Commentary

Pitino, Izzo meet for first time

Originally Published: March 28, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Rick Pitino has coached 748 college basketball games.

Tom Izzo has coached 470.

None of them against each other.

That will change Sunday.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRick Pitino has led three different schools to the Final Four.

At long last, two of the pre-eminent coaches in the game -- both future Hall of Famers -- will match wits, wardrobes and signature playing styles. How two of the six most accomplished active coaches have avoided each other all these years is a bit of a mystery. (Part of it is due to the fact that Pitino was coaching in the NBA for four years early in Izzo's tenure.)

Now what has to rank as the last great unplayed coaching matchup of this generation is at hand, with nothing less than a Final Four berth on the line.

This is the Paisan Playoff. Izzo, Pitino ... fantastico.

The admiration is mutual and sincere.

Pitino on Izzo: "He has a lot of fun coaching. His players play real hard. You know, he's always in demand any time you hear a job open. He's on everybody's wish list. He carries himself with great dignity. He has terrific integrity about the way he runs his program. They're always fundamentally sound, always knocking on the door of a Final Four. I thought he would have been a really good pro coach as well, but I'm really pleased he stayed in the college game because the college game needs people like Tom Izzo."

Izzo on Pitino: "I've loved what Rick has done. … We're not guys that talk each week or month, but I think I have great respect for what he's done. I love the way his team plays with energy. I love the way he coaches with energy. He's been successful everywhere he's been. That's because of the system he has and his approach to the game. His development of players, I think, is second to none."

They've arrived at a similarly lofty place in their profession by very different routes.

He has terrific integrity about the way he runs his program. They're always fundamentally sound, always knocking on the door of a Final Four.

-- Rick Pitino on Tom Izzo

They have similar success rates: Pitino has won 74 percent of his career games; Izzo has won 71 percent.

They're both March masters: Pitino has a 38-12 NCAA tournament record that includes five Final Fours and a national championship; Izzo is 29-10 and has coached in four Final Fours and won one national title.

They both have extensive and impressive coaching trees. Among the former Pitino players or assistants who have gone on to college success: Billy Donovan, Tubby Smith, Herb Sendek, Ralph Willard, Travis Ford, John Pelphrey and Reggie Theus. Among the Izzo assistants who have done the same: Tom Crean, Jim Boylen, Brian Gregory, Stan Heath and Doug Wojcik.

They've both ridden motorcycles into Midnight Madness. Both have a proclivity for demonstrative sideline behavior and salty language. Both have broken Kentucky fans' hearts (Pitino by leaving for the Celtics, Izzo by beating the Wildcats twice in regional finals).

But that and the Italian heritage are where the similarities end.

Pitino is the urbanite from New York. Izzo is from next to nowhere in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Pitino will wear a white suit on the sidelines. Izzo would probably prefer a sweat suit.

"Lots of coaches don't got style like Coach P," said Louisville forward Earl Clark.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTom Izzo has coached in four Final Fours at Michigan State.

Pitino has written three books. Izzo has written none.

Pitino is on his sixth head coaching stop. Izzo is still on his first.

Pitino listened when the pros called -- twice. Izzo has turned them down more than once.

Pitino recruits nationally, with players from both coasts and several places in between on his roster. Izzo recruits regionally, with 13 of the 15 players on his roster from Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota or Wisconsin. (Izzo said that to his recollection, the only time they've intersected on the recruiting trail was in pursuit of Chris Webber. Both lost out to Michigan and Ed Martin's checkbook.)

Pitino loves players from New York. Izzo loves players from Flint.

Pitino is super-tough in the first and third rounds of the NCAA tournament (a combined 12-2). Izzo is super-tough in the second, fourth and sixth rounds of the NCAA tournament (13-2).

Pitino's trademarks are full-court pressure, 3-point shots, and lately, a 2-3 zone defense. Izzo's trademarks are half-court man-to-man defense and rebounding.

When Pitino needs to toughen up his players, they run relentlessly in practice -- no program's treadmills get more punitive use. When Izzo needs to toughen up his players, he breaks out the football gear.

I love the way his team plays with energy. I love the way he coaches with energy.

-- Tom Izzo on Rick Pitino

But there are a few misconceptions at work here as well.

The easy label for Pitino teams is flash-and-dash and dynamic offensive output. Averaging 85.3 points in NCAA play and shooting 55 percent hardly belies that, but the Cardinals also have shown some Spartanesque grit this season. They've held opponents to 39 percent shooting on the season (30 percent from 3-point range) and outrebounded them by nearly three per game.

The easy label for Izzo teams is grind-it-out trench warfare. But as Izzo somewhat defensively pointed out Saturday, the Spartans are averaging only three points per game less than the Cardinals (75 to 72).

The most factual label for both men and their teams is limitless toughness. Don't plan on seeing either team lay down and die like Arizona did Friday night against Louisville. There will be no backing down.

"Sooner or later," Izzo said, "it's going to come down to who outlasts who."

That would be a fitting outcome for this first matchup of heavyweight coaches. May the best paisan win.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.