Duke-MSU rematch looked unlikely in November
One team was loaded with All-Americans and carried a ton of expectations on its shoulders. The other had lost loads of talent and most wondered what would come over the next few months.
When Duke and Michigan State met in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Nov. 18, few could have guessed it would be a preview of Saturday's Final Four matchup. But that's exactly where the Spartans and Blue Devils sit.
To say they took different paths would be an understatement.
Duke entered that first meeting as the No. 4 team in the nation and lost four games all season. The Blue Devils did not win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship or the conference tournament, but still earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
On top of that, they featured the conference's best player — Jahlil Okafor — who also was named the conference's top freshman and an All-American. He was joined by fellow freshman standouts Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, as well as senior Quinn Cook.
Duke was full of talent and has ridden it all the way to Indianapolis behind Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is in his record-tying 12th Final Four.
And Krzyzewski has seen that team grow in leaps and bounds since it beat Michigan State, 81-71, that night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, just down the road from Lucas Oil Stadium.
"You still manage the same, but you're not managing egos and attitudes, you're managing Xs and Os, how to use guys and develop them, how they complement one another," Krzyzewski said. "This group has really been like brothers from the beginning in July. They have not posed any problems for me.
"Over the last couple months, they've gotten maturity through play, the freshmen have developed where they have a comfort level in playing with the rapidity we have to play big time games. That's a learned experience. They've learned that. But they've become closer and closer. It's really been an amazing group of kids to work with."
Krzyzewski wasn't sure it was going to be such an easy transition after coaching USA Basketball until September.
But that night in Indianapolis was the first indication things would go well. Cook, the senior, scored 19 to lead the Blue Devils while Jones and Okafor added 17 points each and Winslow scored 15. They even staved off a second-half push by the Spartans, pulling away after the lead was trimmed to three points.
"I've really loved the year," Krzyzewski said. "I was worried going into the year because of when USA Basketball ended. That was pressure because Madrid, winning the World Championship, middle of September. I was worried, I hope I have the gas, the energy. It hasn't been a stretch at all. In fact, I think I'm as energized now as I've ever been at the end of the year."
Izzo feels much the same way about his team, though it would have been hard to predict that night in Indianapolis.
Then he talked about getting a lot out of the game without taking away a "moral" victory.
"We've been too good for that," he said. "But under the circumstances right now we competed and we will get better."
The getting better seemed like it was never going to come at times.
Michigan State added close losses to Kansas and Notre Dame over the next few weeks and then had a stunning home loss to Texas Southern. That inconsistent play, sparked by an assortment of injuries, lingered into the Big Ten season.
But it was after one of Michigan State's toughest losses — at home to Illinois — Izzo started to see a change and see his team start to get better as he predicted back in November.
"We played Illinois at home and got beat and I thought they just took it to us," Izzo said. "Then we went on the road to Northwestern. We had Ohio State, at Michigan, at Illinois. We won all four of those games and I think we displayed a lot more toughness. We weren't a very physical team, still aren't the most physical, compared to some of our teams. But we gained a little confidence. We gained a little toughness during that stretch. I thought that turned us a little bit."
They closed with wins over Purdue and Indiana and hit their stride in the Big Ten tournament. From there, the NCAA run has commenced with a team that resembles the one that first played Duke but has come farther than most Izzo has had.
"Probably back around the beginning or early in February is when I said, 'This team has a chance to make a run,' " Izzo said. "Did I think it would be this deep a run? No, I can't say I did, but I'm very proud. That's what makes me prouder of them. They even surprised me a little bit."
The whirlwind for members of the Trice family continued Monday.
They were all on had to see Travis Trice be named the East Regional's most outstanding player, made possible by an overnight trip after the Ohio high school state championship game Saturday in Columbus.
Travis Trice Sr. coached Huber Heights Wayne to the title with sons D'Mitrik and Isaiah on the team. After the game, the family piled into a couple cars and headed to Syracyse, N.Y.
On Monday, Travis Trice Sr. was on ESPN with D'Mitrik and Isaiah.
"It was a great weekend," Trice Sr. said. "We told Travis, 'Get us to Sunday and we'll be there in Syracuse to watch you play.' "
D'Mitrik Trice said he drew plenty of energy from his older brother during his own tournament run, one that included 19 points in the final. He's taking an official college visit today after Wayne celebrates its championship before the family heads to Indianapolis.
Izzo was asked on a teleconference what he would have done if he wasn't a basketball coach. He said he likely had two options, with one being a teacher.
One he's glad he didn't choose was following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father.
"I could have taken my grandfather and dad's business, been a shoemaker," Izzo said. "That wouldn't have paid many of the bills. Thank God I didn't do that."
Izzo went on to explain the family business was more than just shoes and even offered his services.
"We did awnings, windows, laid carpets," he said. "If you need some carpets laid, maybe I could do that in between games."