On the first night Bill Self faced Tom Izzo, he pushed through a locker room doorway at halftime and heard the unmistakable sound of someone shouting. It was Dec. 22, 1998, and Self, then a 36-year-old head coach at Tulsa, had taken his team to Hawaii to play in something called the Pearl Harbor Classic. Their second opponent would be Michigan State, and while Self had followed the career of Izzo, then a relatively young head coach, he had never come up against one of his teams.
On the final play of the half, Self recalled, Tulsa ran an offensive action, and Michigan State had a defensive breakdown. In the big picture, it didn’t matter much. The Spartans still led by double digits, and Self headed back to talk to his team. On the way there, he saw Mateen Cleaves, the point guard who would lead Michigan State to the NCAA title the next season. Cleaves was screaming, ripping into his teammates over the blown play — “Mounting everybody on their team,” as Self puts it — and all these seasons later, the image is still vivid.
“I thought, ‘Hey, these guys are pretty good,’ ” Self says. “It meant something to them not just to win, but it meant something to them to do it right.”
Nearly 17 years later, Self and Izzo will meet once more in Chicago, two future Hall of Famers guiding teams into the fifth annual Champions Classic at the United Center. No. 4 Kansas and No. 13 Michigan State will play the second game, tipping off at close to 9 p.m., after the completion of Duke-Kentucky.
It will be the 12th all-time meeting between Izzo, 60, and Self, 52, a sporadic rivalry that dates back to that night in Hawaii — a series that heated up during Self’s three seasons at Illinois and has continued as Kansas-Michigan State has become a irregular occurrence on the calendar.
“We've had some incredible battles with them over the years,” Izzo says.
They are both, in a sense, still at the height of their powers — or close to it. Izzo, in his 20th year at Michigan State, is coming of his seventh career Final Four and has a veteran team that will compete for the Big Ten title. Self, in his 13th year season at Kansas, has his most complete team in five years, a veteran group poised for a 12th straight Big 12 title and a possible Final Four run.
Tonight, the stakes will be considerably lower than an NCAA Tournament game. But the competitive juices still flow. As Kansas freshman Cheick Diallo awaits clearance from the NCAA Eligibility, Izzo was asked on Monday if he would like to see Diallo play tonight.
“Hell, no, I don't want to see him,” Izzo answered. “I mean, do you want me to lie?”
In the same way, Self is probably fine that Michigan State will be without starting big man Gavin Schilling, who is battling “turf toe.” With a victory, Kansas can cement itself as a top-five team and a Final Four contender. The Jayhawks can improve to 2-3 at the Champions Classic. And Self, who is 5-6 in his career against Izzo, including a 2-3 mark while at KU, can even another score in the process.
“He'll have his guys champing at the bit to play,” Self said of Izzo. “Just like our guys will be champing at the bit to play.”
Through the years, the battles between Kansas and Michigan State have been defined by the traits familiar to both coaches: Toughness. Physicality. Defense. Through the years, Self says, a mutual respect has built up, hardening more after every clash.
“He’s terrific,” Self said.
Izzo, meanwhile, marvels at the consistency of Kansas’ inside play, the way Self has built a program around a high-low offense and frontline big men.
“I think he runs as good a system with that high-to-low as anybody who runs it,” Izzo said. “He recruits to it, he stays true to it, and they're very solid defensively.”
It’s been more than a decade since Self and Izzo met annually in the Big Ten — Izzo, in fact, was one of the first coaches to call when Self got the Illinois job — but the schedule has kept bringing the coaches together.
The two programs faced off in 2003 — with Kansas winning in Self’s first season; they met twice in 2008-09, with Michigan State edging Kansas in a Sweet 16 matchup; and they saw each other again in 2012, with the Spartans taking their first matchup in the Champions Classic.
A year ago, Kansas gained a measure of revenge, edging Michigan State in the championship of the Orlando Classic, closing out a white-knuckled, 61-56 victory.
“I remember we shook hands after the game,” Self said. “He said, ‘Well, you won, but you're probably just as mad as I am.’ That was basically his reply. If they'd have won, I would said, ‘Good win, but you'll like watching that tape, too.’”
One year later, Kansas and Michigan State will see each other again, and here’s another thing Self and Izzo can agree on: Tuesday will be physical, hard-fought and a worthwhile measuring stick for both programs.
“I think they have been good defensively,” Izzo said. “We've been very good defensively. His kids are usually tough kids, and ours have been that way.
“I guess,” Izzo added, “our philosophies are similar.”