INDIANAPOLIS – Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Louisville's Rick Pitino lead two of the most decorated programs in college basketball.
Izzo has four Final Four appearances and a national championship, and has been touted as turning the Spartans' program into the nation's most consistent over the past 10 years.
Pitino has taken three schools – Providence, Kentucky and Louisville – to the Final Four and won a national title with the Wildcats.
The coaches face off for the first time Sunday in the Midwest Region final at Lucas Oil Stadium. It's hard to believe two guys with so much success and longevity in the game haven’t met on the court.
"I love what Rick has done," Izzo said. "We've talked a few times. We've been in the Final Four together in 2005. Being an Italian guy, I guess we have to stick up for each other."
Izzo said he turned to Pitino for advice in 2000, when the NBA's Atlanta Hawks sought to take him away to the pros. Izzo stayed put after discussing the situation with Pitino, who coached the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.
"We're not guys that talk each week or month, but I have great respect for what he's done," Izzo said. "I love the way his team plays with energy. I love the way he coaches with energy. And I think he's been successful everywhere he's been. The system he has, his approach to the game and his development of players is second to none."
Pitino has admiration for Izzo, known for his intensity and the toughness he demands.
"His players play real hard," Pitino said. "He has a terrific integrity about the way he runs his program. They're always fundamentally sound, always knocking on the door of the Final Four."
Fittingly, their inaugural matchup will be for a berth in the national semifinals. Izzo called it the most important game of his career. That this season's Final Four will be played in Detroit just brings more significance, if not more pressure.
"For a guy like me who loves the state, I've lived there my whole life, to have the opportunity to play there is special,” Izzo said.
"I don't think I'm going to be feeling that pressure. I might be feeling disappointment if we don't get there. But I'm not going to sleep tonight worrying about Detroit. I'm going to lose sleep worrying about Terrence Williams. In other words, I'm not going to sleep tonight.”
Tom's Kentucky home?
With Billy Gillispie's dismissal as coach at Kentucky, Izzo's name has surfaced as a potential replacement. He also has been rumored to be coveted by Arizona, which will likely turn to someone other than interim coach Russ Pennell.
Izzo looked a little uncomfortable when asked about UK, but addressed the question.
"I don't think there's a guy on this planet that would ever say he's not going anywhere, not doing anything," he said. "I don't think there's anyone on this planet that would ever say, 'I'm here to stay, I'm this, I'm that.' So I would never do that because I think it would be insulting to you and me.
"At the same time, I have so many goals and so many things I'd like to accomplish here yet. I've got so many great players I get to coach here. I get to do something that, maybe, few get to do … and that's actually build something and watch it be built, not from the bottom, but build it into a national power and one that is respected hopefully by everyone in the country.
"When Final Fours come up, Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Michigan State's name is always in there. That's my ultimate goal right now."
Izzo cited Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke as the elite programs whose success he hopes to emulate.
"That's the level I'd like to get to," he said. "So I still have a lot of work to do. The people at Michigan State have been great to me. I'm going to continue to work for them."
Pitino to UK: Keep it in family
Pitino, meanwhile, said UK should take a look at former Wildcats players and assistants John Pelphrey, now at Arkansas, and Travis Ford, currently at Oklahoma State. Their connections to the program could be key in building the kind of goodwill among the rabid rooters that Gillispie was unable to achieve.
"It's such a unique job that you need to win over the fans. You need to win the press conference right away," Pitino said. "I think they're brilliant young coaches."
Billy Donovan, who was a UK assistant under Pitino, was rumored to be taking the job before pledging allegiance to Florida.
Who's that masked man?
Michigan State junior forward Raymar Morgan has battled illness throughout the season. His latest issue is a broken nose, suffered in Friday’s semifinal victory over Kansas.
Morgan's nose looked a little puffy Saturday, but he said he'll play. He will wear a plastic mask, a la Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton, against Louisville.
"Hopefully I can get fitted for that and go from there," he said.
Morgan missed about six weeks this season with respiratory problems that became pneumonia, then mononucleosis.
Cards back for more
Louisville fell short of last season’s Final Four, bowing to North Carolina 83-73 in an Elite Eight game. Junior guard Jerry Smith said the Cardinals are determined to take things at least one step farther this time.
"It was definitely disappointing because we were right there and one game away from the Final Four," he said. "We could almost taste it. We sat in the locker room for about 20 minutes, all of us, and just shook because we fought so hard and left it all out on the floor. … To get back to the Elite Eight again is great. We are excited."
No player on the Louisville roster is more excitable than senior forward Terrence Williams. He said he and his teammates now know what it takes to advance to the national semifinals – a complete effort. They dug themselves a 12-point halftime hole last season against the Tar Heels.
"We didn't play 40 minutes," Williams said. "We got down in the first half, and then came out in the second half and played basketball like we know how to play. This year, we know that coming out.
“To get to the Final Four you have to play all 40 minutes. You have to play your game."