NEW YORK CITY — When Tony Bennett and Tom Izzo crossed paths 23 years ago at the McKale Center in Tuscon, Ariz., they were secondary characters in what turned out to be an epic NCAA first-round matchup.
Steve Smith was the big deal that day, hitting a winning three-pointer at the buzzer to lead No. 5 seed Michigan State to a 60-58 victory against scrappy No. 12 seed Green Bay. Izzo was an assistant to Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote in 1991, while Bennett was a junior playing for his father, Dick Bennett, at Green Bay.
In ’91, Izzo and Tony Bennett were still cutting their teeth in the game. It was just the start of things to come.
Now, Izzo has attained legendary status at Michigan State (28-8) with six Final Fours and a national title on his resume, while Bennett’s star at Virginia is still on the rise, but they’re both architects of all the hoops hysteria on their respective campuses. Though Bennett is only 15 years younger than the 59-year-old Izzo, Bennett speaks of Izzo with almost reverential awe.
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“He’s a special coach,” said Bennett, who will lead top-seed Virginia (30-6) on Friday night against No. 4 seed Michigan State in the East Region semifinals at Madison Square Garden. “I have the utmost respect for him and, yeah, just going back from the experiences I’ve had watching him.”
In the regional semifinals, Izzo and Tony Bennett, the former Washington State coach, will intersect on a basketball court in the NCAA tournament for a third time, including the 2000 national semifinals when Izzo topped Dick Bennett-coached Wisconsin that had Tony on the bench as a volunteer coach. Izzo went on to win his only national title in that 2000 season.
Izzo knows a thing or two about Bennett’s pack-line defense and slow pace. Izzo has seen Bennett’s style morph from its infantile stages, thanks to Izzo’s exposure to Dick Bennett.
Though Virginia has rightfully earned its status as one of the nation’s top defensive teams, Izzo’s MSU teams have long been known for clubbing opponents over the head on defense.
“I think they just kind of have that rep,” Virginia guard Joe Harris said. “That’s the way they’re going to play. You always know they’re going to bring it. They’re just tough kids.
“All the players they’ve had over the years are always just those tough-minded guys that do the little things, whether it be setting solid screens, rebounding, playing well defensively and playing physical.”
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• It wasn’t hard to find a good seat during the opening rounds of the NCAA women’s tournament. Fewer people turned out for the opening two rounds of the NCAA women’s tournament as the 16 sites averaged nearly 4,100 fans for the first two rounds, down about 700 from the previous year. It probably didn’t help that three of the locations didn’t have host schools playing at them — Los Angeles, Seattle and Toledo. Los Angeles and Seattle ranked as the bottom two locations in attendance.