They sprouted from different coaching trees, albeit in the same orchard, Mike Krzyzewski from Bobby Knight, Tom Izzo from Jud Heathcote.
They have never worked together. They are linked not by common history but by common purpose. As they prepare to meet Friday for the eighth time, the fourth in the NCAA tournament, the similarities between their programs are too apparent to ignore – and that’s no coincidence.
Izzo used the same template at Michigan State that Krzyzewski did at Duke, working toward the singular goal of consistent excellence at one school. Izzo, like Krzyzewski, has embraced former players as family. Izzo, like Krzyzewski, has built his program on a foundation of defense. Izzo, like Krzyzewski, flirted with the NBA but wouldn’t walk away from what he had built.
“I’m kind of embedded there,” Izzo said Thursday. “There’s no question he’s embedded at Duke. And I guess that’s what we have in common.”
There’s also the legacy of success. Both have won national titles, both have gone to multiple Final Fours. Izzo might be a few years and a whole lot of wins behind Krzyzewski, but the mutual respect between the two is apparent.
“There’s nothing about Tom that I don’t think is good,” Krzyzewski said. “If we lose to them, believe me, I’ll hug him and shake his hand, and he’ll do the same for me. I like that. I think it’s more the way it used to be in coaching, and probably we both have great teachers in that regard.”
There are differences. Duke has traditionally relied on the 3-point shot and Michigan State has built its foundation on post play. Duke recruits nationally, while Michigan State tends to stick within Michigan and Ohio. (They did clash this winter over recruit Jabari Parker, who chose Duke over Michigan State and Brigham Young.)
Yet just as they have built their programs the same way off the court, Izzo and Krzyzewski also share an overall emphasis on defense, rebounding and effort on the court.
“Both guys, when you have to play them, they bring certain qualities to the table at the defensive end, from a toughness standpoint, that you really have to be ready,” said Louisville’s Rick Pitino, the third coach here with a national title. “It’s not so much difficult to prepare from an X-and-O standpoint. It’s difficult to prepare from a toughness standpoint.”
When it comes to the X-and-O details, there might not be anyone better than Krzyzewski or Izzo at the set play for an easy basket out of a timeout, or saving the first-half timeout to steal an extra possession before halftime, or making halftime adjustments, or thorough scouting and preparation for opponents – particularly within the brutal two-day time frame of the NCAA tournament.
While it doesn’t apply here, the latter is one area where Izzo surpasses Krzyzewski, with an 18-3 record in the second games at a site in the tournament. Krzyzewski is 35-9.
“People don’t doubt coach Izzo,” Michigan State forward Adreian Payne said. “He’s a coach you can’t doubt. He always has something up his sleeve.”
Head-to-head, Krzyzewski has the edge, 6-1 all-time against Izzo. Even Izzo’s son – full name Steven Thomas Mateen Izzo, for point guard Mateen Cleaves – picked Duke over Michigan State in his bracket.
Michigan State beat Duke in a 2005 regional semifinal, but Duke has won the past two meetings, most recently in Madison Square Garden last season for Krzyzewski’s 903rd win.
Legions of coaches have measured themselves against Krzyzewski. In philosophy and approach, perhaps none comes closer than Izzo.
“It’s games like this that kind of give you a chance to step up one more notch,” Izzo said. “That’s what we’re looking to do.”