SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo isn’t sure where his career would have led had he accepted the Atlanta Hawks’ offer some 15 years ago.
“I’d have probably been fired a week later,” Izzo said with a self-deprecating smile on Thursday.
And Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger isn’t going to hold it against Izzo for turning down the Hawks’ job and recommending they hire him.
“I don’t know if I should thank him or not,” Kruger joked, recalling how he was fired after two-plus seasons. “Other than getting fired in Atlanta, it was all good. Yeah, I wouldn’t change anything.”
The two coaches whose careers have taken divergent paths reunite in an NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinal at Syracuse on Friday night. That’s when the third-seeded Sooners (24-10) face the seventh-seeded Spartans (25-11).
This is old hat for Izzo, who has reached the Sweet 16 for fourth-straight year, and 13th in 20 seasons at Michigan State.
Kruger, who has taken more of a scenic route to coaching, has reached the regional round for the fourth time and with his fourth team.
Whatever works, said Izzo, referring to the 62-year-old Kruger, who is at his sixth school in a 27-year college career.
“I think Lon Kruger has proven that no matter where he goes, he can make tweaks in what he does, but his system works,” Izzo said.
The Sooners are just the latest example of Kruger’s rebuilding ability. In four years under Kruger, Oklahoma is making its deepest tournament push since the Blake Griffin-led Sooners reached the Elite 8 in 2009.
Oklahoma features a stifling defense that’s limiting opponents to a 38.6 field-goal percentage. On offense, they’re led by Bahamian-born guard Buddy Hield, the Big 12 player of the year, who is averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds a game.
The Spartans are one of the tournament’s surprise teams after a 60-54 win over second-seeded Virginia last weekend.
They’ve won six of seven, and done it with timely shooting and aggressive defense in making up for a team that lost three of its four top scorers last spring.
The Spartans certainly don’t look much different to Kruger since he left the Big Ten for the NBA after four years at Illinois.
“They’re more similar than they are different,” Kruger said. “If you asked that about Tom’s club 15 years ago, I probably would have said the same things.”
Here are some things to watch for in the region’s late-night semifinal matchup:
Hield offered a few words of advice to Michigan State guard and fellow Bahamian Tum Tum Nairn when he was deciding on where to play.
“I told Tum Tum, ‘Go wherever is best for Tum Tum. Don’t go where you think is good for Buddy,'” said Hield, who hosted Nairn on his recruiting visit to Norman, Oklahoma.
The two played together at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas. And Nairn chose to play at Michigan State, where he is only the fourth true freshman point guard to start for the Spartans.
“I consider him my brother,” Hield said. “Someone’s going to lose tomorrow, and I hope it’s not me.”
Spartans guard Travis Trice bailed out fellow senior Branden Dawson while he was stuck trying to remember how many Sweet 16 appearances he’s enjoyed.
“This is our, what, third one?” Dawson said.
“Fourth,” said Trice, interrupting.
Trice has been on a roll this season. After just eight starts in his first three years, he’s leading the Spartans in scoring (15 points) and assists (5.1). In the past 13 games, he’s upped his scoring average to 17.8 points.
Kruger had an easy time emphasizing the importance of defense last offseason after the Sooners gave up an average 76 points and lost their tournament opener 80-75 in overtime to North Dakota State.
“It wasn’t a tough sales job,” Kruger said, noting how Oklahoma is now allowing just under 63 points per game.
Added forward Ryan Spangler: “Defense is the reason we’re this far this year.”
PARTY LIKE IT’S 1999
The Spartans are 5-3 all-time against Oklahoma, and won their only tournament meeting in 1999. That’s when the Izzo-coached Spartans beat the Sooners 54-46 in the Midwest Regional semifinal.
After playing two defensive-minded teams, Izzo is looking forward to facing a more up-tempo style opponent in the Sooners. Not that it matters to him after noting the Spartans are capable of playing any style. “We can play smash-mouth and we can play race-horse,” he said.
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