GREENVILLE, S.C. — In a sport where the only lasting stars are the coaches, few are more recognizable than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
Both have spent decades at the top of their profession, with national titles, Final Fours and enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
They’ve squared off far more frequently than usual for teams in different leagues, including on the sport’s biggest stage in the NCAA Tournament.
On Sunday, they’ll do it one final time.
“The game is bigger than normal,” Izzo said Saturday, adding later: “There’s going to be weird emotions on both sides of the scorers’ table.”
The second-seeded Blue Devils (29-6) and seventh-seeded Spartans (23-12) meet in the West Region’s second round in a matchup that has more at stake than which team advances to next week’s Sweet 16 in San Francisco.
It’s a farewell to a series, entering its 16th meeting, between coaching buddies whose meetings have become a welcome staple on the nonconference schedule. It’s also a reminder of the changing college basketball landscape. Krzyzewski plans to retire after Duke’s final game, and a coaching rivalry like his with Izzo could become a thing of the past amid today’s churn of coaching changes.
“It’s kind of hard for me to prepare,” Izzo said. “Everybody’s saying, `Are you going to end his career on this note? Are you going to do this? Are you going to do that?’
“First of all, I’m not going to do any of that. The players will hopefully find a way to win. But just think what he’s going through and his players are going through. Emotionally, it’s got to be an incredible – I can’t even imagine.”
The resumes are just as incredible for the pair of tournament-tested coaches.
The 75-year-old Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in college basketball history and can reach 1,200 victories on Sunday to go with his five national championships and record-tying 12 Final Four trips in a 47-year career, 42 coming at Duke. Izzo, 67, won the 2000 NCAA title and is second among active coaches with eight Final Fours in his 27 seasons.
Yet what makes this meeting special is the fact these long-successful coaches keep finding their way to each other; this will mark the sixth straight season that the Blue Devils and Spartans will meet. Both are part of the four-team Champions Classic along with Kentucky and Kansas that traditionally kicks off the season. They’ve also met as part of the annual series between the Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences.
Krzyzewski has gotten the best of Izzo with a 12-3 record, including 3-2 in the NCAAs with Final Four wins in 1999 and 2015. But the most recent postseason meeting went to Izzo, whose Spartans edged a top-seeded Duke team led by eventual No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Zion Williamson in the 2019 Elite Eight.
Izzo acknowledged his losing mark after Friday’s win over Davidson by saying he has “got to be (Krzyzewski’s) favorite coach because he’s beaten us like a drum.”
“You don’t put a banner up by your record against a certain team or a certain coach,” Krzyzewski said. “So if you get caught up in that or your record on a Saturday afternoon or whatever, for me, it’s been the wrong thing to do.
“I know the only banners that are up at Duke are championship banners, and that means you have to beat a number of people.”
Krzyzewski is nearly out of time to add to that list, his career down to no more than five games before he joins the list of prominent retirees like North Carolina Hall of Famer Roy Williams and Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, both of whom left the sport last spring.
The future beyond that? Krzyzewski, who has long advocated for more proactive NCAA leadership when it comes to helping the game evolve, is thinking about it in the fleeting moments between preparing his team for the next game.
“I would hope that people, whoever is looking at the future of our game and the future of college sports would try to get the veteran coaches – whether it be women’s basketball, men’s basketball, especially the two of us together – to take a look at the world of basketball on the collegiate level and share ideas, share what we think might be good for a new structure,” Krzyzewski said.
“That would, I think, give a greater in-depth look at our game and how it might be able to advance and stay with the stature that it has and maybe increase.”
Izzo seems like one of the first names to add to that list, though he’s not quite ready to turn his thoughts beyond coaching. Asked whether recent retirement announcements affect his thinking on his future, Izzo said he’s planning to stay with it “for a while” and knows he’ll have friends to reach out to in Krzyzewski, Williams and others when it’s time to consider walking away.
For now, all he can do is get ready for one more round with his pal.
“For 40 minutes, I’ll bet you Mike wants to beat the hell out of me, and I bet you I want to beat the hell out of him,” Izzo said. “And what happens after, only time will tell.”