First Virginia, then Louisville, now Duke.
At this point, Tom Izzo probably feels like he’s coaching in the ACC.
“I think you’re right,” Izzo said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “It seems like they keep getting harder, too.”
Michigan State, however, has been up to the task every time. The Spartans beat Louisville, 76-70, in overtime on Sunday to advance to the Final Four for the seventh time since 1999.
No. 7 Michigan State (27-11) plays No. 1 Duke (33-4) this Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET.
It is the 12th Final Four of Mike Krzyzewski’s career.
“I have great respect for Mike and what he’s done there,” Izzo said. “I’ve recruited a couple of his players, so I know them pretty well. We’ve played against Duke many times. Haven’t won enough of them. In fact, not many of them.”
Izzo is 1-8 against Krzyzewski, including an 81-71 loss against Duke in November. Still, Izzo has faith in his players – and for good reason.
It’s not often than a 7-seed reaches the Final Four.
“That’s why you play the games,” Izzo said. “I think this is a great opportunity for our team. We’ve been kind of the Cinderella team in some ways, but I think – Tiki, you would know – when you get into a team sport, sometimes when you start playing better and things start going your way, it becomes a confidence level and a refuse-to-lose attitude. These guys got it. They’ve been to the Elite Eight last year and didn’t quite get it done. So they’re starving for that Final Four. They accomplished it, and hopefully we’re starving for more now.”
Michigan State has won eight of its last nine games, with the only loss coming to Wisconsin in overtime in the Big Ten Championship. The Spartans, it seems, have flipped a switch.
“I’ve always had a great theory that a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team,” Izzo said. “I think when you got players – and in our case, we got some former players. It doesn’t hurt to have Magic (Johnson) sitting there telling your guys what to do. I think that’s more valid than me, so I’ll take that anytime I can get it. But I think Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine have really (stepped up).”
Trice and Valentine combined for 32 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists against Louisville. It was the Spartans’ eighth overtime game this season. They entered Sunday 2-5 in extra sessions.
“It was those guys that said we’re not losing this game,” Izzo said of Trice and Valentine. “Trice and Valentine were there last year when we lost our record of every senior going to a Final Four at one time during his four-year career. That bothered them. I think they’ve used that as a mantra to get it done.”
And now they’re in the Final Four. While Kentucky and Wisconsin have been favorites all season, that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State – and, to a lesser extent, Duke.
“For definitely us and Duke, we’ve been kind of a work in progress,” Izzo said. “Wisconsin was a little more polished. I love that team. They beat us in the Big Ten Tournament after having an 11-point lead late. But what I love about their team is they’ve got six guys that have played together the whole time. They don’t have a lot of depth, but those six guys have been incredibly close. They went to a Final Four last year, and I think anytime you’ve been there and the same group’s coming back, there’s some advantages to that.”
And then there’s Michigan State, which started the year 19-10.
CBS Sports college basketball insider Jon Rothstein called this year pound-for-pound the best coaching job of Izzo’s career.
“I don’t know,” Izzo said. “The players deserve the credit. They have to make the commitment. I felt like last spring, summer and fall was the best spring summer and fall we’ve had in my era – and that says a lot because I’ve had some pretty good guys that worked pretty hard. But there was just a mission. They’re on a mission. It took me until Monday morning to realize we were in the Final Four. I said, ‘Man, it seems like a dream,’ and I didn’t want to wake up and see a nightmare in front of me.
“But I do think the program has done well,” Izzo continued. “My assistant coaches have done great, but the players play the games. Sometimes I do believe coaches get too much credit. We don’t dribble the ball. We don’t make a free throw. On my team, I could make more than them the way they’ve been shooting them this past year. But we don’t do those things. It’s the players that play the game. So I think the players have done a great job. I appreciate Jon’s input and I try to do my job. We all got a job. I guess that’s the Bill Belichick way. Everybody’s got a job. Do your job.”
Izzo hopes that will be enough to overcome Krzyzewski, who has won four national championships.
“What Mike Krzyzewski’s done is beyond belief,” Izzo said. “I mean, he’s been so consistent year after year after year – and if they’re not vying for a championship, they’re knocking on the door. And that’s what good programs do. Consistency is what you’re looking for in any walk of life.”
The keys for Izzo on Saturday are simple: slow down Jahlil Okafor, slow down Tyus Jones – “the straw that stirs the drink” – and slow down Quinn Cook.
That trio combined for 53 points on 19-of-27 shooting (70.4 percent) in Duke’s November win over Sparty.
“Everybody talked about how much better they were going to get (after that game),” Izzo said. “We’re a lot, lot, lot better than we were early. Now, maybe they are too. I don’t know that. But I know where we are compared to where we were. I think you’ve got to take care of the ball. They’re very good defensively. I think you got to stop their fast break with Jones. He pushed it well. I think you got to defend the post. I got to guard Krzyzewski.
“Hell, we got our work cut out for us.”