GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Mike Krzyzewski headed for the tunnel after Duke’s practice Thursday, offering a wave to the cheering fans who had gathered to watch and hopefully capture a brief moment from his final NCAA Tournament.
Moments later, another Hall of Fame coach – Michigan State’s Tom Izzo – walked out to join his Spartans for their pre-tournament workout.
“The one thing that the 24 years of being in this tournament has taught me: it never gets old,” Izzo said.
Neither does winning.
Krzyzewski and Izzo — who along with Miami’s Jim Larranaga, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Davidson’s Bob McKillop — have done their share of that.
No site hosting opening-round men's NCAA Tournament games can roll out a roster of coaches with more victories or NCAA Tournament success than the quintet in South Carolina.
The group that has seen just about everything in March, starting with the retiring Krzyzewski as a five-time national champion and the game’s winningest coach along with Izzo, who boasts his own national title and eight Final Four trips.
A couple of them will likely square off before the end of weekend as their teams battle to advance to the tournament’s second week.
“Even though I’m gray and a lot older … those guys were all my mentors and guys that I looked up to and hoped to be someday, and be able to be in the same building with them and compete against them,” Pearl said of the veteran coaches. “So it’s a pretty big thrill for me.”
Krzyzewski's Blue Devils are the No. 2 seed in the West bracket and open Friday against 15th-seeded Cal State Fullerton, while Izzo's Spartans are the 7-seed and will meet McKillop's 10th-seeded Wildcats. If Duke and Michigan State win, they'll meet in Sunday's second round.
Also Friday, Pearl's second-seeded Tigers meet 15th-seeded Jacksonville State in the Midwest bracket, while Larranaga's 10th-seeded Hurricanes face No. 7 seed Southern California to set up a potential second-round matchup as well.
Those five coaches alone have more NCAA titles (six), Final Four trips (22) and career victories (3,803) than the combined 56 coaches at the other seven sites entering Thursday's first-round games. Throw in Southern California’s Andy Enfield, Jacksonville State’s Ray Harper and Cal State Fullerton’s Dedrique Taylor to round out the rest of the Greenville field, and the gap isn’t close.
The rest of the tournament coaches have combined to make 21 Final Four trips and captured five titles.
Their various approaches to the tournament have been honed both through memorable successes and crushing failures. All serve as valuable lessons in helping players navigate tense finishes and the spotlight that comes with being part of March Madness.
That’s why Izzo emphasizes managing the pressure that comes facing a lose-and-go-home scenario.
“If they fear it, it’s a problem,” Izzo said. “But if they don’t embrace it, it’s a problem, too. So I think that’s where my experience and my staff’s experience has helped. I think, when I show them the different ways I’ve moved on in this tournament, or our team has and our program has, they at least can see it.”
Several coaches here minimized the value of their own experience compared to having players who have been in the tournament before. Jacksonville State coach Ray Harper, who won NCAA Division II and NAIA national championships, took it a step further, saying the coaching experience matters more in the lead-up to the game than after tipoff.
“The thing is, if they don’t know what they’re doing now, I can’t help them,” said Harper, who has 550 career victories. “We’ve been doing this since June so if we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re going to have problems” at tipoff.
For players, there’s a comfort and trust that comes with playing for a coach who knows what it takes to win in March. That’s particularly true of the Blue Devils, who haven't played in the NCAA Tournament since 2019 after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament and they missed last year's tournament for the first time since 1995.
“It’s been great because (Krzyzewski) knows what to do,” Duke wing Wendell Moore Jr. said. “He’s been here more than anybody. He’s failed. He’s had success. So he knows the ins and outs of everything.”
That comfort can come in even in the smaller details, too.
Hurricanes guard Kameron McGusty said Larranaga – a coach with 693 career wins and an improbable Final Four trip with George Mason in 2006 on his resume — had talked with players about game officials being evaluated on their performance to determine whether they, too, advance in the tournament.
“It’s just having little information like that and little stuff like that that gives you confidence going into the tournament,” McGusty said, “knowing that your head coach that’s leading you has experience and knows what he’s talking about and knows what he’s doing.”
The coaches also call on previous tournament experiences from to help find their own footing. McKillop, who has 634 wins and coached the Stephen Curry-led Wildcats to the 2008 Elite Eight, described the wide-eyed reaction he had to his first NCAA trip in 1998 and spotting CBS tournament broadcasters Jim Nantz and Billy Packer.
They're a little better prepared these days.
“I’ve learned that when I go to an NCAA Tournament, I get the ticket list and the rooming done on Sunday,” Izzo quipped, “not Friday like I did the first couple of years when I was in it. So I’ve grown and learned too.”
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