INDIANAPOLIS -- Before the NCAA tournament started, Steven Izzo was working on his bracket. He had a game he just couldn’t pick.
He did what lots of kids do in that situation. He asked his dad for a tip.
“I said, ‘What game?' He said, 'I got you getting to Duke, Dad,'” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Thursday. “I tried to be a real parent, you know, not push the kid. Help him make intelligent decisions, like all of us do. And I said, ‘Steven, I love you, man. Do it with your head, not your heart. Don’t worry about Mom or Dad.’
“The damn kid didn’t do it. He didn’t worry about us at all. He picked Duke.”
Izzo should be used to it. He’s 1-6 against the Blue Devils, after all. But in this match of titans, everyone has an opinion, so why not the households of Izzo and Duke counterpart Mike Krzyzewski?
Sometimes the beauty of the bracket breaks just so, setting up behemoth games even before the final weekend.
This is one of those times.
Rarely do the Spartans and the Blue Devils meet without some sort of meaning. They’ve squared off three times in March -- in the second round in 1994, when Duke won; in the 1999 Final Four, with the Blue Devils victorious again; and in the 2005 Sweet 16, with Michigan State pulling off the upset.
The last time they crossed paths? Last season in Madison Square Garden, when the victory merely catapulted Krzyzewski to the top of the coaching record books.
“Well, when the opening brackets came out and I saw the Midwest Regional, I did what most Spartan fans did -- I took a little sigh and sat back,” Izzo said. “And then I said, you know, this is the way it’s supposed to be. If you can get through the first weekend, everybody knows every game is going to be dynamite, and what a better program to start out with than Duke?”
It’s about two programs, long models of success, and maybe even more -- two coaches who have risen atop the heap and managed to stay there.
Rick Pitino, hardly a slouch in the coaching-icon rankings, waxed poetic when asked about Izzo and Krzyzewski, citing what he called their "longevity of excellence" as what separates them from the pack.
“It’s not so difficult to prepare from an X-and-O standpoint,” Pitino said. “It’s difficult to prepare from a toughness standpoint. Their teams always exude great toughness. They are never out of games. And I have such great respect for both guys because of their longevity of excellence. They just never let up.”
Too bad they can’t get the same respect within their own families.
Krzyzewski’s granddaughter picked Duke to go to the national championship ... and lose to Montana.
As for Steven Izzo, his father said the “skinny little kid won’t be eating for a month if we lose this game." But Duke apparently has him covered.
“His son will be sitting on our bench and has a scholarship to Duke,” Krzyzewski said. “[Tom] didn’t know that on Facebook and on Twitter, I’ve been communicating with him and have arranged that deal. So he sold him out. But he sold him out for a good price.”
WHOM TO WATCH
Duke’s Ryan Kelly: The senior was relatively anonymous in the first weekend in Philadelphia, scoring all of nine points in the two games and shooting woefully. He was a combined 3-of-13 and 0-for-4 from the arc. You can get away with that against Albany and Creighton, not so much against the Spartans. The Blue Devils need Kelly to score and stretch the defense to give Mason Plumlee room to work.
Michigan State’s Adriean Payne: He’s not always consistent, which is why he’s so crucial. Payne has the ability and the power to dominate -- as he did against Memphis with 14 points and 10 rebounds -- and he needs to be that kind of player with Plumlee anchoring the other side for Duke.
WHAT TO WATCH
The pace: Duke proved it can play ugly against Creighton, of all teams, but the Blue Devils would like to pick up the pace. Michigan State is perfectly capable of pushing tempo, but the Spartans would likely prefer to keep this in the more traditional grind-it-up, beat-you-up style of the Big Ten.