By Neill Ostrout
NEW YORK _ Tom Izzo had what is sometimes the often unfortunate job of trying to follow in a legendary coach’s footsteps when he took over for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State after the 1994-95 season.
Kevin Ollie did largely the same thing when he took over for Jim Calhoun at UConn almost two years ago.
But Izzo has eschewed the cliché that the coach who follows a legend must flop, and in many ways he’s done an even better job in East Lansing, Mich., than his predecessor. He thinks Ollie has the potential to do the same.
Such transitions only work, Izzo believes, is the departed coach lends his full support.
“I’m sure just like Jud, Jim has done a good thing. He was there to support Kevin in his first game over in Germany,” Izzo said Saturday as he prepared to face Ollie and the Huskies for a berth in the Final Four. “I’ve known Jim for a long time and he wanted Kevin to have the job. He told me that the summer before. I just think it’s how the former guy handles it. We’re going to have pressure on us to try to live up to certain things, but how it’s the guy before handles it.”
Izzo said that Heathcote called him Saturday morning.
“He’s still coaching my team 19 years later. And I accept that and I actually enjoy that,” Izzo said.
Likewise, Calhoun is still closely involved in the UConn program. He’s been traveling with the Huskies during the postseason and was one of the first to congratulate Ollie after Friday night’s win over Iowa State.
When the seventh-seeded Huskies face No. 4 Michigan State Sunday afternoon (2:20 p.m., CBS) at Madison Square Garden trying to earn the program’s fifth trip in the Final Four, Calhoun will again be without shouting distance of the UConn bench. Though, the former coach doesn’t actually yell during games, at least to the Huskies, anymore.
UConn has won three of the five games in its brief history with Michigan State, including last year’s season-opening 66-62 win at Ramstein Air Base in Germany _ Ollie’s first game as UConn’s head coach. But the Spartans won the last time the two teams met on a stage this big, beating the Huskies 82-73 in Detroit as part of the 2009 Final Four.
It was after that game in Germany in which Izzo became one of the first to publicly suggest Ollie deserved a long-term contract with the Huskies. Privately, he also shared some words of wisdom with Ollie.
“The thing that sticks out to me is he just said ‘Be yourself.’ I can’t be coach Calhoun. I can’t build this program from 86 when he arrived. I can’t do that,” said Ollie, who is off to a 3-0 start in coaching NCAA Tournament games. “But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from coach and build on them.”
UConn is 4-6 in the Elite Eight round of the tournament, but has won four of its last six. In something of an oddity, UConn is actually 0-5 when playing in the “East” Regional final.
Michigan State is even more of a modern day Blue Blood than UConn, it seems. The Spartans have made the Final Four in six of the last 15 years, so that every four-year player recruited by Izzo has appeared in at least one Final Four.
“If they didn’t like pressure, they picked the wrong school to come to,” said Izzo, whose team held off top-seeded Virginia 61-59 late Friday night. “If they didn’t like the pressure of playing in the Elite Eight or going to Final Four’s or having streaks or having NCAA Tournament bids…Those streaks mean that the players before you lived up to the standards that the players before them had. And that’s part of your obligation when you come here. They don’t like it? Bad choice for them. And yet, I’m trying not to add to that burden by hammering it every day.”
Izzo is 6-1 in the Elite Eight, which gives him the second-best winning percentage in NCAA Tournament history. Only John Wooden, who was a perfect 12-0 at UCLA, had a better mark.
The Huskies are starting to expect similar results from Ollie.
UConn (29-8) has won at least 29 games for the 10th time in school history. Eight of those Husky teams made it to the 30-win plateau.
Ollie was a de facto interim head coach when the Huskies and Spartans met last year. UConn guard Shabazz Napier said, like the Spartans, the Huskies have gained a great deal of experience since then.
The Huskies also have a better idea of what Ollie expects from them in terms of effort on a nightly basis.
“We noticed that in practice from the first day, when coach Ollie had us running around with no basketballs for like 30 minutes,” said Napier, who now has 1,900 career points, 22 shy of Ray Allen and fourth place on UConn’s all-time list. “We just wanted to go out there and give everything we possibly can.”
Michigan State (29-8) doesn’t have the same exact team it did at the start of 2012-13 either, though most of the names remain the same.
“We started a couple freshmen that game and Gary (Harris) was one of them. He had the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look. I remember he forgot the first three plays we were going to run. So they had a little more experience at the time,” Izzo said. “But his team has changed, too. A couple of those guys like (Tyler) Olander and (Omar) Calhoun were playing a lot more than they are now.”
Michigan State’s Adreian Payne is certainly likely to present matchup problems for the Huskies. The senior goes 6-foot-10, 245 pounds and averages 16.5 points. He went off for 41 points in the Spartans’ NCAA opener against Delaware.
But teammate Branden Dawson is playing nearly as well, becoming just the fifth player since 1990 to lead his team to the Elite Eight while averaging at least 20 points and shooting at least 65 percent from the field. The others in that group are Blake Griffin (Oklahoma, 2009), Sean May (North Carolina, 2005), Charles O’Bannon (UCLA, 1997) and Juwan Howard (Michigan, 1994).
One thing UConn should have going for it is a home court advantage, given how many of its fans attended Friday night’s game and how many more might be able to pick up tickets from departing Virginia and Iowa State fans. But Izzo isn’t overly worried about being in such a predicament.
“We’ve actually played better on the road than we have at home,” Izzo said. “We lost four home games this year, which is un-American and illegal. We actually play pretty well on the road.”
UConn in Regional Finals
1964 Duke L, 101-54
1990 Duke L, 79-78 (OT)
1995 UCLA L, 102-96
1998 North Carolina L, 75-64
1999 Gonzaga W, 67-62
2002 Maryland L, 90-82
2004 Alabama W, 81-71
2006 George Mason L, 86-84 (OT)
2009 Missouri W, 82-75
2011 Arizona W, 65-63
2014 Michigan State ?????