One last time: Coach K vs. Tom Izzo is March Madness at its best
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski epitomize college basketball and embody everything we love about March Madness. They’re icons, legends and elder statesmen of the game, and they’ll face each other yet again in the NCAA Tournament, squaring off in the Round of 32 on Sunday afternoon (5:15 p.m.).
As a rule, Coach K dominates Izzo.
History has proven that time and time again.
Sunday will be their 6th meeting during March Madness, the most of any coach vs. coach/team vs. team, with Coach K — who is 12-3 overall vs. Izzo — either looking to advance or head into retirement having lost just 4 of 16 match-ups with Izzo, the Big Ten’s all-time wins leader. (Bob Knight still has more overall wins, but Izzo all 666 of his as a B1G coach.)
“I like the game, I just don’t like the record in that matchup over the years,” Izzo said, per CBS Sports.
Either way, it’ll be a milestone marker for both coaches.
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For the No. 7 Spartans (West Region), beating No. 2 Duke would be the ideal follow-up to Friday night’s narrow 74-73 win over No. 10 Davidson. For the Blue Devils, scoring a victory over Izzo would be a Sweet 16 gift to their coach, while simultaneously keeping their dream alive for another game.
Though it’s just a Round of 32 contest, it will have the feel of a Final Four clash. College basketball royalty usually doesn’t meet this early in the tournament, but a rough ending to the regular season and so-so showing in the Big Ten Tournament culminated in MSU’s lowest seeding since 2019, when it was a No. 9 heading into the Big Dance.
However, in 2015, the No. 7 Spartans made it to the Final Four only to be blown out of the water, 81-61, by the eventual-national champion-Blue Devils. During the 2019 Elite 8, their most recent tournament meeting, the No. 2 Spartans walked away with a 68-67 win over the top-seeded Blue Devils. Izzo has never won back-to-back games vs. Coach K, so Sunday could be historic in that regard — emerging on the ride side of the scoreboard would also even the postseason series at 3-3.
So yeah, a lot is riding on this Round of 32 game, one of the most meaningful second-round matchups in NCAA Tournament history. It’s not every year that two HOF coaches from mega programs meet during the opening weekend of March Madness.
“I’m looking forward to it in a lot of ways,” Izzo said. “Not when I look at the record, but when I look at the coach, the team, and the position we’re in, it should be a great day for college basketball.”
Favored by 6.5 points, Duke certainly has an advantage, at least according to bettors. Sure, history also comes into play; it’s difficult to predict Izzo getting past K during “normal” scenarios, let alone what we’ll see Sunday. Duke has another loaded Duke squad. Duke is going to be Duke. MSU, however, doesn’t have its typical firepower. If not for Joey Hauser, the Spartans would have lost in the first round to Davidson; they avoided their 6th first-round exit in Izzo’s 24 straight career postseason appearances.
This season hasn’t gone the way Izzo wanted, that’s no secret. Whether it was eluding to the Spartans being lazy, unmotivated or just plainly unfocused, the iconic coach has often voiced displeasure about his team’s inconsistency. But he’s also mentioned that once in the tournament, he feels as his Spartans could potentially make a run.
Sunday might end up being the game of the tournament, considering the circumstances. It’ll also serve as the Big Ten’s best chance to dive deep into March, with conference-favorite Iowa already having been knocked out of the tournament. A Michigan State team that beats Duke should quickly move into favorite status, regardless of personnel and seeding.
If these Spartans beat the Blue Devils, anything could be possible — maybe even another under-the-radar run to the Final Four, like in 2015, when they were very much on the bubble before earning an at-large bid before eventually meeting Duke.
Whatever the outcome, though, Sunday will be one to remember. It’ll either keep Coach K’s HOF career going for another round, or it’ll prompt Izzo’s Spartans to dream about what was extremely improbable heading into the postseason; that being a deep run into March.
“I didn’t want to look ahead and dream of the matchup, because you get a chance, one more time, to play against maybe the all-time great, as they say about LeBron [James] or they say about Michael [Jordan],” Izzo said after the Spartans’ win over Davidson, per ESPN. “In the coaching world, the GOAT is the team we’ll play, and it’s been earned. It’s not been given. It’s been earned.
“And you know, I’m going to try my hardest to see if we can get a few more, one more, on the positive side of that thing, but every time we’ve played it’s been a game I looked forward to.”