Texas Tech players talk about taking on Michigan State in the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Minneapolis — Michigan State and Texas Tech are playing for the first time on Saturday night, but that hardly means the programs are strangers.
At least, the Red Raiders are familiar with the Spartans. That’s because coach Chris Beard has used Tom Izzo’s team as a model, showing his group clips of how hard Michigan State plays, hammering home the staples of the program — defense and rebounding.
“I love coaching this game, and I love coaching it hard,” Beard said this week. “In terms of Michigan State, he's the pinnacle of that. Coach Izzo, to me, is everything I've always wanted to be. He's a players' coach. You see the hugs and he gets you emotional. These guys like Magic come back. He's a players' coach.
“I don't know Coach Izzo, but there's no doubt about it, he coaches his players hard. He's on them. He holds them accountable. How do these things happen? It's trust. It's all about relationships. I would think that's what we're building at Texas Tech as well.”
Beard didn’t know Izzo before this week outside of a chance meeting years ago on the recruiting trail Beard insists Izzo won’t remember, but that is starting to change.
“Just getting to know Coach Izzo, but the last couple days have been pretty cool,” said Beard, who was named the Associated Press coach of the year on Thursday.
What’s hard to argue is the fact Beard has turned Texas Tech into a version of Michigan State. The Red Raiders are most efficient defensive team in the nation, according to Kenpom.com, and they’re third in scoring defense, allowing 59 points a game.
It’s a lot like the Spartans, who are ninth in defensive efficiency.
“It’s not our first time seeing MSU,” Texas Tech sophomore guard Jarrett Culver said. “We’ve seen their toughness and how they play, and coach showed us some clips about how tough they are throughout the year.”
Texas Tech will see plenty of it on Saturday. In addition to being tough defensively, the Spartans are fifth in offensive efficiency and fifth in rebounding margin.
“We always know they are going to rebound,” Texas Tech fifth-year senior Tariq Owens said. “It’s always been a war for any team that they play, they know they are going to get to the glass and rebound. We know coming into this game that’s going to be a major emphasis and that’s going to be a staple in this game.”
It hasn’t been all business at the Final Four.
Beard has been a hit at the news conferences, talking about his past coaching in the junior college ranks and some of his experiences along the way.
On Friday he talked about sacrifices the best teams must make to be great. It led to an interesting distinction regarding breakfast pastries.
“It hasn't been easy. We make sacrifices every year,” Beard said. “There's guys on our team that have given up Netflix after 9 p.m. There's guys on our team that have given up social media. There's guys that have given up fried food. You basically have to sacrifice something. In our culture, if you say you're going to do it, you'd better do it, or you're about to get roasted.
“So me this year, it's no beer, no desserts, no candy. I haven't had any ice cream, candy, cake, beer, since first day of practice. A couple things, though. Did you know a Pop-Tart is not a dessert? It's a breakfast. I've eaten a lot of Pop-Tarts, man, since October.”
Tony Bennett might not like what his team could face if it gets by Auburn in the first semifinal on Saturday night. If the Cavaliers, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, and the Spartans both win, they’ll square off in the national title game.
It could bring back some bad memories for Bennett, whose Virginia team was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and 2015. The Cavaliers were a 1-seed in ’14 and a 2-seed the next season. But Bennett has only love for Michigan State's Izzo, who beat a Wisconsin team coach by Bennett’s dad, Dick Bennett, in the 2000 Final Four on the way to a national title.
After Virginia became the first No.1 seed to lose to a No. 16 last year, Izzo was one of the first to reach out.
“Last year when we got beat by UMBC, and I think they got beat in the second round by Syracuse, if I'm not mistaken, he called me, and we talked on the phone for a while, and he was just unbelievable,” Bennett said. “I think he's maybe the best, one of the best minds the game has seen, and I've learned so much.
“It goes way back, and I have, again -- just he's been great to me. When people are kind to you in hard moments, you remember that, and again, of course, how can you not respect what he's done with his program? So I'm very thankful for that. The coaching fraternity, it's unique. We know the battles we go through, and then when you can rejoice when someone rejoices, that's really cool.”
Tiger at heart
Like Texas Tech, Auburn is playing in its first Final Four, and the Tigers will have the benefit of having one of their biggest fans and alums not far from the court.
Charles Barkley, the Hall of Famer and former Tiger, will be on the CBS set that sits at one end of the court. Barkley has been cheering his alma mater on the entire tournament, something Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said didn’t just happen when the Tigers started winning games.
“The thing about Charles is he was cheering us on, supporting us, texting, calling, even in the years we weren't very good, when I first got to Auburn,” said Pearl, who is in his fifth year and didn’t have a winning record until year three. “Like I don't have more contact with Charles now than I did two or three years ago when we were struggling to just become a competitive program.
“But I think it is cool for the nation to have their alums, their donors, their students being able to walk around loud and proud that their team is still playing for a national championship.”