SAN FRANCISCO – Over the course of several generations, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has molded four-year strongmen and one-time hotshots into championship teams, instilling some teams hard with slapping and others with a free offense, at times even seeming to be able to bend the whistle. Judgment according to his will.
However, Krzyzewski’s most elegant trick may have been to move his last team – and the greenest – to another Final Four.
The Blue Devils, seeded second in the Western Conference, kept their hopes of sending Krzyzewski into retirement with a sixth National Championship by slipping away from fourth seed Arkansas, 78-69, in the eighth inning Saturday night.
As befits a talented young team making their strides at the most appropriate time, rookies Paolo Banchero, who scored 16 points, and Adrian Griffin, who had 18 points, motivated Duke. They supplemented with defensive anchor Mark Williams, a sophomore who added 12 points, 12 rebounds and 3 crack shots.
The victory sends Duke to the Final Four for the thirteenth time under Krzyzewski – and the first since the Blue Devils won the title in 2015. Duke (32-6) will play either their fiercest rival, North Carolina, or the young miracle-makers. Saint Peter’s next Saturday in New Orleans.
As Duke dribbled in the final seconds, guard Wendell Moore wrapped his arm around his coach’s shoulder, and when the bell sounded the Blue Devils danced on the bench.
Players throw a bucket of confetti at their coach and go up a ladder to cut the last strand of the net under one of the baskets.
Krzyzewski, 75, tells his players that getting to the Final Four is like crossing a bridge and, on the other hand, entering an exclusive fraternity with the best Blue Devils teams, although he refuses to compare this team to others. “Just like I don’t rate my daughters or my grandchildren,” he said.
He also objected to two questions directed at his players — one wondering if they could secretly root for North Carolina for another shot at Tar Heels, and another to Banchero, who said earlier this week that the players want to send Krzyzewski with the title.
“It’s enough to do it for the old man,” Krzyzewski said.
Although Duke was highly rated and once again had a roster dotted with excellent prospects, it was hard to see this trip to the Final Four when the tournament pairings were announced two weeks ago.
Dive into the NCAA tournaments
Krzyzewski, who described the Blue Devils’ performance as “unacceptable” in Losing at home to North Carolina in the regular season finalrealizing that he has some work to do to repair the psychology of an exceptionally young team – the top six players in rotation are 20, 20, 19, 18 and 18.
“I had a good meeting with myself,” Krzyzewski said on the eve of the match, stressing the importance of leadership as he was his main critic. “I said I have to do something. I have to help in some way, and part of it was my approach with them.”
“If you don’t put the truth on the table and take responsibility, they won’t be able to get the most out of the situation you’re in,” he added.
A team that seemed fragile, even in progressing to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship final, gradually earned its place in the NCAA Championship. It started with a comfortable win over Cal State Fullerton, and continued with a late comeback against Michigan State and Texas Tech, fueled by flawless shots. (The Blue Devils have made their last five shots against Michigan State and their last eight against Texas Tech, the best defensive team in the country.)
Over the past two weeks, Krzyzewski – who has been molded as the Army’s primary guard by the unwavering Bob Knight – has given a coaching atmosphere in tune with his team. He put point guard Jeremy Roach in the starting lineup for the first time in a month to start the tournament and he’s been fantastic. Krzyzewski turned into territory – once unimaginable – in the second half against Texas Tech, then let his young players convince him to return for a last-minute man-to-man confrontation.
He even got down on his knee and slapped the floor late against Texas Tech—and his players followed suit, sending Duke fans here in a frenzy.
On Saturday night, with Roach being teased by the Hogs defense, Krzyzewski turned early on to Trevor Keels, who had Roach replaced in the starting lineup and played a 14-minute low of the season against Texas Tech. Keels, a well-built freshman, pinned Duke’s attack and made 3 pointers at halftime to push the lead to 45-33.
When the Razorbacks rose in the second half, and narrowed the difference to 53-48, Krzyzewski called a timeout to calm his team. “We were preparing for defeat,” he said.
Krzyzewski made sure the offense passed through his best player, Banchero, signaled “1-2” from the sideline, and ordered his defense to move into the area. Banchero, who will be chosen as the region’s best player, scored at the post, passed to AJ Griffin who drove another basket and made two free throws and in no time Duke had a margin of action at 59-48. The blue demons also scored their targets on their next property.
Arkansas was not threatened the rest of the way.
A year earlier, Krzyzewski made the impression that he had lost his iron grip on the program that has become synonymous with him: an NBA prospect quit mid-season, set off on an interview with a reporter from the school newspaper, and his team missed their first NCAA championship in more than a quarter century.
No men’s coach has retired after winning a national championship since 1977 when Al Maguire, 48, retired after Marquette won the title. Two years earlier, John Wooden had told his team after their semi-final win over Louisville that he was retiring after the title match that the Bruins won over Kentucky.
Krzyzewski, 75, granted himself a much longer runway. And he took a rare step last June by announcing his retirement, effective at the end of the current season. He said he didn’t want to go out the way he did last season, when Duke was 13-11 and saw his chances of making the NCAA Championship slip away when he had to pull out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament due to the coronavirus outbreak at home. the team.
He said the decision to announce him — and assistant John Scheer as his replacement — was to avoid misleading recruits who might have asked how long he intended to train. However, the entire season was one last round of waltzing.
“It wears a little bit on you because everywhere you walk, everyone takes a picture of you, and they see everything,” Krzyzewski said earlier this week. “Look, this is getting old.”
He added, “But I feel comfortable with my guys. They’re under pressure that we wouldn’t put on them. I tell them all the time, ‘We’re playing for us – for you – but then it works out. Nobody – it’s not an evil plan against us or anything, but it does happen’ this way “.
Duke won the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 2010, but lost Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor, against North Carolina State—which spoiled a post-game celebration of 96 former players—and was defeated again in the ACC Conference Championship. Virginia Tech game.
“We’ve been dealing with him all season,” Banchero said earlier this week. “It’s the last thing for a coach in every match.”
The two losses late in the season eliminated any chance that Duke would be the number one seed — or the chance that the Blue Devils would head to Krzewski’s hometown of Chicago in the round of 16, as demanded if they were seeded No. 1.
Instead, Duke was reserved in the Western District, which was a cemetery for Krzyzewski’s squads.
The Blue Devils have been placed in the West six previous times without making a regional final — even in 2011, when the top seed was snagged by Arizona in the round of 16.
However, this trip was a walk down memory lane.
Krzyzewski spent four six-week spells in the early 1970s living in the barracks in Presidio, the former Army center that sits in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, when he was playing for the All-Army team that competed in an international army competition.
His team trained this week at the University of San Francisco, on the same court where they’ve been practicing regularly for 50 years. His players surprised him to find out the answer to a surprising quiz: Who was the best player on back-to-back national championship teams for the Dons in 1955 and 56. (Answer: Bill Russell.)
“I was ready to look for them, but they knew it,” Krzyzewski said.
And when it was time for the trial, the blue demons had all the answers, too.
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