Duke didn’t lose that evening. The Blue Devils easily beat Michigan State, 81-61, and went on to win Krzyzewski’s fifth national championship two nights later.
But the night wasn’t a complete loss for Izzo. For one thing, it marked his seventh Final Four appearance. More important, his 15-year-old son, Steven, was pulling for the Spartans.
“Finally,” Izzo said, laughing. “I think he only came over because he wanted to be sure he got a car the next year. Before that, I kept telling Mike he should get the kid a full ride to Duke. It was the least he could do.”
Steven Izzo, a Duke fan as a kid, is planning to enroll at Michigan State in the fall. Sunday, he will be pulling with all his heart and soul for his dad’s team to beat Duke in the East Region final and advance to the Final Four.
“Yeah, but I still might ask Mike about that free ride,” Izzo said Saturday.
That’s the nature of the relationship between the two Hall of Fame coaches. They are friends and rivals, although, to date, the rivalry has been one-sided.
Krzyzewski is 11-1 against Izzo with four of their meetings coming in the NCAA tournament. Izzo’s only victory came in the Sweet 16 in 2005, when his fifth-seeded team upset a top-seeded Duke team. The Spartans then beat Kentucky in double overtime to reach the Final Four.
This will be the first time the two men — and the two programs — have met with a Final Four trip at stake.
Mickie Krzyzewski will undoubtedly be tighter than she was four years ago in Indianapolis. For the second year in a row, her husband will be trying to make history by reaching his 13th Final Four, which would break a tie with John Wooden for most appearances.
Last year, Grayson Allen’s last-second shot in regulation rimmed out, and Duke lost in overtime to Kansas.
This year, Duke has won back-to-back games when opponents missed point-blank shots at the buzzer: Aubrey Dawkins’s tip-in for UCF rolled just off the rim last Sunday to allow Duke to survive, 77-76; and Virginia Tech’s Ahmed Hill’s wide-open layup at the buzzer just after midnight Friday at Capital One Arena hit the side of the rim and bounced off, allowing the Blue Devils to escape, 75-73.
Krzyzewski is a big believer in the basketball gods. As he pointed out after the UCF game, they have often smiled on him at times and, at other times (Allen’s shot, for example), have shunned him. Izzo is a little bit more pragmatic: He believes in rebounding.
“That’s probably because my first couple of years our teams couldn’t score at all,” he said with a laugh. “My old coach Jud Heathcote told me, ‘Just throw it up on the glass and go get it. That’s your best offense.’ ”
His teams have made 22 straight NCAA tournaments and are in their 10th Elite Eight. A win Sunday would give Izzo his eighth Final Four appearance, fifth most among coaches. (Rick Pitino also has seven appearances, including two later vacated by the NCAA.)
Krzyzewski, 72, has embraced the one-and-done era and has a team that starts four freshmen when everyone is healthy. Izzo has only had occasional one-and-dones but says he would have loved to have successfully recruited some of those who landed at Duke in recent years, most prominently among them Jabari Parker out of Chicago.
Izzo, 64, readily admits to having a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to Duke and to Krzyzewski. Understandable, given Steven’s past loyalties and his record against Krzyzewski.
“But hey, if I’m going to lose to someone along the way, I’d rather it be to someone I like and respect and to someone I know does it the right way,” he said. Then he smiled. “But he does owe me a few, I think.”
Both have done superb jobs this season dealing with myriad injuries. Shooting guard Joshua Langford, who was averaging 15 points for the Spartans, went down for the season in December. Center Nick Ward broke a hand in February and hurt his left hand Friday against LSU. He should play Sunday.
Duke was without superstar Zion Williamson for six games late in the season, and Cam Reddish was out Friday with a knee injury and is questionable Sunday. And yet, Duke is 32-5 and Michigan State is 31-6, each a step away from another Final Four.
Krzyzewski will be hoping to rely on this year’s one-and-dones — Williamson, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones and (if healthy) Reddish — and not on the basketball gods.
Izzo will lean on Cassius Winston, his wonderful junior point guard; two talented (and not one-and-done) freshmen, Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown; and rebounding, always rebounding.
Izzo pounded his players with reminders before their win over LSU on Friday about rebounding. “Maybe I’ll just tell them to tackle Zion,” he said jokingly. “Might be the only way to stop him.”
Duke barely escaped the last two rounds. Michigan State won going away in its past two games. Izzo knows those results won’t matter Sunday.
Don’t expect Mickie Krzyzewski to be okay with a loss because it’s to Tom. There’s far too much at stake. And don’t expect Steven Izzo — scholarship offer or not — to feel anything but joy if his father’s team cuts down the nets.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.