Izzo To Match Wits With Former Assistant

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MILWAUKEE (AP) -- For Marquette coach Tom Crean, it was proof that the NCAA selection committee has a wicked sense of humor: A first-round matchup with Michigan State and his mentor, Spartans coach Tom Izzo.
It's a juicy story line, for sure -- one both men managed to avoid for eight years.
"We've dodged this bullet so many years," Crean said Sunday night, after learning that the Golden Eagles would face the Spartans in the first round.
The No. 18-ranked Golden Eagles (24-9) open play against the Spartans (22-11) in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Thursday.
Izzo acknowledged that it would be "weird" to coach against somebody he knows so well.
"The committee has a way of doing that," Izzo said. "That's fine with me. I really don't care. I'm just happy to be in."
Crean said he brought up the possibility of a first-round matchup between the two teams when he spoke to Izzo on the telephone late on Saturday night.
"I think he thought I was joking," Crean said. "I was half-joking. But here it is, so let's go play it."
Crean began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Michigan State during the 1989-90 season, when Izzo was an assistant to Spartans coach Jud Heathcote.
Crean left to work as an assistant at Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh, then returned to Michigan State when Izzo took over as the Spartans' head coach in 1995-96 and spent the next four seasons as an assistant there.
When Crean left to take over as the head coach at Marquette in 1999, he and Izzo made a deal.
"What we've always said is, we'd never schedule each other," Crean said. "And if it happens during the tournament, it happens. Well, here it is. So eight years in, we're going to do it."
Marquette guard Dominic James, who was recruited by both Crean and Izzo, figured his coach might really be looking forward to the matchup.
"Coach is a competitor," James said. "And him going against one of his best friends, and him coaching under coach Izzo, it's something that he's probably looking forward to.
"They've been though a lot, and this is just going to add to their relationship."
Crean has concerns beyond coaching against a good friend. Guard Jerel McNeal has missed Marquette's last three games with a thumb injury, and Crean said he's "not holding out great hope" that McNeal will be available for the first round.
Marquette beat Pittsburgh at home without McNeal on March 3, then beat St. John's in the Big East tournament before losing to Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
Still, Crean knows the Golden Eagles would be a lot better off with McNeal on the floor.
"Would we love it? Would he love it? No question," Crean said. "Are we going to go into the week planning on having him? Probably not. But we'll just wait and see how it turns out, what goes on with it. We'd love to have him. I mean, it's just not there yet. There's no way it's there yet."
When Crean talked to Izzo about a potential first-round matchup between their teams, he figured it might end up as a 7-10 matchup -- with, presumably, Marquette as the No. 7 seed and Michigan State as the No. 10 seed.
So Crean was a little put off when his team ended up as a No. 8 seed -- especially when Pittsburgh, a team Marquette went 2-1 against this season, ended up as a No. 3 seed.
"That doesn't make a lot of sense," Crean said.
If Marquette wins on Thursday, it will face the winner of the matchup between No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 16 seed Eastern Kentucky.
Crean also thought the Big East deserved more than six teams in the tournament.
"I'd say the question there has got to be, the person that represented the Big East Conference in that room, did they do due diligence to the league? But that's for the league to deal with, not us," Crean said.

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