Four years ago, Gary Williams and Tom Izzo took part in a bracket-style competition marked by intense play, strategic coaching and superior athletes diving for loose balls. The event did not take place in March but in June. Instead of manning the sidelines in an arena in front of thousands, the coaches brought their passion and drive to the courts of Camp Arifjan, a military installation for American soldiers in Kuwait. On some days, desert temperatures reached 118 degrees. Neither the coaches nor the soldiers objected.
"I told my players that it was a life changing experience and it really was," the Michigan State coach said during a press conference on Saturday. "What I didn't tell them it was mostly because of the troops and partly because of Gary -– just being around him. He's a funny guy. We have been friends for a while now." Dubbed Operation Hardware, the idea was conceived by Rick Kell and Williams during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Kell, a marketing expert, formerly worked with the Maryland coach on his television show and devised the tournament after meeting with wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. Eight teams of soldiers from various camps in Kuwait competed in the event held in 2005 and 2006.
Williams recruited a host of the top coaches and his most highly-regarded colleagues in Division I basketball to come along. The list included Rick Barnes, Tubby Smith, Kelvin Sampson and Izzo. Each coach held clinics, ate with their players at team lunches and displayed the same will to win exhibited during the NCAA tournament.
"You would be in a cafeteria having lunch and the great thing was they had us sit with each group of players that you coached," Williams said. "There were guys there that would eat lunch and would get on a truck going to Baghdad that day. You got a pretty good feel of what the real world was."
On Sunday, the two will face off in the only matchup of the second round featuring two coaches that have previously won a national championship.
Their relationship dates back more than three decades when Williams coached at Ohio State and Izzo served as an assistant coach at Michigan State. Both share enormous respect for each other's coaching abilities and talk frequently to discuss the intricacies of the game.
"Whenever one of us is struggling, we talk," Izzo said. "I think he does it the right way. As we all know there's a lot that goes on in college basketball and I don't think it's what we do here and I know it's not what they do there. Consequently, if that's called old school, new school, it is what it is -- that's why I've always respected the man."
While Williams said sometimes he hopes to face a coach that hasn't fully prepared for his team, he said that will never happen when facing an Izzo-coached squad.
"Whenever you play at Michigan State, you know you're going to get a certain intensity level," Williams said. "I guess Tom has had five Final Four teams in 10, 11 years. I think that says it all. [For him] to be able to come back and do that on a consistent basis, I don't think anybody's done a better job in the country." Their teams are remarkably similar. Both feature versatile, veteran point guards in Greivis Vasquez for Maryland and Kalin Lucas for Michigan State. Each likes to push the tempo on offense and emphasizes hard-nosed defense and rebounding. Inside, Maryland boasts freshman forward Jordan Williams, who finished with 17 rebounds Friday versus Houston. Michigan State counters with a frontline that includes senior Raymar Morgan and sophomore Delvon Roe.
"We are just going to try keep a body on him at all times," Morgan said.
Maryland shot 47.2 percent for the season, while Michigan State shot 47.1 percent. The Terrapins held teams to 38.9 percent shooting, while Spartans' opponents connected on just 40.1 percent of their shots. Both teams are familiar with each other. Last season, Maryland prevailed 80-62 at the Old Spice Classic in a game where Morgan was saddled by foul trouble. In 2006, the Terrapins also defeated the Spartans in an early season tournament -– this time at the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic in New York. The last time they faced each other in the NCAA tournament was in 2003, when the Spartans came out on top 60-58 in the Sweet 16.
Injuries may be a factor. Lucas practiced Saturday with a sore ankle, but teammate Chris Allen sat out with a sprained right arch.
"It's going to be a great game," Vasquez said. "[It will feature] two great coaches and be one of those games that you can't really make many mistakes. You got to execute your offense and play good defense."