March 29, 2013 at 5:14 pm

John Niyo

Izzo, Krzyzewski get the attention, but players will decide MSU-Duke duel

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo watches his team's practice Thursday afternoon in Indianapolis. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)

Indianapolis — Don't believe what you hear on television Friday night.

Michigan State is going to beat Duke.

Either that, or Duke is going to beat Michigan State.

But Mike Krzyzewski isn't going to beat Tom Izzo. And Izzo isn't going to beat Coach K.

And despite what you've read again and again, or what you'll inevitably hear on the CBS broadcast Friday night, there is no coaching chess match scheduled for halftime here at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Which is probably a good thing, because as Krzyzewski points out, "The one thing that's similar about me and Tom, I don't think we can play chess."

That was a joke, I think. A nod to the intense, irascible, impatient image each man has created for himself through years of sideline spittle.

But it also was an acknowledgement of the real talent here in the Sweet 16 — the players, remember them? — as disingenuous as that might seem coming from a guy who has done so much to cultivate the Cult of the Coach in college basketball.

"It's not going to be a chess match," Krzyzewski insisted. "That's putting the coaches too much involved here."

Here in Indianapolis, that's inevitable, though, as a gathering of coaching giants seemed to overshadow all else Thursday. There were questions about basketball blueprints and blue bloods, and patronizing answers littered with phrases like "standard bearers" and "longevity of excellence."

I mean, there was so much "integrity" going around, it almost seems like overkill to have referees on the court. Why not let these coaching kings with their championship rings call their own fouls?

Along with Louisville's Rick Pitino, whose team will face Oregon tonight, this trio has combined for more than 2,000 wins, 23 Final Four appearances and six national titles.

That left Oregon's Dana Altman — despite 600-plus wins of his own — feeling a bit like the ugly duckling, I imagine.

"They're all going to be Hall of Fame coaches," Altman said. "And they've done it in a way that everybody in the profession has great respect for them."

It leaves the players with little choice but to pay their respects, too.

"Anytime there are two big-name coaches going at it," Michigan State's Travis Trice said, "it's going to be a hyped game."

It certainly is. And chances are, the nightcap here in Indianapolis will live up to the hype, with intriguing matchups all over the court.

Can Derrick Nix outmuscle Mason Plumlee in the post? Can the Blue Devils hold their own on the boards against the Spartans' relentless rebounding? Can Keith Appling and Gary Harris negate the quickness of Duke's guards? And who will win the battle of roaming power forwards, Adreian Payne or Ryan Kelly?

All good questions that, frankly, have little to do with the mythology of coaches with basketball courts and student sections and pop-up tent cities named after them.

Yes, there's a reason these programs are so successful and a reason these coaches are so well-compensated. And there's undoubtedly a comfort the fans — and the media — find in the familiar, whether it's Pitino and his deflection charts, Krzyzewski and his motion offense or Izzo and his War drills.

The players come and go, and they don't stay as long as they used to anymore.

'Longevity of excellence'

Krzyzewski was banging that drum last week in Philadelphia, the scene of Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater against Kentucky in 1992. While Izzo was busy railing against the evils of social media at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Krzyzewski was getting annoyed with reporters hijacking his news conference to ask him about that cute, cuddly Florida Gulf Coast story, and then trying to compare his Duke dynasty to that other evil empire, the New York Yankees.

"I don't coach the Yankees," Krzyzewski reminded his audience. "(Seth) Curry doesn't come back every year. We still don't have (J.J.) Redick. Laettner left a long time ago. If he was Mariano Rivera, we'd still have Laettner.

"It's not the same. We have a different Duke team every time."

The obvious implication: Don't you understand how hard it is to do what I've done?

See, the names on the back of the jerseys change. But the coaches are the constant. And for the elite in this fraternity, it's that "longevity of excellence" that Pitino was lauding Thursday: 13 trips to the Sweet 16 for Krzyzewski since 1998, and 11 for Izzo, all without any major NCAA violations.

"They're standard bearers in what our coaching profession is all about," Pitino said.

Fine. No argument here. Just don't let them — or me, inadvertently — fool you into thinking they're what this game is all about.

"We'll both have our teams prepared to play against one another," Krzyzewski said. "But you can't be instinctively reactive to what's going on in the game if you're constantly looking at your coach to tell you every move."

Remember that when the TV camera pans to another gratuitous shot of either coach screaming and stomping on the sideline tonight.

Win or lose, it's their show.

But it's the actors on the stage that truly make the plays worth watching.

Sideline stars

The NCAA Tournament track records of the four coaches left in the NCAA Midwest Regional:

Mike Krzyzewski (Duke): 11 Final Fours, four national championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010)

Tom Izzo (Michigan State): Six Final Fours, one national championship (2000)

Rick Pitino (Louisville): Six Final Fours, one national championship (1996)

Dana Altman (Oregon): No Final Fours

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