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Tom Izzo Is Still Chasing Duke, and the Same Hurdles Loom for Michigan State

Michigan State is used to Duke having better players, and Tom Izzo enters the Elite Eight with a group he appreciates more than ever. But will that be enough to flip the script on Coach K?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — There is a good chance that at some point Sunday evening, Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston will drive in for one of his signature floaters in the lane, and Duke star Zion Williamson will rise up and swat it into Virginia. Winston is one of the best players in the country, but he is an average athlete. Williamson, you may have heard, is … above average.

Michigan State is used to Duke having better players. It is the main reason why Mike Krzyzewski is 11–1 against Tom Izzo. And the big question heading into this Elite Eight game, as silly as it sounds, is this: Is this just going to come down to who has better players again?

Duke has the nation’s most talented player, Zion Williamson; another likely top-three NBA draft pick, R.J. Barrett; another top-10 pick, Cam Reddish, though Reddish may not play because of a knee injury. There will be times when Duke has superior athletes at every position on the floor. Yet the Spartans are the better shooting team. They are a deeper team. They know their roles as well as any team Izzo has ever had. LSU had better athletes, too, but Michigan State’s players seemed to know exactly what function to perform on every possession in their Sweet 16 battle. The Tigers never led.

Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman will go into this game fully expecting to end up on YouTube. Tillman will probably be the primary Spartan on Zion, and as Tillman said, “He dunks on everybody. That’s part of the game, especially when you’re playing against him. In the timeout you might want to laugh at yourself, like, ‘This is going to blow up.’”

Tillman is not a great athlete. But he is crafty, tough, active and smart. Michigan State has enough guys like that to believe it has a chance.

Maybe Reddish plays and Duke has such a talent advantage that nothing else matters. If Duke can force the ball out of Winston’s hands, MSU is in trouble. The Spartans don’t want shooting guard Matt McQuaid trying to make plays off the dribble against Duke. But if this becomes a three-point shooting contest, Michigan State probably wins.

It would be one of the most satisfying wins of Izzo’s career. He has done virtually everything he could have dreamed of doing, and even accomplished one thing, making the Basketball Hall of Fame, that he admitted was beyond his dreams. But he has only beaten Coach K one time in 12 tries.

“Of course it bothers him,” Izzo’s longtime assistant and close friend Mike Garland said. “You want to beat ’em. But at one time, it was a rage to beat ’em. Just in a rage, like the rivalry between Michigan and us. But it’s changed. He’s more mature in the rivalry now.”

The rage was evident on a December night in 2003, when Duke visited East Lansing. Izzo did not hide what it meant to him. Outside of the ACC, nobody in the country was as obsessed with Duke as Izzo. After he won a championship and made three straight Final Fours, Izzo only had one rung above him on college basketball’s ladder: the Duke/Kansas/UNC rung. Teams on that rung are never really the underdog.

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He was chasing Duke, and he felt like he was getting closer. The crowd at the Breslin Center showed up for a coronation and got an execution instead. Luol Deng and Duke won, 72–50, and Izzo was not just disgusted afterward; he was embarrassed. It was like he sat down for a final exam and realized he had studied the wrong textbooks.

“Today was a big day for me, a big day for our program,” he said that night, through clenched teeth, “and we got kicked.”

The Spartans have been kicked a few times since. For all its accomplishments, Michigan State has been chasing two programs for two decades: Duke and North Carolina.

Izzo has brought Michigan State to seven Final Fours. Once, they won the title. Twice, they lost to Duke. Two other times, they lost to North Carolina. And the other two times, Michigan State lost to somebody else, and then that team lost to Duke.

The tournament sites and circumstances change, but the results don’t. In the last few years, Izzo started chasing Coach K on the recruiting trail, with similar results. He worked like crazy to get Jabari Parker and Duke got him. The same thing happened with Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones.

It could have driven the intense Izzo insane, but as he aged, he gained wisdom.

Before the 2009 NCAA title game against North Carolina in Detroit, Izzo said privately that if UNC played well, his Spartans would lose: “There’s just more talent there.” That has been the story in almost all of these MSU games against Duke and North Carolina. Of course Duke and UNC have great coaches, but so does Michigan State. Talent usually wins.

Last year, Izzo finally had the high-end talent he craved. Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and sophomore Miles Bridges were lottery picks. The Spartans were loaded and they loved each other and they won a lot of games, but something was missing—the mental toughness that had defined Izzo’s best teams. Izzo had such a good group of guys, and he was so determined to keep them happy, that he never quite defined their roles in the way they needed to be defined. Michigan State lost to Syracuse in the second round. On some crucial possessions down the stretch, Jackson wasn’t even on the floor.

And here are the Spartans now, without a single sure first-round pick. A few Spartans—Winston, Tillman and freshman Aaron Henry—have a chance to become pros. But none of them are Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett. Duke has better players again. Izzo has what he appreciates more now: a great combination of selfless, smart, overachieving players. He just has to hope that’s enough.