COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Watching Tom Izzo's Michigan State team win the 2000 national title was a seminal moment for Shaka Smart, then a 22-year-old graduate assistant at Division II California University of Pennsylvania.
“That cemented in my mind college basketball was where I wanted to be,” Smart said Saturday, a day before his second-seeded Marquette team was to face Izzo and No. 7 seed Michigan State in the East Region, with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16.
Smart's respect turned into a friendship. The younger coach sought advice from Izzo after bursting onto the national scene in 2011 by taking VCU from the First Four all the way to the Final Four in his second season leading the Rams.
“I think if you polled the coaches across the country, Coach Iz would be at or near the top in terms of coaches that we look up to, that we call every once in a while for advice, that we watch press conferences and keep a close eye on, just what he’s doing because he’s had such a high standard of excellence for so long,” said Smart, the Big East Coach of the Year.
After VCU, Smart coached at Texas for six seasons without a tournament win before taking the Marquette job in 2021. The Golden Eagles are making a second straight tournament appearance and got their first March Madness win since 2013 on Friday with a rout of No. 15 seed Vermont.
Izzo must see a bit of himself in Smart, who demands maximum effort and focus from players who are besieged daily by social media pressure and other distractions. He is admittedly hard on them.
“I've been a fan,” the 68-year-old Izzo said. "I’ve stayed in touch when he went through some things at Texas and enjoyed watching (his teams) play. Unfortunately, it’s going to be from 40, 50 feet away now for a little bit more.
“He does it the right way,” Izzo said. “He coaches the kids hard, but he’s a damn good coach.”
Michigan State had a tumultuous season, representing a university scarred by tragedy when a gunman killed three students in a campus shooting on Feb. 13.
Izzo led the Spartans to the Big Dance for the 25th straight season. The Spartans beat No. 10 Southern California 72-62 on Friday night. A win on Sunday would get them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in four years.
Marquette guard Tyler Kolek, the Big East Player of the Year, injured his thumb and sat out most of the first-round game. Averaging 33.7 points per game, he had just eight points and picked up his fourth foul early in the second half.
Smart said he expects Kolek to play against Michigan State.
FDU, FAU. So alike in so many ways.
When Fairleigh Dickinson, which brought down top-seeded Purdue in only the second No. 16-over-No. 1 upset in NCAA Tournament history, takes on Florida Atlantic in the East region, it will be a matchup of teams with striking similarities.
Both prefer to push the tempo offensively while defending as a team to offset any size disadvantage.
“FDU is going to be a little like playing us in practice,” FAU coach Dusty May said. “We’re not the biggest team on paper, when you look at our heights and weights. We’re not the most imposing team. But most of our guys play much bigger than what they are, much like FDU.”
Fairleigh Dickinson is the smallest team in the country, but the Knights showed their toughness and tenacity by containing 7-foot-4 Purdue center Zach Edey, who rarely got a clean look at the basket despite being guarded by players more than a foot shorter.
TANGLING WITH TSHIEBWE
Kansas State knows it has a big challenge on the glass against Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe.
The teams meet Sunday in a Wildcats-vs-Wildcats matchup in Greensboro, North Carolina. Tshiebwe — a two-time Associated Press All-American and last season’s national player of the year — is coming off a 25-rebound performance in the first-round win against Providence. That's the most boards by any player in the tournament since 1977.
Third-seeded Kansas State will try to counter Tshiebwe with slender 6-10 junior Nae’Qwan Tomlin and 6-6 fifth-year senior Keyontae Johnson.
“It’s going to be a team effort,” Johnson said. “We know he gives them a lot of second-chance points, so we just have to limit their offensive rebounds, box him out, find him when they get shots up. He is going to get his no matter what.”
Tshiebwe doesn't just pull down defensive rebounds. He keeps possessions alive, grabbing 11 offensive rebounds against Providence while powering through and over would-be rebounders.
“You can’t wrestle with Oscar, right?” Kansas State coach Jerome Tang said. “You’re going to lose that."
AP sports writers Tom Withers and Aaron Beard contributed to this report.
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