It has always been said that Crean doesn't like playing against close friends, especially those he considers his mentors. He and Tom Izzo have had the discussion before, "We've always said we would never schedule each other and if it happened during the tournament it happened and here it is, so eight years in we're going to do it." While it may be the the first time Crean has gone against Izzo, its not the first time the NCAA selection committee put him up against one of his former mentors. In 2003, the selection committee put Marquette up against Holy Cross and Head Coach Ralph Willard. Crean coached under Willard at both Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh.
Crean's players are well aware of what this means to their coach. Marquette Point guard Dominic James spoke about the two, "Coach is a competitor, and him going against one of his best friends and having coached under Coach Izzo – its something that he's probably looking forward to. As a player you look forward to playing against certain players – he's probably looking forward to playing against Coach Izzo. They've been through a lot and this will probably add to their relationship. There is a lot of respect between these two coaches."
Marquette senior center Mike Kinsella is looking forward to the game and feels that the Crean –Izzo matchup will only add to it. "I was surprised to see Michigan State come up there as who we are playing. It is definitely going to be fun because of the history with Coach and Michigan State and playing against a guy that he used to coach under, it will be fun." Marquette's other senior, Jamil Lott added , "I know it is huge for the coach because this is where has come from, where he had grown and where he obtained a lot of knowledge from."
While the Crean – Izzo connection will dominate the headlines, there are more matchups to keep your eyes on. Michigan State Assistant Coach Dwayne Stephens spent a few years at Marquette under Crean, helping to guide the Golden Eagles to the Final four in 2003. The two schools also recruit against each other quite often, and Dominic James is one of those players that was pursued by both programs, "There is a lot more that goes in with this matchup, they have a guard named Travis Walton and he was looking at Marquette and Michigan State and so was I. He decided to go to Michigan State before I announced for Marquette."
The players will be the ones to play the game so the outcome will be decided on the court, but one thing is for sure, the selection committee was looking at the coaches when they put these two teams up against each other. Tom Crean's wife Joani summed it all up. "They are the best of friends. They have known each other since Tom was 18, let's just hope they're still hugging when the game is over."