PHOENIX (AP) – Watching his team commit the same mistake for the third time in less than a minute, Louisville coach Rick Pitino screams, “Stop!,” shakes his head in disgust and moves the players into the position he expected them to be in.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo marches around players much taller than he is, clapping and barking out orders, imploring them to run faster, work harder as they race around the court.
On the same court about an hour apart, Pitino and Izzo provided a few dozen fans at US Airways Center a glimpse into what it’s like to play for two of the most demanding – and successful coaches – in college basketball.
“Both of them really demand toughness,” Michigan State forward Draymond Green said Wednesday. “And both of them are no-nonsense guys who expect everything to be perfect.”
Thursday’s West Regional semifinal has the makings of a sizzler in the desert, the fast and furious Cardinals trying to run past the morphable Spartans.
It also features two of the nation’s best short-turnaround coaches, great basketball minds who thrive on the adapt-on-the-fly nature of the NCAA tournament.
Izzo has been the king of consistency during his 17 seasons in East Lansing, leading the Spartans to the Final Four six times, including three straight from 1999-2001, along with a national championship in 2000. He’s led Michigan State to the NCAA tournament 14 straight years and into the round of 16 in 10 of the past 15 seasons.
There’s something else that stands out about Izzo in the NCAA tournament: his teams rarely lose as the favorite.
The Spartans famously lost to mid-major George Mason in the 2006 tournament as a No. 6 seed and to Nevada two years earlier as a seventh seed. All of Michigan State’s other losses have come either to a higher seed or in the Final Four.
“I think our leadership has been good most years,” Izzo said. “That’s why we’ve had some success.”
Pitino’s had his share, too.
He has gone to the Final Four five times and is the first coach to take three different teams there, starting with Providence’s improbable run in 1987. Pitino also led Kentucky to the 1986 national championship, took Louisville to the Final Four in 2005 and picked up his 600th career victory in the Cardinals’ opener this season.
Louisville has won at least 20 games in all but one of Pitino’s 11 seasons with the Cardinals – they had 19 his first year in 2001-02 – and been to the NCAA tournament nine of the last 10 years.
“He’s a Hall of Fame coach. He’s a great coach to play for,” Louisville point guard Peyton Siva said. “He teaches us a lot about how he’s been to the Sweet 16’s, how he’s been in the Elite 8’s, Final Fours and national championships. And everybody grasps the fact that he has been there and knows what it takes to be successful.”
Pitino’s success has come from the frenetic way his teams play.
No matter where he’s been, the 59-year-old coach has instituted a push-the-pace style, his teams relying on 3-pointers and defensive pressure to create easy baskets on the break. He started with Providence during its where-did-they-come-from run and brought it with him to Kentucky and later Louisville. The Cardinals were inconsistent at times this season, but picked up steam at the end, winning four games in four days to earn the Big East championship before beating Davidson and New Mexico to open the NCAA tournament.
“We know he’s going to press,” Izzo said. “We know they’re going to play a lot of zone. Their offense has changed a little bit, but I think for the most part you do get to know programs, and I think these guys have had success for a long time. They tweak their systems, but they don’t change them all the time.”
An ability to adapt has been the core of Izzo’s success.
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