Oklahoma head basketball coach Lon Kruger and Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo aren’t unfamiliar with one another. As one was starting to ascend the ranks as one of the top coaches in the nation, the other was starting his journey as a bounce-around coach. Tonight, the two will face off as their respective teams play for a right to advance to the East regional final. Tip-off will be at 10:07 p.m. ET on TBS.
Izzo has been the head Spartan in charge since 1995 while Kruger was the head coach of Big Ten rival Illinois from 1996 to 2000. Over the course of time, Kruger went just 3-6 against Izzo and the Spartans. In 2000, Tom Izzo was interviewed for the Atlanta Hawks coaching gig, turned it down and actually recommended Kruger for the job, which he later accepted. That’s where the story beings to split.
Kruger was fired mid-way through the 2003 season and ended up as an assistant with the Knicks before taking the head coaching job at UNLV, and then taking over the Sooners after the Jeff Capel Experiment failed. While the paths have been different, some of the results are the same. Kruger is now in his fourth Sweet 16 with his fourth different program, and Izzo is in his 13th Sweet 16 in twenty seasons. Let’s hope that Kruger has found a permanent home on the prairie, as Izzo has made for himself in the Rust Belt.
Match-up to Watch
Denzel Valentine vs. Buddy Hield
Tonight’s game will be an absolute treat if Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and OU’s Buddy Hield bring their A games. Both can be streaky offensively. Hield is the Big 12’s leading scorer and never saw a shot that he didn’t like. But his shooting percentage from both the floor and 3-point land has actually dipped from last season, but his point production has gone up.
The Sooners go as Hield goes — and Hield likes to get out in transition and score quickly. Oklahoma rarely, if ever, uses full 35 seconds on the shot clock, something the Spartans aren’t used to after last week’s games against Virginia and Georgia. When the Sooners aren’t rushing down the floor, they are playing lock down defense, coming into this game as the sixth most efficient defense in the land.
It will be Valentine’s job to slow down Hield. Valentine is one of the most well rounded players in the country. He is second on his team in points, assists, and rebound, and is Coach Izzo’s best perimeter defender. Valentine is exceptional at coming off screens ready to shot from deep, hitting over 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Where Valentine will be mostly needed is on the defensive end. Stopping Hield isn’t something that was accomplished by many teams this season, so Valentine has his hands full covering the trigger happy Hield.
Izzo is a master at game planning, so look for him to throw multiple looks at Hield, maybe even using Brenden Dawson’s physicality to slow down the sharpshooter.
Oklahoma doesn’t have much behind Hield in the way of scoring and Sparty is as well-rounded of an offensive team remaining in this tournament field. Every game over the past month has been a different player stepping up offensively to help MSU advance. In the Round of 32 in was Travis Trice dropping 23 points on the impregnable Virginia defense, could it be Dawson’s turn? Or maybe Bryn Forbes or Matt Costello? My guess is that Izzo will have his boys ready to roll come game time. Michigan State wins, 68-61.