Coach K’s final team heads to Final Four, but Duke isn’t planning on stopping yet
SAN FRANCISCO – Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils are marching on. The final team of Coach K’s 42-year tenure is now a Final Four team, too.
It’s the 13th time the Blue Devils have gone to the Final Four under Coach K. That’s the most of any coach in the history of college basketball. More than John Wooden. More than Dean Smith. More than Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight combined.
But they aren’t done dancing just yet.
As the players donned their Final Four hats on the court of the Chase Center after a 78-69 win over Arkansas on Saturday night, the large contingent of Duke fans let their feelings be known.
“We want 6! We want 6!”
Coach K has won 5 national titles during his illustrious career. He wants 6, too.
But, he doesn’t want it for himself. He wants it for his players.
His players want 1. That’s what drives them. They don’t have the rings Coach K has. They want 1. And he wants it for them.
But first, he knows there’s 1 more test to go. The Blue Devils have won 4 games in March Madness. But there are still 2 games left to win before any more nets are cut down.
In his postgame press conference, Coach K deflected a question to his players about what it would mean to win it all in Krzyzewski’s final year.
“We’ve already been 2 champions, so they’ve fulfilled everything. Let’s not talk about me,” he said.
“One game at a time,” freshman Paolo Banchero chimed in.
“Talk about them,” Krzyzewski continued. “They’ve won a regular-season championship and they’ve won the western regional championship. They did that. They did it for us, and enough about doing it for the old man here. We’re not going to do it unless we all own it, and we all owned this. We all owned this moment together. That’s what we’re playing for.”
Still, Coach K knows it’s special to be mentioned alongside a name like John Wooden.
“Well, it’s an honor,” he said. “Coach Wooden, if he kept coaching would probably have 24. This game, I saw something that Bill Self said about the regional championship game – it really is the biggest game a college coach has to coach, because it gets you into the promised land. For me to have that, I guess it’s 17 times now, that’s a big-time thing for me. I’m so proud of that, that my teams have put us in that position and that we’ve won now 13 of them, and whatever happens afterwards happens.
“But it’s a heck of a thing. We’ve won a lot in the Tournament, and we’ve won a lot of games, but Final Fours are big, obviously, then national championships. Like Wendell (Moore) said, that’s what you put banners up for. You don’t put a banner up for beating somebody. You put a banner up by beating somebodies, numerous things. That’s what we’ve always tried to do.”
Well, they’re beating a lot of somebodies as they continue to advance through the NCAA Tournament field. Arkansas was a team fresh off a win over Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed in the entire tourney.
A win over Michigan State was far from certain in the game’s closing minutes until Jeremy Roach took over. On Thursday, a game against Texas Tech hung in the balance until Roach and Banchero put the Blue Devils on their shoulders.
Coach K said the best part of this tournament for him has been watching his team come through in big moments like that.
“You really find out about character in those situations,” he said. “It’s not luck. It’s them. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, it’s on them because they’re the ones. No matter what you do as a coach, they have to show that level of character, and in this tournament it’s really lifted them. They’ve been beautiful. They’ve been sensational. And they were really good. I loved them before, but now I respect them so much, how much they’ve done.”
To make it even more impressive, this isn’t a veteran-laden team like Duke’s other title winners under Krzyzewski.
“A long time ago I was a player. I didn’t do what they just did,” he beamed. “And our staff, even though they’ve done it, they did it more as seniors or juniors, and so my staff is so proud of them, you know, Chris (Carrawell), Jon (Scheyer), Nolan (Smith), and Amile (Jefferson), because these guys are young. They didn’t have somebody who has already gone through a lot kind of leading them. They kind of led one another.”
Win or lose in New Orleans, this year’s team will hold a special place in Coach K’s heart. Just don’t ask him to compare this squad to his other great teams.
“I could (put this year’s team up there with other great Duke teams), and then get those teams mad at me,” Krzyzewski laughed. “Just like I don’t rate my daughters or my grandchildren, I’m not going to rate them. I’m not going to do that. But, obviously, this is 1 of 13 that have gone to a Final Four. They’re right up there.”
By the time next Monday night rolls around in New Orleans, the 2021-22 Blue Devils hope to be referred to as 1 of 6.