On a cold, rainy spring night five years ago, the room was dripping with superstars. The guest of honor was USA basketball boss Jerry Colangelo. The dinner speaker was Mike Krzyzewski. Kobe Bryant sent a video tribute. Jay Bilas served as emcee.
Naturally, Tom Izzo stole the show. The same could happen Sunday, even though Coach K, Rick Pitino and Gonzaga’s Mark Few are also fighting to get the Final Four.
If your teams are already back in class, you could do worse than adopt Izzo and the seventh-seeded Michigan State Spartans. They meet Pitino and No. 4 Louisville in the East regional championship. They’re the sentimental favorites nearly everywhere they go.
That 2009 dinner was billed as a celebration of the gold medal Team USA reclaimed at the previous summer’s Beijing Olympics. But all anybody wanted to talk about that night was the improbable, emotional ride Izzo and his Spartans had concluded a week earlier at the Final Four in Detroit.
They made it to that season’s final weekend with a dramatic upset of No. 1 overall seed Louisville in the West Regional. Izzo and Pitino, two of the best coaches of their generation — especially at tournament time — had never met in the NCAAs before.
Pitino’s Cardinals avenged the 2009 defeat in a West regional semifinal three years later, the only other time the two coaches have clashed. That makes Sunday’s meeting in Syracuse, New York, a rubber match of sorts. .
Both teams hit rocky stretches in February. Not surprising, both — as befits teams coached by men with a combined three national championships and 15 Final Four appearances between them — recovered when the NCAAs got into gear.
“Sure as hell fitting for me, and I’m sure for him,” Izzo said a day earlier. “I think we both kind of came through similar kind of years and in different ways.”
SPEAKING OF COACH K: Though Izzo was the star of that 2009 gala, it’s not often that Krzyzewski gets short shrift. In his day job at Duke, he’s won four national titles to go along with the two golds he won as the Olympic head coach in 2008 and 2012. He’s been to enough Final Fours (11) that other coaches fussing about him is nothing new.
Even so, the rose petals thrown in his path by the Blue Devils’ opponent, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, were well-deserved. That’s because they went to the heart of Coach K’s accomplishment at both Duke and Team USA: He builds programs, not just teams.
“Probably the highest compliment I could pay him,” Few said, “is literally everything we’ve tried to do at Gonzaga, we always ask, ‘What did Duke do here?'”
PLUCK OF THE WILDCATS: Notre Dame proved Kentucky is far from perfect, even if the Wildcats record remains so after a 68-66 escape. In a game that went back and forth from the opening tip, the most surprising stat coming out of the victory might be this: Over the last 15 minutes, the Wildcats managed to hold a lead for less than a minute.
“I would rather play well and win by a lot than play a close game like that,” said Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison, whose brother Andrew made the free throws with six seconds left to provide the margin of victory.
But a game like that, at this stage of the tournament, might be exactly what Kentucky needed. It reinforced something coach John Calipari has been preaching all season — that grit decides as many games at this time of year as talent.
“I mean, we know our will to win,” Aaron Harrison added a moment later. “And it just showed us we never give up, and we fight to the end just like any other team.”
BO STILL KNOWS: Wisconsin trailed at halftime of both of its regional games. Coming out of the locker room trailing North Carolina by two points Thursday, coach Bo Ryan basically dismissed an interviewer’s question about whether the Badgers would make any changes. Down by three to Arizona at intermission Saturday, he suggested the only adjustment necessary was to shoot better.
Voila! The Badgers made 10-of-12 three-point shots en route to shaking off the Wildcats 85-78.
“No team has done what they did to us in the second half. They made shots, and if they play like that next weekend,’ said Arizona coach Sean Miller, referring to Wisconsin’s Final Four date with unbeaten Kentucky, “they have a chance to win it all.”
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