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Niyo: March never gets old to Izzo, Pitino

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo keeps a list of all the great coaches who never made it to a Final Four, just to remind himself of that.

Syyracuse, N.Y. — They've both done this enough to know what they're doing is something special.

And though their college basketball coaching tenures total a combined 50 years and more than 1,200 wins, not to mention 21 trips to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, they can appreciate the moment for its singular importance.

"The surprise of March Madness," Louisville coach Rick Pitino called it, on the eve of Sunday's showdown with Michigan State in the East Regional final at the Carrier Dome.

It's what drives them, as much as anything, now that they're in their 60s, with championship won and legacies intact. It's the insecurities that lead to possibilities, and turn the unexpected into the expected.

"I so look forward to this time of year," said Pitino, 62, now in his 30th season as a college coach. "I don't really know what I would do without it. I really don't. So many coaches tell me, 'Don't leave. Don't think about leaving. Especially you. You'll miss it so much.' And I keep listening to people when they say that."

Listen to Pitino for any length of time and you'll hear him talk with almost childlike enthusiasm about his first Final Four trip, an improbable Cinderella run with Providence in 1987. That, Pitino insists, "is when I learned to dream for the rest of my life, and I thought everything was possible."

Modest talent

Suddenly, everything is again for both these teams. Louisville, a team with precious little depth and painfully limited shooting, is on the verge of its third Final Four trip in four years. Michigan State, a team whose remarkable NCAA Tournament streak was in jeopardy as late as February, finds itself right back where it was a year ago.

Surprised?

"A lot of years I'm not," said Izzo, who with a win Sunday would tie Pitino for fourth place on the all-time list with his seventh Final Four berth. "But this year, I guess I am, to be honest with you. … This team has surprised me a little bit. Not totally, because I thought we could be a good team, maybe a very good team. But you don't get to the Elite Eight unless you're a very, very, very good team."

So it's with good reason — very good reason — that Izzo and Pitino are relishing this chance, having coaxed good teams into something more. And while the other regions mostly went according to chalk in this NCAA Tournament, the East comes down to a No. 4 seed and a No. 7, two overachieving squads with perhaps one NBA first-round talent (Louisville's Montrezl Harrell) between them.

"We're not the most talented team, or the best team he's coached," Michigan State's Denzel Valentine said of Izzo, who's one step away from the Final Four for the ninth time in 18 tournament trips. "But with all we've been through, we've stayed with it. And what do you know? We're in the Elite Eight, where nobody had us getting past the second round."

It's up to them how far they'll go. Almost always is, too.

Belief from the sideline

Sunday's game will be decided by the players, not the coaches. It'll be decided by Harrell vs. Branden Dawson, and Valentine vs. the Louisville press, and maybe the Spartans vs. their free-throw demons in the final minutes. Once the ball is tipped, "Coaches are overrated a little bit," Pitino said.

Izzo, who keeps a list of all the great coaches who never made it to a Final Four, just to remind himself of that, nodded in agreement Saturday afternoon, though it may have just been the lack of sleep talking.

"I say this not humbly, I say it honestly: There is too much made out of it," he said.

He spent months trying to mold a team he felt was "too soft" into something strong enough to handle the pressure it'd face in March. And when the Spartans faltered, the head coach in his 20th season knew he had to let his players know he still believed.

"I think we did a decent job as a staff selling them on that," Izzo said. "I'm usually a (glass) half-empty guy. But I made it a little more half-full. A couple times, I was trying to go to three-quarters full. And I think some of it worked."

Sure looks that way, doesn't it?

"So maybe we've got a bunch of players that love March," Izzo chuckled, "not a coach."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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