Izzo, Williams put the same face on game

March 26, 2003|By Mike Preston

WHEN Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo recently was asked to describe counterpart Gary Williams, he called him demanding and hard-working, a coach who makes players accountable and teaches them how to win.

Izzo easily could have been talking about himself.

The personalities are different, but as the sixth-seeded Terps (21-9) head into Friday night's Sweet 16 South Regional game against No. 7 seed Michigan State (21-12) in San Antonio, the two have a lot in common as far as on-the-court behavior and the way they have built their programs.

Neither gets enough respect - Izzo for turning Michigan State into a national power and Williams for his coaching. But both believe in winning with defense, a blue-collar work ethic and a tough-guy mentality. Neither backs away from a tough schedule or from jumping in a player's face.

If you want passion on game day, then check out the sideline Friday night, where either coach could burst a blood vessel in his forehead at any minute.

"Everybody tells you that you've got to treat different players differently," Izzo said. "But players have to have a certain passion, a certain competitiveness, a certain toughness to win championships. If they don't have it, you better find a way to get it out of them."

Passion drives Izzo, and so does lack of respect. Because Michigan State has struggled the past two seasons, Izzo has received a lot of criticism, especially after last year's first-round exits in the Big Ten Conference and NCAA tournaments.

The decline, though, can be traced to sophomore Jason Richardson and freshman Zach Randolph going to the NBA after the 2001 season, and sophomore Marcus Taylor joining them last year. It's not a coaching problem. The Spartans also have suffered several key injuries.

But even when Izzo won four straight Big Ten titles, made three straight Final Four appearances and won a national championship early in his career at Michigan State, his program never got the same recognition as Duke or Arizona. The ultimate slap, though, came earlier this season when Michigan beat Michigan State by two points, ending the Spartans' eight-game winning streak against the Wolverines.

All of a sudden, Michigan's program had caught up with Izzo's, or at least that was the insinuation.

"It has made me more determined," Izzo said. "I want to get back there. I've looked at what other [coaches] have done. Mine was a quick four-year run."

Williams has a similar fire. You mention great college coaches and Williams' name never comes up. You may not like his style, demeanor or the early-round failures of some of his previous Maryland teams, but the man has an impressive resume.

Fourteen 20-win seasons overall. Ten straight NCAA tournament appearances. Two straight Final Fours. One national championship. Before Williams came to Maryland for the 1989-90 season, the Terps' program was on life support.

Williams loves to compete. Maryland officials keep signing him to a new contract every year, but Williams isn't going anywhere. He has a focal point in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and there is a bull's-eye on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

"When you consider what Gary has lost and then to go back to the Sweet 16 with an opportunity to advance further, that's a pretty good accomplishment," Izzo said. "Everybody is eyeing, watching Maryland and Gary's team."

The two teams' playing styles are different, but similar in concept. They try to outwork their opponents. Williams has relied on pressure defense most of his career, and the Terps have one of the deepest benches in the tournament. Just ask Xavier, which still hasn't caught its breath from Sunday's game.

Izzo comes up with creative little things. One year he played Princeton and cut off all the Tigers' vintage backdoor passes by telling his players to keep their hands down.

"They throw a lot of backdoor bounce passes," he said afterward.

He once had his players practice in helmets and shoulder pads to illustrate how physical he wanted them to be while rebounding.

"I've known Gary since he was in the Big Ten," Izzo said. "If anything, he is hard and demanding of his players. He makes them accountable. I'm tough on my players, I make them accountable. But you also have to establish relationships with them."

So, it should be a hard-fought game Friday night. Michigan State is a typical Big Ten team. The Spartans are all elbows and shoulders, with thumpers under the basket. Maryland, like its coach, has a chip on its shoulder because the Terps are the defending champions.

The Terps also have an edge in senior leadership, a huge advantage at this time of year. But Williams won't let Maryland overlook Michigan State. Not with Izzo as coach.

"I've known Tom for a long time. He's had great success, not just in winning the national championship, but in having really good teams," Williams said.

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