WASHINGTON, D.C. - So here we go again with still another Michigan State-Duke game, the rekindling of a rivalry that’s not a rivalry.
Not for Duke and absolutely not for Michigan State.
Of all the power programs destined to collide over and over again through the years, this one is no contest at all.
Duke’s all-time record against Michigan State is 12-2. And one of the only two wins for the Spartans was in 1958. Mike Krzyzewski is 11-1 against Tom Izzo.
Krzyzewski bristles at those numbers, in part because those are all old numbers and in part because he and Izzo are friends.
But mostly, he knows this is a game he can lose
“I’m not a big believer in coaches records against one another,” Krzyzewski said on the eve of the East Region final. “It’s not like it’s the same team. Just like I’m not a big guy on records on Tuesdays or on Fridays and Saturday.”
This will be on the biggest Sunday of the season. This one’s for the Final Four.
Here in the nation’s capital, the two fan bases sat side-by-side in relative silence Friday night. One wary of the other. One always wary of the other.
“They’re capable of handing us a defeat,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke fans simply don’t believe that.
From the moment the bracket was announced, we just knew this game was coming. For whatever reason, the NCAA loves throwing them together.
So how will this game be different from all the others that preceded it? Duke is different. Michigan State isn’t.
This is a classic Izzo-coached team that rebounds, gets out on the break and plays tough interior defense.
“They’re really an experienced team,” Duke forward RJ Barrett said. “They’ve got big guys inside who are physical and strong and they have perimeter players who are athletic.”
Like the Michigan State teams of old, the Spartans rely on upperclassmen who are willing to endure playing for Izzo, who screams at them on national television and demands they get every single rebound.
“He’s never satisfied,” point guard Cassius Winston said.
Michigan State is built in the image of its coach, and if there’s any deep insight as to why the Spartans have such a bad record against the Duke, that’s part of it.
For all the talk of Krzyzewski evolving as a coach over the years, learning how to deal with modern players and adapting to a modern game, no one says that about Izzo.
You know right now what his team will look like next year and in five years. He won’t bring in a slew of one-and-done phenoms. They wouldn’t last two months with him.
Izzo’s teams are all strong and tenacious, all five positions blocking out and rebounding, all five playing motion offense with ball screens and recycled plays, some recycled from 1999.
Duke knows exactly what Michigan State is going to do Sunday. Now the Blue Devils have to figure out a way to stop the Spartans from their stubborn will to win. Krzyzewski marvels at Izzo’s ability to stay steadfast through the years, hiding nothing.
“It’s really right on the table,” Krzyzewski said. “Right on the table. I love that. And his passion for what he does. He’s one of the best ever, and I’m glad to call him my friend.”
The game might come down to the coaches. Krzyzewski is 11-1 against Izzo for some reason. But it’s likely going to come down to the players. Tre Jones will have to deal with Winston, both of them running their team, both of them scorers. Barrett will almost certainly be guarded by Kenny Goins, a rebounding forward who will have to stay in front of Duke’s leading scorer.
And inside, where Williamson said he’s eager to play a physical game against a physical team, he’s going to be bumped and challenged by 6-8, 245-pound Xavier Tillman. He’s also going to be surrounded by ball-hawking wingmen intent on making Williamson put the ball on the floor.
More and more, that’s the book on defending Duke’s freshman sensation.
The book on the Blue Devils is they don’t go away. Michigan State’s season has been odd in that there have been lulls and inexplicable games. But the Spartans always come back, and they come into this game having won 14 of 15 games and a Big 10 championship along the way.
But once again, as throughout Izzo’s career, there’s always been a team from Tobacco Road waiting.
“I’ve got bigger goals than beating Duke,” he said. “I’d like to get back to another Final Four. I’d like to win another national championship. But I think I could focus in on one of them (Sunday) and see if we can change that 1-11 record. Hell, not many guys outside of their league are playing them 11 times. Played them a lot down there. Played them in different events, and we’ve knocked on the door. It hasn’t opened yet. One of these days it’s going to open.”
If it’s going to open Sunday in Washington, it might be because his team runs through it.
Then again, there might be another cliff on the other side.