Is the fourth-place Big Ten team better than the Conference USA champion? That question will be answered on the court next Friday when the 5-seed Spartans take on the 1-seed Tigers, but as for which team has the better coach and program going into the game, that one seems settled: it's Tom Izzo by a mile over John Calipari.
On first look, that claim might seem exaggerated, perhaps counter-intuitive. After all, Calipari maintains a better overall winning percentage at 75, beating Izzo's 70. But when competition is considered, those same numbers tend to support Izzo.
Calipari was a mediocre NBA coach at best with the New Jersey Nets. And in college, he has feasted on mid-majors in C-USA and in the Atlantic 10 while with Massachusetts, all while Izzo has been tested by national powers in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten has placed nine teams in the past 10 Final Fours. Current members of C-USA who have made it there? in the last decade? Zero. Even the Mountain West and Colonial conferences made it to the promised land within that time span.
Sure, two former members of C-USA, Marquette and Louisville, made it in 2003 and 2005 respectively. But both programs saw greener pastures and joined the Big East within two years (and in Louisville's case, within a few months.)
To look at recent history, Michigan State has faced four teams ranked in the top-25 in their last eight games: Memphis has gone ten since facing such an opponent.
Izzo earned his overall record by facing teams such as Illinois, Purdue, Indiana and Ohio State; Calipari against the likes of Duquesne, La Salle, East Carolina, and Rice. Calipari has faced the occasional tough squad, but clearly the talent and success level of their respective conferences is light years apart.
As for their personal records in the Big Dance, Izzo again takes the cake. He has a national championship, he's been to four Final Fours, seven Sweet Sixteens and has been in the NCAA tournament 11 straight years. Calipari made it to the Final Four once (with UMass), the Sweet Sixteen five times and has no national championship.
Calipari has made some runs, to be sure, including four total Elite Eights. But when his squads have faced the best teams from major conferences, the fun ends.
Even off the court, Izzo teams do better. According to the 2005-06 NCAA Academic Progress Report (APR), MSU men's basketball scored a 965, Memphis a 916.
This Friday may determine which school is better at this moment, but the Green and White will walk away winners no matter what happens.
Better Coach, Better Program
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