Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 27, 2022

Still Dancing For Coach K

The farewell tour is going to the Superdome.  For a record thirteenth time, Mike Krzyzewski and Duke are in the Final Four.  It is an outcome deemed possible throughout the college basketball season, but in the collective judgment of those who make their living reporting on the sport, its likelihood has waxed and waned. 

New Orleans was deemed a near certainty after the Blue Devils posted two statement wins back in November, the first over then number ten Kentucky, 79-71 at Madison Square Garden, followed less than three weeks later by an 84-81 triumph over top-ranked Gonzaga at a Thanksgiving tournament in Las Vegas.  But then Duke lost to Ohio State just four days later, and Krzyzewski’s very young squad at times looked disorganized and adrift during an ACC conference schedule that included four losses and a slide down the college basketball polls.  The last of those defeats came in the team’s final home game, a double-digit pasting at the hands of archrival North Carolina, spoiling Coach K’s farewell party at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  Coupled with another blowout loss to a middling Virginia Tech team in the championship game of the ACC tournament, the stumbles turned that earlier conventional wisdom upside down, with some pundits even questioning Duke’s number two seeding in the NCAA tournament’s West Region. 

But in the frenetic world of March Madness, those opinions, offered all of two weeks ago, are very old news.  Duke played its first two tournament games close to home, in Greenville, South Carolina, and bolstered by local support easily turned aside Cal State Fullerton, the region’s fifteen seed, before dispatching seventh seeded Michigan State 85-76.

The game against the Spartans pitted Krzyzewski against another legendary coach in Tom Izzo, and Michigan State put on a late charge to move in front by five with as many minutes remaining.  But that was the night the young Duke lineup first showed signs of growing up.  The Blue Devils stopped State’s surge, and sophomore guard Jeremy Roach nailed a three-pointer that put Duke back on top for good with less than three minutes remaining.

The hard-fought win earned Coach K’s squad a cross-country trip to the regional finals in San Francisco.  There, Duke first outlasted Texas Tech, the region’s third seed, thanks to another late rally.  Against Michigan State the Blue Devils had made their last five shots from the field.  Against the Red Raiders, statistically the top defensive team in the country, they upped that to eight consecutive field goals at the end of the game to secure a 78-73 win.  With his team ahead and the clock in its final minute, Krzyzewski got down on one knee – not an automatic move for a 75-year-old with a cranky back – and slapped the floor, reviving a Duke tradition.  His players followed suit, sending the Blue Devils’ faithful in the crowd into paroxysms of delight.

Then on Saturday the opponent was fourth-seeded Arkansas.  Led by freshmen Paolo Banchero and Adrian Griffin on offense, and sophomore center Mark Williams on defense, Duke opened a twelve-point halftime lead, only to see the Razorbacks close to within five after the break.  Krzyzewski called time, offered some reassuring words to his squad while setting up the offense to run through Banchero and switching to a zone on defense.  The lead quickly ballooned back to eleven points, and Arkansas never again threatened on the way to the 78-69 final.

After he had climbed the stepladder underneath the basket at one end of the Chase Center’s court and snipped the final piece of cord to cut down the net, Krzyzewski gave credit to his players.  For all the attention lavished on him since he announced last June that this season would be his last, the coach understands that he has not scored a single point in any of his record 1,202 career victories, just like John Wooden, Dean Smith, Roy Williams, and every other legendary college basketball coach.  But what sets Krzyzewski apart, and makes the praise of his record so valid, is that he has compiled it through fundamental changes in the sport. 

Over more than four decades at Duke, and five years at Army before that, he has won by taking the time to mold a team over four years and won again with players who were merely stopping by on their way to the NBA.  He has won with squads that played shutdown defense and won again with units known for run and gun offense.  In a game defined by the constant of coaches, especially now when so many of the leading players are around for just a year or at most two, Krzyzewski has proven unusually flexible, a feat even more impressive as he aged from the thirty-something whose 1980 hiring was greeted with a decidedly tepid response in Durham.

Now it is off to New Orleans and the Superdome, one last Final Four, an endpoint that seemed either inevitable or improbable over the past months, depending on when one indulged in speculation.  The next opponent is familiar, for Sunday afternoon UNC, itself an unlikely finalist as the number eight seed in the East region, ended the Cinderella story of fifteenth seed St. Peter’s with a 69-49 drubbing.

The price of success in every sport is enmity, and the legions of Blue Devils and Coach K fans across the country are surely exceeded by those who despise the program and its leader.  Should Krzyzewski’s career end with a loss to North Carolina, many will gloat.  And if they are denied the opportunity next Saturday, they will gladly substitute a Duke loss to either Kansas or Villanova in the national championship two nights later.

But even if this college basketball season ends with Mike Krzyzewski cutting down one last net, in the fullness of time the results of two games next weekend will have no impact on his legacy.  Most NCAA wins, most Final Four appearances, second most national championships (to Wooden), and, surely, most use of the F- word to officials, for Krzyzewski’s purported ability to bend referees to his will did not come by being nice on the sidelines.  Those numbers help describe it, but another number, 96, does a better job of defining it.  That was the count of former Duke players who returned to Durham to honor their coach at a ceremony after his final home game, for all that he had done for, and meant to, them.  Perhaps that was when his current and oh so young squad realized that they still had work to do.


Responses

  1. Nice!


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