SYRACUSE - Who knows what would have happened if Tom Izzo had accepted the Atlanta Hawks' job offer right after he coached Michigan State to the national title in 2000?

Izzo sure doesn't. "I'd have probably been fired a week later, and who knows if I'd have found another job," he said.

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Or he could be right where he is, coaching in an East Regional semifinal, just like Lon Kruger, who did take that Hawks job 15 years ago. Kruger's Oklahoma Sooners will meet Izzo's Spartans Friday night at the Carrier Dome, proof that there is more than one route to the Sweet 16.

What is clear is that Izzo knows the way. He has brought his team to the Sweet 16 13 times, seven in the past eight years. Unlike Kruger, who has lifted numerous programs and brought four schools to the Sweet 16, Izzo has rejected repeated entreaties from the NBA and stayed right where he is happiest, at Michigan State.

He has advanced with very talented teams and with overachievers (such as this year's). Either way, he is a March fixture. He was shaking so many hands Thursday that he missed the start of his team's pre-practice talk. "The players love when I miss the center-court huddle," he said.

Hardly. Senior forward Branden Dawson said, "We trust in Coach. I would say his personality, it's kind of like unexplainable. Sometimes he's in a crappy mood or he's mad or he's yelling. But he really knows what it takes."

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Plus, Izzo knows how to take it. "I appreciate, from the bottom of my heart, every opportunity," he said. "We've been 7 seeds. We've been a 9 seed. We've been a 1 seed. You realize this tournament is brutal. Every time you think you've got it figured out, it smacks you right in the mouth. So every time we get to play a game in this tournament . . . I remind our players it is a privilege."