M., 1999 — win our contest but never anyone who makes his living coaching basketball. In Year 23, things changed. Our new champion and recipient of the coveted Final Four sweatshirt is Ryan Koudele (pronounced Koo-DELL), and he’s the boys’ basketball coach at North Springs High in Sandy Springs.
Given the permutations of this NCAA tournament, it makes sense that our winner had inside knowledge. Koudele, who’s 36 and who just finished his third season as the Spartans’ coach, served as a student coach at Kansas State, from which he graduated in 1996. He worked under head coaches Dana Altman and Tom Asbury and alongside a young assistant named Mark Fox, who has since found gainful employment in Athens, Ga.
The Fiasco drew 5,376 entries. Not one contestant picked the correct Final Four. (Your Fiasco founder got just one of the four, and that only by picking West Virginia over his alma mater.) Nineteen got three teams right, and Koudele won on the first tiebreaker by tabbing seven of the eight regional finalists.
But get this: Being a loyal K-Stater, he had the Wildcats going to the Final Four. And that was the one regional Koudele missed. Not that he has anything against Butler for beating his Wildcats in the West regional final. “I actually know Coach [Brad] Stevens,” he said. “He recruited one of my players when I was coaching in junior college [in Kansas]. He was just an assistant back then.”
One thing being a K-State alum did for Koudele: It kept him from falling into the trap that ensnared almost everyone this spring. He had Kansas going out in Round 2, though not at the hands of Northern Iowa; he had UNLV, which is coached by fellow K-State alum Lon Kruger, doing the deed.
“I always pick against the Jayhawks quick,” Koudele said, “and I do it at the risk of not winning [any bracket contests].”
This time reward overrode risk. The Midwest Regional, which was supposed to belong to Kansas, was won by Michigan State, as Koudele sagaciously surmised. “I liked the experience of them being there before,” he said, “and Coach [Tom] Izzo does a phenomenal job. But we all did our picks before they lost [point guard] Kalin Lucas, and when they did I had my doubts.”
Koudele chose West Virginia to take the East Regional because of another K-State tie. Bob Huggins spent a year coaching in Manhattan before heading home to West Virginia. “Part of [that pick] was from following Kansas State; I’ve come to appreciate Bob Huggins. His guys always play hard, and from watching the Big East tournament they seemed to be peaking at the right time.”
As for Duke in the South: “I’ve been a big fan of Duke’s. I actually went to Coach [Mike] Krzyzewski’s coaching clinic this year and watched the team practice. I was really impressed with how focused and how talented they were. And they hadn’t been to the Final Four in a while, so they were due.” (Tidbit: At North Springs, Koudele is known as Coach K.)
In his bracket, this Coach K picked K-State and West Virginia to reach the final. (K-State winning, natch.) Without his Wildcats in the mix, Koudele is going with West Virginia, “though I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Butler or Duke win it.” Whoever prevails, he’ll be there to see it. He’s flying to Indianapolis on Thursday for the annual coaches’ convention that runs concurrent with the Final Four.
And now you’re asking: With a seer for a coach, how did his Spartans fare this season? “We were 5-22,” Koudele said. “We started 0-14. But we defeated Marist, which was a huge win for North Springs and our alumni, and we upset Lakeside. We struggled some, but we had a whole new team. We were pretty young.”
A personal note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the kind folks at the ol’ AJC who did all the real Fiasco work — Cynthia Daniels, Emily Merwin and Carolyn Warmbold — and our new pals at Upickem in Milwaukee. And if you’re wondering where our Coach K ranks in the nationwide Upickem contest … he’s ninth out of 155,249. Yowser!