SYRACUSE - The best matchup in the East Regional final Sunday, in fact one of the best matchups in the entire NCAA Tournament, will be between two figures who never will make a basket, grab a rebound or make a steal. Or so they hope.
As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, "He has so much passion . . . He's living every shot. If he gets on the floor tomorrow and traps one of [our guys] -- he's been close -- I'm going to protest that. Other than that, I love what he does."
Izzo and Pitino know the drill better than almost anyone: The day before the game, you lavish praise on the opponent, especially the opposing coach. In their cases, though, each man has good reason for admiration. They have stellar reputations for succeeding in March, each is a national champion and each has reached the Elite Eight more often than not: Izzo has been there nine of the past 17 years, Pitino 11 of the past 20.
So there is sincerity in the mutual cap-tipping. "I remember coaching against Frank McGuire in his last home game in South Carolina. I coached against Dean Smith," Pitino said. "I've coached against so many great coaches that I've admired, and Tom Izzo is in a class with all of them because of the way they run their programs and the way they care for their players."
At the same time, though, there is the question of just how much a coach can do. True, some programs are traditionally better. Some find a way to pull out close tournament games down the stretch, as both Pitino's Cardinals and Izzo's Spartans did here Friday night. Yet Izzo said: "The players play the game. Maybe we've got a bunch of players that love March, not a coach. I mean that honestly."
Pitino agreed, saying he is "amazed at what Quentin Snider has done," playing fearlessly and unflappably as a freshman point guard. He's a late-season replacement for Chris Jones, whom the coach kicked off the team for misconduct. And it was an unsung player, Anton Gill, who averaged 1.9 points during the season, who came off the bench and sparked Louisville with seven points in 11 minutes. It wasn't the coach.
The real matchup is between programs, which is a mix of all kinds of elements. "When you say 'the program,' the program is not the coaches," Izzo said. "The program is the former guys who played there."
"Program" also involves memories, such as the last meeting between these two teams, in the Sweet 16 three years ago. Louisville won, 57-44, on the way to the Final Four. Wayne Blackshear, now a Cardinals starter, played eight minutes and didn't score. Branden Dawson, now a Michigan State senior, was injured.
"I remember I was in my dorm by myself watching the game," he said Saturday. "It was hard, just sitting there and not being able to play. I think, come tomorrow, it will definitely be a man's game. It will be great for myself being able to play against these guys for the first time."
Whatever happens Sunday, it will be a triumph of resilience for one of the programs. Louisville appeared in disarray when Jones was ousted. The Spartans seemed adrift through much of the season. Yet here they are, 40 minutes from the Final Four.
"I think, to be blunt about it, it would be one of the greatest things we've done at Michigan State," Izzo said, adding that he showed his players video of Louisville late Friday night -- but left out footage of star Montrezl Harrell because he didn't want to give them nightmares.
Pitino spared his team a glimpse of Michigan State until Saturday. "We know," he said, as savvy coaches do, "they're a great team."