Feinstein: Krzyzewski, Izzo "As Good As It Gets"

John Feinstein will never root against Mike Krzyzewski or Tom Izzo, but he felt a "lack of sympathy" for Duke's one-and-done freshmen Sunday

John Feinstein
April 01, 2019 - 6:22 pm
Tom Izzo Michigan State Duke Elite Eight

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When I got home Sunday night after the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional final, I was greeted by a torrent of emails, tweets and texts—the latter that I hadn’t even glanced at while writing on a tight deadline about the Michigan State-Duke classic I’d just witnessed.
         
It was a great basketball game, and I could honestly say I was thrilled for Tom Izzo and disappointed for Mike Krzyzewski—both men who I consider friends.
         
I know you aren’t supposed to have friends in my business, but the fact is when you do this for as long as I have, you do have friends. And enemies. I consider myself lucky that my friends list is considerably longer than my enemies list.
         
Izzo and Krzyzewski are friends—Krzyzewski dating to the late-1970s when he was still coaching at Army; Izzo to the late-1990s when his program at Michigan State began to emerge as elite.
         
One text stood out to me. It was from my sister, Margaret, whose knowledge of sports is best summed up by a question she asked me in 1992: “Why didn’t the Redskins try to get Christian Laettner?” To this day, she pronounces Krzyzewski “Shakowski” because she can’t be bothered figuring out the actual pronunciation. (For the record, neither could Bob Knight. He always said, “Kr-ishefski,” and when I corrected him on it once he said, “It’s not my fault if Mike doesn’t know how to pronounce his name.” Oh, OK, then Bob.)
         
Margaret’s text was simple: “Sorry Duke lost.”
         
Those three words should hardly have caused me to do any deep thinking, but they did make me smile. I am a Duke graduate, and, as I said, have a long-standing friendship with Krzyzewski. But as the game rocked back and forth Sunday evening, I was torn. I wanted Krzyzewski to win. I also wanted Izzo to win.
         
One had to lose—in large part because the no-nothings on the NCAA basketball committee decided to pair the highest-ranked No. 2 seed with the highest-ranked No. 1 seed in the same region, which makes ZERO sense.

“Not fair to us and not fair to Duke,” Izzo said to me the morning after the brackets were unveiled.
         
More on that on another day.
         
My affection for Duke at this point in my life pretty much begins and ends with Krzyzewski. Back when I covered the ACC, I knew players on all the teams. Now, I don’t.
         
So, the truth is, I had trouble feeling much sympathy for the genuinely broken-hearted Duke players. I’m not questioning their angst, but the fact is the stars on the team are only at Duke because the rules require them to go to college for a year. They will never graduate because they don’t need to graduate. Three – Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish – are locks to be high draft picks. Williamson and Barrett will probably go 1-2 or 1-3.
         
My lack of sympathy has nothing to do with how much money they’re going to be making; it’s the fact that, for them, college basketball is just a place to camp for a year. It makes me crazy when schools boast about the accomplishment of their “alumni”—alumni who were basically hired guns and nothing more.
         
I don’t blame Krzyzewski for going the one-and-done route beginning in 2010 with Kyrie Irving. He held out longer than most coaches before diving (head-first) into the one-and-done pool.
         
In 2004, he told me, “I don’t want to recruit kids who are only going to stay a year. I want kids who will stay three or four. I want to have a chance to really coach them.”
         
This came soon after Luol Deng had surprised him by leaving after one year and after Shaun Livingston, who had committed to Duke, turned pro out of high school – which you could still do in those days.
         
It was an admirable notion. Five years later – after Roy Williams had won two national titles at North Carolina and Duke had gone five straight seasons without a Final Four trip – Krzyzewski threw in the towel.
         
“If I want to keep coaching, I need to feel like I can compete,” he said. “These kids are either going to play for me or against me. I’d rather have some of them playing for me.”
         
Ironically, the same year he recruited Irving, he won his fourth national title with three juniors and two seniors starting. Among that group, the only first-round draft pick was Nolan Smith (24th a year later), and the best NBA career belonged to Lance Thomas.
         
Krzyzewski won another title five years later with three one-and-dones in the starting lineup, but with three seniors in key roles: Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee. The player who saved the championship game was the team’s fourth freshman, Grayson Allen, a non-one-and-done.
 
Now, though, Krzyzewski has joined Kentucky’s John Calipari as the co-masters of the one-and-done. While I understand Krzyzewski’s thinking and his competitiveness, I’m not at all comfortable with it. I’m not saying the one-and-dones are bad kids in any way. As I’ve often said, when I was at Duke, if the Washington Post had offered me a lot of money—as in, say $50,000—I’d have dropped out of school in a heartbeat. I was training to be a reporter. If the Post thought I was ready to play at that level, I’d have been gone. Just like the basketball players.
         
Tom Izzo would be the first to tell you he’d recruit one-and-dones just like Krzyzewski and Calipari do if he could. He’s had one-and-dones (most recently Jaren Jackson in 2018), but the success of his program has been built around more experienced players.
         
“When a kid is thinking he’s going to be a one-and-done or wants to be a one-and-done, he’s going to think first about Kentucky, Duke or maybe Kansas,” Izzo said. “I get that. I know sometimes I can’t compete with that. But I’m okay with it.”
         
Two years ago, most people expected Miles Bridges to be a one-and-done after his freshman year at Michigan State. Except for one thing: Bridges liked college and didn’t want to go. His parents, knowing millions of dollars were in the offing, wanted him to go.
         
Izzo and two of his assistants took a drive to Flint to meet with Bridges and his family.
         
“At one point, Cheryl (Bridges’ mother) said to him, ‘But Miles, if you had gone to Kentucky, you’d be going to the NBA right now,’” Izzo said, laughing at the memory. “And he said, ‘But mom, I went to Michigan State. And I CAN go to the NBA right now. I just don’t want to.’”
         
Bridges returned to Michigan State and a year later was the 12th pick in the NBA draft.
         
Izzo and Krzyzewski are both great coaches—and great storytellers. I enjoy spending time with both of them—even if it makes Jon Jackson, Duke’s SID (or whatever his current title is), crazy that I don’t follow his “system.” When I want to talk to Krzyzewski, I just call him or text him. When you’ve known someone for almost 40 years, you don’t go through a control-freak SID to talk to him.
         
Jackson’s counterpart at Michigan State, Greg Larson (ironically, a Duke graduate), gets this. On Friday night, after Michigan State beat LSU he said to me, “Are you going to text Tom about getting together tomorrow?”
         
I did, and we did.
         
Izzo always refers to Duke as, “your Dukies,” and to Krzyzewski as, “your boy.” He’s right about the latter much more than the former. After we’d spent about an hour together Saturday night, he stood and said, “Well, I better go get ready for your Dukies.”
         
I laughed and said to him, “For the record, I would never root against Mike. But I’d never root against you either.”
         
Which is why, to steal a line from my pal Hoops Weiss, I was very disappointed for Krzyzewski on Sunday but very happy for Izzo.
         
Of course, in addition to my sister’s text, there were plenty of tweets and notes declaring that Krzyzewski can’t coach anymore. Seriously. One clown said he had been to “only three Final Fours in 20 years.” The accurate numbers are three NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS in 19 years and five Final Fours in the last 21. Here is the list of coaches who have been to more Final Fours in that period: Roy Williams (seven) and Tom Izzo (six).
         
While I wasn’t broken-hearted by Duke’s loss Sunday, I DO get angry when people who can’t stand Duke or Krzyzewski for one reason—they win a lot—think they can make judgments on him as a coach or, worse, as a person.
         
Krzyzewski and Izzo are two of the best people I’ve known in any walk of life. I wish both were going to the Final Four. This will be Izzo’s eighth. Krzyzewski has been to 12.
         
They are as good as it gets in college basketball—in every possible way. Period.
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction is, “The Prodigy,” which is set at the Masters and chronicles the ups and downs of being a 17-year-old star who has a chance to win the tournament. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in The National Football League,” his 24th New York Times bestseller. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com