- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Moments after one of his most emotional wins of the season over his good friend Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange, Mike Krzyzewski sat at the center of a cramped media room inside of Cameron Indoor Stadium and proclaimed his undying love for college basketball.
"[Syracuse's] celebration of basketball up there and our celebration of basketball here was phenomenal," Krzyzewski said. "It's what makes our sport so good. I love the NBA to death, but this is something they can't do, and we should always recognize that. The [game] in Syracuse and here, that's our product. That's our product -- genuineness, purity."
As the NCAA tournament tips off Thursday, players all over the NBA will be watching with excitement. The Chicago Bulls' locker room is no exception. The tournament is a great source of pride and bragging rights for players each year and the trash talk has already started early this year, especially with Joakim Noah's Florida Gators heading into action as the No. 1 overall seed.
Is there more genuineness and purity in college than there is in the pros, as Krzyzewski asserted? That could be argued on both sides forever. But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is an example of a man who decided that the pro game fit his style more than the college one.
Thibodeau spent a few years coaching on college campuses as his professional career got started, just one as a head coach at his alma mater, Salem State University, but he ultimately decided to make a niche for himself in the NBA. That's why he spent the better of two decades as an NBA assistant before landing the job with the Bulls four years ago.
"Like every job or in every industry there's pros and cons to everything," Thibodeau said. "So college is a great game. There's I think a lot more to college than basketball. You're worried about your kids going to class, what they're doing in the dorms, and you're really responsible for all of that. In the pros, it's mainly all basketball. Every day you're not thinking about recruiting calls. You're not thinking about the AAU coaches.
"I would say with Coach K ... when you talk to a lot of college coaches the big thing is the recruiting part takes a lot out of you. In the pros, it's a lot more games and you're dealing with men. It's a lot different. So I think both are great games, and obviously for me, I prefer the pro game. It's a different game. But I loved college, also. I think you have probably a little bit more of an impact on the players off the floor. Certainly at a much different age. But when we get them, you've got a guy who's in his 30s, he's a man."
For Krzyzewski, it's the ability to impact college-aged kids that he seems to enjoy the most. He's rejected overtures from pro teams in the past so that he could stay at Duke.
"Certainly there's passion and excitement at the highest level in the NBA," Krzyzewski said in clarifying his comments a few weeks after the Syracuse game. "It's a little bit different than that in collegiate play. The main thing that I would miss is the development of young men into men. And I call it crossing bridges with players. Not just player issues where you get better as a player, but also how you grow as a person. That's different than how it is in the pros. And I would miss that, that's been probably the thing I've loved the most in the four decades I've been a college basketball coach."
The passion is what both men thrive on. The passion makes the games on both levels special. But the passion of the NCAA tournament is different -- and Thibodeau's players know it.
"It's do or die," Noah said. "The intensity of March Madness is like a Game 7 because you win or you go home. In the playoffs it's funny, in the playoffs, the team that usually loses a game usually comes out with the better intensity. It's really true. But it's just more games. The intensity of March Madness is it's a Game 7 every time and that's what makes it so exciting."
Even Thibodeau admits to feeling a little different once March Madness begins.
"It's exciting," he said. "And I've gotten to know some of the college coaches; I think the atmosphere is really exciting. Certainly the NCAA tournament, basically every game is a Game 7. And one game, anything can happen, so you see upsets. And the way it's constituted today where there's a lot of one-and-done guys. And so some of the mid-major programs have four-year seniors, those teams are really good.
"Every year there seems to be a team that emerges that's like that, that can beat everybody because they've got guys that have been together for four years and they grow together and they have a belief and a system where in one game a guy gets hot or you're playing against someone who has a good player who gets in foul trouble, anything can happen in those situations."
The team-building aspect always appeals to Thibodeau, but it's the recruiting that kept him away from the game Krzyzewski loves so much. Still, Thibodeau's players believe that if he ever decided to get back into the college game, the Bulls coach wouldn't have much problem adapting.
"I think it's a lot easier to go from pros to college," Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy said. "[Thibodeau] would be a terrific college coach. He'd be a terrific anything coach because he works at it so hard and he prepares and he knows his stuff. There's definitely a lot of guys in college that couldn't handle the pros but certainly he could handle the college [game] for sure."
Dunleavy would know. He is the son of former NBA player and coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. and he played for Krzyzewski at Duke. He and his teammates understand that Thibodeau has a knack for teaching the game, a skill that would benefit him on any level.
"I think he has a college coach approach," Noah said. "Just the intensity that he brings every day. I think Thibs, he coaches like a college coach. It's just like every game is a Game 7. We could be in Milwaukee in January, a regular-season game, it's Game 7 for Thibs all the time. So yeah, he fits the mold [of a college coach]."
Noah and Thibodeau thrive off each other's ability to treat every game like it's Game 7. That's one of the reasons Noah has been able to elevate his game under Thibodeau and become an All-Star the past two seasons. It's also the reason he looks back so fondly at his time at Florida where he won two national championships.
"I don't really have time to miss it because I love what I do," Noah said. "I love playing for the Bulls and I love where we're at. But it was the best times of my life, playing at Florida, where it was really special to me. And be able to win -- those were the memories that I'll cherish forever so I don't miss them but those were great times, man."
Thibodeau is trying to make some memories of his own with Noah and the Bulls these days. He's dedicated a majority of his professional life to winning an NBA championship, a feat he accomplished as an assistant with the Boston Celtics in 2008. It's the work ethic that has earned him respect throughout all levels of the basketball world. The Duke coach said he and Thibodeau, who is an assistant on Krzyzewski's Team USA staff, don't spend time talking about the intricacies and differences of the pro and college game -- just the sport itself.
Whether Thibodeau coached in the pros or in college doesn't matter much to Krzyzewski. He knows he would be successful because of the way in which he prepares.
"What we do is discuss basketball," Krzyzewski said. "I love Tom. I think we got lucky to get him on our [Team USA] staff. I like him in every way. As a guy, he's a guy's guy, straight [forward], funny. I don't know how well people know him but he's funny. He's a good man. And then, he's an outstanding coach. One of the best. And maybe as good a guy in preparing as there is now coaching any level, any level of basketball on this planet."