GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The first time Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo squared off was 1999. The matchup? Oh, just a little thing called the Final Four. The stage was appropriate enough for two Hall-of-Fame coaches, though few could have realized then that both would become Hall-of-Famers. K was clearly knocking on the door then (he would be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2001). But Izzo wasn't even five years into the job.
In 1999, Izzo was a year away from winning his first (and to this point only) national championship. Krzyzewski was coaching an all-time-loaded Duke team that would lose two nights later to UConn -- and become regarded as one of the best teams to never win a national title. K got the best of Izzo that night in '99, his Duke squad winning 68-62.
A coaching friendship flowered. Per Izzo's words shortly after midnight on Saturday morning here in Greenville, following his seventh-seeded Spartans hanging on to beat No. 10 Davidson 74-73, Krzyzewski's embrace of playing Michigan State was a material factor in Sparty elevating its national status.
"I found a way to schedule Duke probably more than a lot of people in nonconference because, to someday be the best, you've got to beat the best," he said. "There's no question that that's been the best program, the most consistent program for 30 years."
There's been 14 meetings between these two coaches since that first one 23 years ago. On Sunday night, the 16th and final battle between two of the greats in college basketball history will be held in the northwestern nook of South Carolina. Michigan State is looking to do what South Carolina did five years ago in this building: pull a semi-stunner and win as a No. 7 seed over No. 2 Duke.
It's likely that, by the time Duke tips off at 5:15 p.m. ET on Sunday against MSU in the second round, one particular stat will be embedded in the minds of many a college hoops fan: Krzyzewski's 12-3 record over Izzo. It was brought up by Izzo himself -- to Tracy Wolfson on CBS after MSU's win Friday night -- although MSU fans are hoping Izzo's no sage, as his initial "3-13" statement was one loss too many for now.
"I like the game, I just don't like the record in that matchup over the years," Izzo said in his postgame presser.
But on Sunday, something's going to have to give. There's a lot to be said for one coach winning 12 out of 15 games against another. Yet there's something Izzo will have on his side. For as infamous a record as Izzo has against K, he seldom loses on a two-day turnaround/one day of prep in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, get a load of this:
• Krzyzewski's record vs. Izzo: 12-3 (.800)
• Izzo on one-day prep: 23-6 (.793)
One of those dominant trends will win out. Will K close out his career vs. Izzo with one final victorious saunter through the handshake line, or will Izzo add to his stuffed cupboard of memorable March victories? Duke-Michigan State will be the centerpiece to wrap the weekend, and it's all too appropriate that the bracket is giving us such a matchup. Duke had little issue dispatching No. 15 Cal State Fullerton (78-61), which set the table for MSU's incredible battle against Bob McKillop's Davidson team.
"I thought it was a little bit of a roller coaster, but that's a helluva team we beat," Izzo said. "Bob's a helluva coach. I've known that for many years, and I was impressed."
Coach K has, in many ways, set the standard for excellence in the sport over the past 35 years, while Izzo has been as successful in March as almost anyone over the past 25. Krzyzewski's career tournament record is 98-30. His .766 win percentage ranks No. 1 among active coaches. Izzo is fourth (53-22, .707) among active coaches with at least 15 games coached in the NCAAs.
Izzo is also 1-0 vs. Krzyzewski on one-day turnarounds in the NCAA Tournament. His second-seeded Michigan State team ended Zion Williamson's career in 2019's Elite Eight.
"I'm going to try my hardest to see if we can get a few more -- one more win on the positive side of that thing," Izzo said. "But every time we've played, it's been a game I look forward to. It's been a game I respect. I think Mike has done more for our profession than just Duke basketball. This is about basketball. It's about the profession I chose. He's been the model. He's been the model of consistency."
As for Duke, it made strides toward defensive upgrades vs. Fullerton, which was the selling point for Krzyzewski's players on Thursday. The moment wasn't remotely too big, and there was no hangover from the shellacking Duke took against Virginia Tech in the ACC title game six days prior.
"I was concerned about how nervous our guys would be," Krzyzewski said. "They've had a great week of practice, but then you go out on the court -- that's why I mentioned the thing about the crowd. When there's no crowd, then you -- wait, is someone going to show up? Our kids did a great job. It was great to be back in the tournament. Hopefully, we can do well again on Sunday."
Krzyzewski is retiring and who knows how far behind him Izzo will ultimately be. He's 67 years old and a frequent critic of so many aspects of how college basketball now operates. He'll coach as long as he wants to, but Sunday's game will represent more than just two great coaches having one last matching of wits. It could be a long time before we ever see a matchup with two coaches who are this good in March. Izzo and Krzyzewski combine for 151 wins.
That's the the most combined tourney wins between two coaches in an NCAA Tournament game in history.
"I'm looking forward to it in a lot of ways," Izzo said. "Not when I look at the record, but when I look at the coach, the team, and the position we're in, it should be a great day for college basketball."
Two bedrock programs of the sport, two pillars of coaching, plenty of talent on the floor, so let's have one more go of it. Krzyzewski's lottery picks vs. Izzo's slew of upperclassmen. Should be a stellar Sunday in Greenville.