One of those impressive streaks will end in Arizona this week.
Both teams arrive in the desert scorching hot. Michigan State has won 12 of their last 14 games, including five straight. Louisville has won 14 of their last 18, including six straight. The Spartans won the Big 10 tournament; Louisville won four games in four days, including wins over Sweet 16 teams Marquette and Cincinnati, to win the Big East title.
Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup figures to be a war between two great programs and coaches. Pitino and Izzo have combined for 11 Final Fours. Both coaches wear national championship rings - Pitino at Kentucky in 1996; Izzo at Michigan State in 2000.
The two teams haven't met since Michigan State upset Louisville in 2009 Midwest Region finals. Both teams survived third round slugfests to advance to the Sweet 16 - Louisville besting Mountain West champion New Mexico 59-56; MSU toppling St. Louis 65-61. This one could be another physical, grind-it-out affair as both Louisville and Michigan State rank among the nation's best defensive teams.
It's no secret that Louisville has struggled on offense this season. It's the worst Rick Pitino-coached three-point shooting team and those woes from the perimeter have led to some uncharacteristic low scores from the Cardinals.
Michigan State only averages about three more points per game than Louisville this season, but the Spartans rank 24th nationally in field goal percentage, shooting nearly 48 percent. Draymond Green, Big 10 Player of the Year, leads the Spartans in scoring (16.4), rebounding (10.5) and is second in assists. The 6'7 Green totaled 40 points, 25 rebounds and 16 assists in Michigan State's first two tournament games against LIU-Brooklyn and St. Louis.
"I think the real resurgence in our group right now in this post season play, you know, Draymond is shooting off the charts. Shooting I think over 57% in the tournament," Izzo said. "We've also gotten some improved play out of (Austin) Thornton, shooting 50 something percent from the 3 and (Derrick) Nix and (Adrian) Payne. We don't look at it as a big deal, but when they're combining for 21 points and 10 rebounds, it's still the center position. So we've gotten a lot out of that."
Izzo expects Louisville to press and fall back into Pitino's patented matchup zone Thursday.
"The field goal percentage [defense], as I said, about Louisville is good," said Izzo. "They create a lot of turnovers. They're a pressing team, create 16 turnovers a game, average nine steals a game. They've been a hot team, winning four days in the Big East tournament, and yet I'd say we've been kind of a hot team now lately, too."
Perhaps the best multi dimensional player in the country, Green says the Spartans plan to attack Louisville's pressure.
"We've been pretty good at breaking the presses over the years," Green said. "We're going to attack. A lot of people make a mistake. A lot of people just try to break the press. We're not just trying to break the press, we're going to make you pay for pressing us.
I think they are going to try to press us a lot more. This team is a little more reliant on pressing than the last team we played in '09 was. We expect them to come out and try to press us. We'll be prepared. We'll have multiple guys handling the ball. We're really going to put an emphasis on that, taking care of the ball."
Izzo on LouisvilleQ. Do you expect Louisville to press?
COACH IZZO: Yeah, I do. I mean, this is not the greatest shooting Louisville team, so they score a lot of points off their press, off their defense. I think they'll press us a lot, I really do.
I don't think they'll change what they've done. It's kind of a matchup zone. It's a zone/man. We call it 'you pick 'em'. That will be the hardest thing for us to adjust to, I think. It's kind of a completely different zone than most we've ever faced, different than the one there was in '09. Starts out similar, but it changes. Look at their field goal percentage, it's been successful for them.
Q. Do you draw on anything from the 2009 game that you played them at all, playing a Rick Pitino team?
COACH IZZO: Well, I mean, everybody does what they do. I'm sure they know what things to work on for us.
But, I mean, we know he's going to press. We know they're going to play a lot of zone. Their offense has changed a little bit, but I think for the most part you do get to know programs, and I think these guys have had success for a long time. They tweak their systems, but they don't change them all the time.
So, you know, unless we can bring (Goran) Suton back, '09 does very little for us except makes us realize where we can attack some things. But they are playing that zone a little different than they did then.
Q. You joked yesterday about bringing in some football players to try to simulate the speed and athleticism of Louisville. Obviously you can't do that. Do you have any gimmicks that you plan to use?
COACH IZZO: You know, I really did think about doing it today. I don't feel we can go hard today after what we've been through in the travel and everything. We're going to go short today. But I really would have tried to call over and get a couple guys maybe to come over and press us and things like that. What we normally do, and we don't have that, is go with six or seven guys. With this year's team we might have to go seven or eight guys. We might have to pick it up a little bit.
Q. Do you expect Louisville to play off of Keith Appling or do you think that was a one game deal?
COACH IZZO: I hope they do. I mean, he scored 19. If they play off him, that's good for me.
But, you know, I think that was his way of figuring that they could hurt us, and Louisville plays a completely different style. If they do that, in all fairness to Keith, I don't know how as coaches we could have been prepared for something like that.
But, like Eric Snow said to me, Coach, I can help you with that. They did that to me four years in college, 10 years in the NBA, and there's ways around it. I think we learned some of them. Some are getting the inside out pass, some is cutting them through, some is getting them to the weak side.
If they do now, I say great. We've been there, done that. We'll have some things in to adjust to that. But I don't think Louisville will use the same kind of defense 'cause it's not like it took him away or our team away even though it maybe hurt us for a little bit of that game.
Q. I was curious if Rick Pitino is someone you either spoke to or thought about when you were making your NBA decision? What is your general relationship with him like?
COACH IZZO: I did talk to Rick a couple times during some of those decisions. If you remember, I think last time he went public, I didn't get to talk to him, that I'd be crazy or something.
I do respect what he's done. He's been to different levels. He's taken different teams. You know what he did at Providence, what he did at Kentucky. He's been an assistant, a pro coach. He's kind of gone the whole carrousel of coaching.
(Louisville) had some injuries early in the year. His teams are always competitive and they play hard, they play really hard. I've always had a good relationship with Rick. I have great respect for him.
Kind of a neat tournament for me, getting to know Jim (Ferry) a little bit, not knowing him from Brooklyn. Of course Rick Majerus I've known since the day I got out of college. Just a great guy, a great coach. Now you have Pitino. If he can win, it's (Billy) Donovan or Buzz (Williams). A lot of good coaches.
But the coaches don't matter, it's the teams that matter. So hopefully our teams will play well.