Legendary Sideline Stalkers Coach K And Tom Izzo Gave Us One Final March Madness Classic| “It Was A Great Game. They Kicked Us Back.”

(Photo by Grant Halverson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Sunday evening in Greenville, South Carolina, college basketball fans were treated to another epic battle between Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo and their blue-blood programs. 

This one went to Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils, as they outlasted a well-equipped Michigan State Spartans team 85-76. It was the 16th and final meeting between the two legendary coaches.

Coach K will head into retirement with a 13-3 head-to-head record, including 4-2 in the NCAA Tournament over Izzo. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, like Sunday’s matchup, where the Blue Devils had the clear talent advantage but found themselves trailing by five points with five minutes left. This after leading by as many as nine earlier in the half.

Coach K had this to say about the epic battle.

“It was a great game. They kicked us back. So proud of my guys. … For a young group, they showed incredible guts. It wasn’t any coaching. They had guts. I’m so proud of them. Jeremy Roach made a couple shots. We just … Tom Izzo’s team is so good and they played their hearts out.
“And to beat them when we lost the lead … it looked like our ship was sinking.”

In a game of back-and-forth, in the end it was the talent of the Blue Devils, mainly future top-3 pick Paolo Banchero, that prevailed. The bruising yet nimble 6-foot-10 250-pounder showed his elite talent, going for 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Banchero’s stats don’t tell the whole story either. In an effort to contain him, the Spartans double-teamed him constantly. But as a result, it opened up things for his teammates. Every one of the Blue Devils’ starting five scored in double figures.

Coach K Gets Payback For The 2019 Elite Eight Upset By Izzo

Sunday’s matchup was just the latest in a series of classics between the Blue Devils and Spartans. To meet this early in the tourney is very unusual, as they’re use to seeing each other in the Elite Eight or Final Four. In fact no two current coaches have led their teams to more Final Fours, with K doing it 12 times, and Izzo eight times.

Prior to Sunday’s matchup, their last two meetings had gone to Izzo’s squad. The most memorable took place in the East Regional Final in 2019. In that game Izzo’s Spartans upset the national title favorite Blue Devils, who were led by Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. All three of those players were drafted as one-and-done players in the top 10 of the 2019 NBA draft.

Sunday’s battle was met with apprehension and anxiety from both sides. In an interview on Saturday Izzo said:

“This game is bigger than normal. There’s gonna be weird emotions on both sides of the scorer’s table. It’s kinda hard for me to prepare,” he continued. “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.”

While a win wasn’t in the March Madness cards for Izzo’s crew, the Green Machine played valiantly, and pushed a much more talented team to the brink of elimination, seriously threatening to end Coach K’s illustrious career in the second round.

This rivalry dates back to 1998, when Duke, already an established program with two national championships and five Final Fours, faced off against the Izzo-led Spartans for the first time. That day, Duke was superior, as they have been for the bulk of the rivalry, but Izzo remembers that loss fondly as a steppingstone to great things. 

“We didn’t get beat that bad [73-67]. We were a good team, but that’s when we were just growing our program. I remember you want to have a measuring stick, and it was Charlie Bell, I think, earlier Andre Hudson, one of those guys, always said ‘to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.’ … It was kind of like we have an opportunity to play Duke and measure up.”

Coach K Advances To His Record 26th Sweet 16

Adding to his long list of accolades, Coach K advances to his final Sweet 16. He also extends his record of 30-win seasons to 16.

 Coach K was impressed by his young team’s resiliency.

“I love these kids — they’re becoming men,” he said. “We were so good in the last part of the game. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. I’m 75, how damn lucky can you be to have moments like that.”

Duke looks to advance to the Elite Eight and possibly further as Coach K’s retirement run continues.