WASHINGTON -- At the very end of one of the best Elite Eight rounds in NCAA Tournament history, two Hall of Fame coaches and championship-level programs delivered with a heavyweight bout worthy of the hype that comes with any Duke vs. Michigan State showdown. The only difference this time was the result, as the familiar narrative of Tom Izzo falling short against the Blue Devils wasn't replayed for the 12th time on this particular stage.
This time, with a Final Four bid on the line between the ACC and Big Ten conference tournament champions, Izzo was the victor against Mike Krzyzewski as the Spartans pulled off the shocker of this year's March Madness with a thrilling 68-67 victory over the Blue Devils.
"Let's get something else straight, as long as we're starting to put me on somewhat of the same planet," Izzo said when discussing his rivalry with Coach K. "We're 2-11 now. We just doubled our win total against Duke. We're 2-11."
It's been 14 years since Izzo's lone win against Coach K and Duke prior to Sunday night. That last win also came in the NCAA Tournament, when No. 5 seed Michigan State bested the top-seeded Blue Devils prior to beating Kentucky and making the Final Four. That Final Four appearance came during the stretch that was arguably the most successful of Izzo's tenure as coach, leading the Spartans to a national championship in 2000 and six Final Fours between 1999 and 2010.
No one would ever suggest that Michigan State was in any kind of drought, but when you achieve NCAA Tournament success with that kind of consistency it then becomes a frustration when the next eight seasons include just one Final Four appearance, in 2015, and that Final Four trip ends in a loss to Duke, which by that point had already been established as a very large and apparent thorn in the side of Izzo and Michigan State.
After three straight seasons of not only falling short of the Final Four, but failing to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, this Michigan State team put all that frustration into the final minutes of its back-and-forth with Duke on Sunday night. That extra effort needed to play lockdown defense, deny Zion Williamson the ball and finish strong lied in the resiliency and mental toughness that was established in a season that required the Spartans to overcome adversity time and time again.
"I can't tell you how enjoyable it is, because I know what these guys have been through," Izzo said. "A lot of people think they know what they've been through. But there is something about being in those meetings. And I think the greatest meeting I had in 10 years was when Nick [Ward] went down, and I called everybody in at 7:30 the next morning. And I just said, 'we've got to meet and go over the situation and we're not going to change our goals.'
"They really bought in. I told our own media that it was a meeting that I don't know if I was trying to pump them up or myself up because I was down about it. But it was one that they adhered to. And they wanted to be coached. They wanted to be pushed."
The injuries and setbacks should have made Michigan State a team that was not considered a Final Four contender, and there were times this season where Izzo did not expect that it would end with a deep run in March. But the leadership of Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid and the rest of Michigan State's veterans kept Sparty hanging in, and by the time Selection Sunday rolled around the Big Ten regular season co-champions and conference tournament champions had emerged on the other side looking like a Final Four contender in every way except one: the fact that it landed in the East Region with No. 1 overall seed Duke.
Here at CBS Sports the numbers showed an overwhelming amount of support for Duke as the most popular national title pick with a whopping 43 percent of bracket games participants picking the Blue Devils to win the national title and an even more astounding 74 percent picking Duke to at least make the Final Four.
Maybe at full strength, with Joshua Langford in the lineup, Michigan State gets more support from the public. But given the overwhelming talent advantage, most saw the East Regional as Duke's to lose and if the Spartans did make the Elite Eight why wouldn't that matchup break the same way it had for the last 14 seasons?
But when everything is apparently setting up for Duke is exactly when we should have seen things breaking Izzo's way. When his outburst at Aaron Henry in the first round became a national talking point for take-ry on how coaches communicate, Henry proceeded to have his best game of the season in the Sweet 16 against LSU and the entire team rallied behind its coach and supported his demanding style.
"Sometimes they only see the yelling, they see the screaming," said Winston, the East Regional Most Outstanding Player. "They don't see how much he cares for us, how much he's there for us, how much he's pulling for us, rooting for us. Giving that emotion when it's time to win games. It's all out of emotion and out of love and all out of care. And that's all it is. That's our relationship. When you care for somebody so much and they mess up, of course you're going to get mad at them and yell at them. But we do a good job of responding"
The greatest testament to Izzo's coaching style is the family that he's established, a group of former Spartans that strive to inspire future classes to achieve greatness while wearing the green and white. Magic Johnson spoke to the team before playing Duke, but his message resonated just as much as the constant presence of Izzo's former players. When Winston talks about wanting to follow in the footsteps of not only the 1979 NCAA Tournament champ but championship players that helped build this modern Michigan State program, you realize that Izzo has established just as much of a "brotherhood" as Coach K has at Duke.
"it's not just Magic," Winston said. "There's a lot of guys that came back. Mateen [Cleaves] was here, Charlie Bell was here. Like I said, that Spartan legacy and family, it goes back years and years and years. And they're still pushing for us, still supporting us. And we hope to do the same thing.
"We hope to leave our mark. And one day we're going to come back and tell the young guys, this is what it takes to get to this point now that we've got there. But we can come back and give these guys and give them advice and all types of things like that.It's a big deal seeing just those guys and seeing what the program means to them and have that same feeling that years and years from now, we'll come back and maybe do that same thing."