WASHINGTON – Tom Izzo’s son was filling out his NCAA bracket six years ago when he came to an expected Sweet 16 matchup between his father’s Michigan State squad and Duke.
Steven Izzo, then a sixth-grader, picked Duke.
“I disowned my son for a year or two,” Tom Izzo said Saturday, on the eve of Michigan State’s next big showdown with the Blue Devils.
The winner this time, at Capital One Arena, earns a trip to Minneapolis for the Final Four. To get there, Michigan State will need to reverse a trend.
For all his coaching success, including seven Final Four trips, Izzo is 1-11 all-time against Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, including that 2013 result that Steven predicted.
“I remember when Duke beat us that year, Coach K had made the statement that he’s always got a scholarship [for Steven] at Duke,” Izzo said. “Well, now he’s graduating from high school. So [Krzyzewski] is going to be short some money because I think I’m going to get Steven to go there.”
Izzo and Krzyzewski showered each other with compliments heading into the East Region final, which has been widely anticipated since Duke received the No. 1 seed, with Michigan State at No. 2.
Izzo’s only victory over Duke came in the 2005 Sweet 16. Krzyzewski has knocked him from the NCAA tournament four times, including 2015, in the Final Four semifinals in Indianapolis.
Duke owns a seven-game winning streak against Michigan State. Asked if that success almost makes him nervous that Izzo is due, Krzyzewski said, “I’m too old to be nervous.”
“No,” the 72-year-old coach added. “I’m not a big believer in coaches’ records against one another. It’s not like you have the same team, the same circumstance; somebody might have been injured.
“And they’re capable of handing us a defeat. It doesn’t make any difference what’s happened in the past, really.”
Izzo has one NCAA championship (2000) and 605 career wins. Krzyzewski has five NCAA titles (most recently 2015) and a record 1,132 wins.
Michigan State’s players have heard enough about Izzo’s struggles against Duke to add that to their list of incentives for Sunday.
“Oh yeah, definitely, we want to win to help him out, too,” Spartans point guard Cassius Winston said. “He’s up there with the greatest coaches of all time; so is Coach K. A chance to go to the Final Four, a chance to beat Duke — it just makes you excited to be out there.”
Izzo, 64, kept the mood light Saturday, one day after his team’s 17-point victory over LSU and Duke’s 75-73 thriller over Virginia Tech.
When asked if beating Krzyzewski is the great white whale he’s chasing, Izzo said, “You’re calling Coach K a white whale, huh?”
Then he offered a sincere answer, acknowledging that, yes, it is part of his quest.
“Everybody has a standard you want to get to,” Izzo said. “… Why would you be satisfied? Unless it’s time to hang up the whistle.”
Izzo referenced his friend, former Michigan State football coach Nick Saban, and the consistent dominance he’s brought to Alabama.
“I’ve got bigger goals than just beating Duke,” Izzo said. “I’d like to get back to another Final Four. I’d like to win another national championship.”
Michigan State shared the regular-season Big Ten title with Purdue and then won the conference tournament. Starting in late January, the Spartans went through a three-game losing streak to Purdue, Indiana and Illinois. Since then, they are 13-1.
A Duke upset “would just put a statement on what we’ve been doing all year, you know, beating the odds,” Winston said. “People have been doubting us, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t think we’d make it this far.”
Izzo added: “We’ve knocked on the door [against Duke]. It hasn’t opened yet. One of these days it’s going to open.”