Coach K, Izzo collide in Sweet 16 of adaptation

INDIANAPOLIS -- Coach K and Izzo in the Sweet 16 again -- an absurd 24th time between them in the last 16 years -- is all about slippage.

Identifying the smallest slippage when things are great, avoiding too much slippage when a few losses pile up.

“Never dip too low,” Tom Izzo said.

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“When you’re a head coach, you worry about everything that might go wrong,” Mike Krzyzewski said.

These are the psyches of two guys who spend gobs of time identifying problems, either through self-evaluation or from a player's grille, and will do this for two hours late Friday night from the Lucas Oil Stadium sideline.

If the two split the best pizza they ever had, they might tell the pizza man that he’s one over-saucing day away from making a bad pie.

There’s slippage somewhere. There always is. They’ll find it. They’ll also adapt. They’ll cling to core principles while changing with the game, or forcing the game to change around them.

Louisville’s Rick Pitino, part of this week’s three-headed Rushmore of Hall of Fame coaches (and Oregon’s Dana Altman), fits this mold, too.

Before Michigan State and Duke tip off at around 9:45 p.m., Izzo and Krzyzewski will probably hug it out and act like normal dudes.

“He’s a guy’s guy,” Krzyzewski said of Izzo.

Bros unite.

These are some different bros, though. They are alike in their uniqueness.

Coaches generally preach the same things. Avoid complacency. Live in the moment. Play hard-nosed defense and box out. Put in the necessary work to be great.

These clichés are easy to say, until you’re NIT-bound and players didn't get the message.

“These two guys, they don’t preach in avoiding complacency,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who knows both coaches well. “If there is a problem, they’ll say, ‘Hey, we got away with this against a lesser team.' They’ll address it right away. They aren’t afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings. They are aggressive about it. They have developed such trust with their teams.”

Trust is crucial. These two aren’t employees at their schools, Izzo says. They take ownership. They are embedded. It's hard to pick a player's game apart without trust.

But coaches also don’t arrive at a combined 17 Final Fours and nearly 1,400 wins by simply caring. You’ve got to have players. You’ve got to get lucky, both coaches say. And you better show up every night and play as one, Krzyzewski said.

Their winning percentages are close -- Krzyzewski’s .771 to Izzo’s .736 -- while Izzo won 233 games in his first 10 years compared to Krzyzewski’s 213.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Pitino can find their common thread on the court pretty quickly.

Turn on game video of Duke, Pitino says, and you’ll get a little bit of Michigan State.

“Their teams always exude toughness from a physical end,” Pitino said. “They never let up in how hard they work.”

The 66-year-old Krzyzewski might still look like he stepped out of the 1989 DeLorean --same parted hair, black suits, cranky facial expressions for decades -- but Krzyzewski can change when necessary

The game is changing. Players come from parents who constantly say ‘Yes,’ Pitino says, requiring coaches to “say no more often” to quell the entitlement. 

Krzyzewski can say no in practices or meetings but also in creative ways. Coach USA basketball, have LeBron and Kobe on speed dial, and Duke players might not mind hearing no as much.

Perhaps Krzyzewski is already protected by the infrastructure he’s built at Duke -- he’s not exactly begging players to come -- but you get the point. He knows how to deal with different personalities.

It’s not like the cache and prestige of Duke has Krzyzewski living in a Durham Bat Cave, unaccessible to the rest of the world save a few minions. Bilas said Krzyzewski can scream at a practice, then keep the door open for a player a few hours later. Same with Izzo.

“You have to adapt to different cultures,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s just the way life is. When you’re adapting, you do not adapt by changing your standards of trust, loyalty, responsibility of the things you have. You still try to teach those things, but you teach them a little bit differently. The teams you have a privilege of leading are different. It’s up to the leader to adapt. But not with principles and values.”

Adds Duke forward Ryan Kelly: “He knows who we are as players. And we know who we are as players. When you have that understanding with one another, it’s a lot easier to play together.”

Izzo will hit you with the blue-collar, humble approach that suits the MSU faithful.

Izzo says there are “way better coaches than myself” getting fired every year. Nobody believes that. It’s a nice thing to say, perhaps.

But Izzo’s subtle changes on the court and in his office aren’t about to get him fired in the next 23 decades.

Similar to Krzyzewski, Izzo will meet individually with players on a regular basis to find out how they're feeling on various issues.

Challenging former 300-plus-pounder Derrick Nix to shed weight was a success. The 270-pound Nix is giving MSU 10 and 6.5 a night.

“The guy’s done it,” said Bilas of Nix. “He’s been there the whole time. That is not easy. That takes effort and same thing with Coach K -- they've done it with a number of those guys.”

Both coaches aren’t overhauling their systems because they recruit to it, Bilas said, plus they believe in their principles. But they know when to press more with athletic lineups and when to feed certain players the ball.

Only one team will feed the post after Friday. That might be more on the selection committee than the two teams involved.


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