Published March 31, 2019

CBS Sports’ Tracy Wolfson was trying to be kind. And Tom Izzo was having none of it.

Wolfson, sideline reporter for Sunday’s epic Duke/Michigan State #1 vs. #2 seed matchup that buttoned up the Final Four bracket, was doing the obligatory postgame interview with MSU coach Izzo when she used the word “struggle” to describe Izzo-coached Spartan teams’ ineptitude against the Blue Devils.

“STRUGGLE? One and 11 is a struggle? I’d say it’s more than that,” Izzo said, his eyes moist with tears and probably sweat after his team gutted out—and that’s not a cliche in this case—a 68-67 win to head to Minneapolis next weekend in a game that was even closer than the final score indicated.

I thought it was interesting that while Wolfson didn’t bring up Izzo’s record by the numbers against Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Izzo sure did. The 1-11 rolled down from Izzo’s brain to his tongue like a gumball.

Krzyzewski, of course, tried to downplay his owning of MSU when the Duke coach met the Elite Eight media in Washington, DC the other day.

“I’m not a big believer in coaches’ records against one another,” the man they call Coach K—to copy editors’ relief everywhere—said at Capital One Arena. “It’s not like you have the same team, the same circumstance; somebody might have been injured. (Maybe it was) a time where your team wasn’t functioning as well.” 

Krzyzewski is right in theory, but that didn’t make the 11-1 mark go away. No more than a deleted tweet removes it from cyberspace.

That Izzo was quick to say “1-11” to Wolfson shows how much the crooked record against Duke got under his skin.

Never before did 2-11 look so good.

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Coach K vs. Izzo? Yes…and no

Izzo got Coach K this time, and on the biggest stage that the two schools have ever met. On the last day of March, with Madness still in full swing.

It wasn’t Izzo who drained the eventual game-winning three-pointer with less than 40 seconds remaining. And it wasn’t Krzyzewski who missed the first of two free throws that would have tied the game with less than 10 seconds left.

And it wasn’t Izzo who made a nifty in-bounds pass to Cassius Winston that enabled the point guard to dribble out the waning seconds to seal the deal.

But when two basketball schools square off with so much on the line and the coaches are both legendary, and one of those coaches has won 11 of 12 meetings, it’s hard to get past the whole Coach K vs. Izzo thing.

Yet Sunday’s game was indeed so much more than that.

It was two heavyweights in the squared circle, each landing a series of punches that staggered the other at various points. If you were judging the bout, you’d have Duke ahead on points, then MSU, then Duke, then MSU.

You would be waiting for a knockdown, to make your decision easy to declare a winner. But no knockdown came. This is March Madness, after all. When you get this far, there are no knockdowns. You have to sweat these things out until all 2,400 seconds tick off the clock.

Winston gleefully dribbled out the final few of those 2,400 seconds. Moments later, Duke’s Tre Jones, who let Winston slither free on the game-clinching inbounds play, was inconsolable on the floor, hunched over in despair, sobbing into his jersey.

Those are the moments that jar you into remembering that it’s about the kids, after all–not two millionaire coaches.

Not that Izzo was without emotion afterward. This was the Spartans team that he called the toughest, mentally, of all the ones he’s guided throughout the years. It certainly isn’t the most talented.

On Sunday against Duke, MSU took a more than a few blows on the chin. Yet they bounced off the ropes every time and clocked the Blue Devils with some body shots of their own.

It was a classic battle that should have been played out next weekend, not in the Elite Eight. The NCAA tournament is an imperfect garden of teams, occasionally sprinkled with bad seeds. Duke-MSU screams Final Four, but such is the tough job of the bracketologist. The Blue Devils and Spartans met to determine who was going to the Final Four, which I supppose is the next best thing.

Beware TT

Yet don’t believe for a second that MSU’s next game, against Final Four rookie Texas Tech, will be an anti-climactic affair now that big, bad Duke has been slayed.

Izzo desperately needs, in my opinion, a second national championship in order to truly separate himself from other elite coaches. He’ll never say it publicly, but just as 1-11 vs. Duke ate him up, title no. 2 has been another white whale for Izzo.

There I go, making it about the coach again. Shame on me.

Duke is going home, Michigan State is going to Minneapolis, and if anyone thinks that Texas Tech will be too wide-eyed at their first-ever Final Four to stay glued together on Saturday in facing a program that has a drawer full of Final Four programs, those folks have that famous “another think” coming.

It’s really not about Tom Izzo. But if his team is the last one standing a week from Monday, the eyes will be moist once again. And 2-11 against Duke will be long forgotten. No matter how much on the tip of Izzo’s tongue it was after tonight’s triumph.