Sun. May 19th, 2024

Duke’s Coach K Retirement Tour Rolls to the Final Four

In his final season, Mike Krzyzewski is back in the national semifinals for the 13th time after an Elite Eight win over Arkansas

By: Laine Higgins

SAN FRANCISCO—Mike Krzyzewski’s last Duke team has sometimes faltered in the big moments of his pre-retirement season. But in the NCAA tournament, the young Blue Devils have found an unexpected toughness that will send the legendary coach to New Orleans for a final Final Four. 

The Blue Devils on Saturday out-hustled Arkansas on the glass and outmaneuvered them in the paint to dispatch the Razorbacks 78-69 and advance to the Final Four for the 13th time in Krzyzewski’s career.

Duke will face whichever team wins the East region on Sunday—setting up the possibility of a tantalizing, final confrontation with North Carolina if the Tar Heels can defeat the lovable Cinderella, Saint Peter’s, which is the first 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight in NCAA tournament history. A showdown with North Carolina would give Krzyzewski a chance to 

avenge an awkward loss to the Tar Heels in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium earlier this month. 

Regardless, it’s a too-good-to-be-true result for the winningest coach in college basketball, who has the rare opportunity to end his career by beating a rival on the biggest stage on the way to cutting down the nets in the Crescent City.

“In the NCAA Tournament my team has just played such great basketball in pressure situations,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “During these last four games they’ve been terrific.”

Duke’s run in the tournament is a reversal from the final stretch of the season, when the Blue Devils developed an unfortunate habit of fading in high-pressure situations. They imploded in the second half and lost to North Carolina to end the regular season, they barely squeaked by a moribund Syracuse team in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and then could barely muster a functional offense in the final against Virginia Tech and were blown out.

Those sputters seemed like distant memories compared with the ferocity Duke showed from the opening tip on Saturday night against Arkansas, a No. 4 seed fresh off of upsetting the top-rated team in the tournament, Gonzaga.

Duke’s sophomore big man, Mark Williams, proved to be a problem under the rim for the Razorbacks, who struggled to get second-chance looks with the rangy center scooping up defensive rebounds. On the other end of the floor, Williams was always there to clean up errant jumpers and didn’t miss any of his five field goals. Williams finished the first half with nearly as many rebounds (eight) as points (10). His team pulled away for a 12-point lead—Duke’s biggest halftime lead of the tournament.

Arkansas wasn’t ready to roll over, however. The Razorbacks came out of the break playing more aggressive defense and turned a few sloppy possessions by the Blue Devils into steals and points in transition. Forward Jaylin Williams added eight points in a hurry to close the gap to five points just over six minutes into the half. 

“In the start of the second half, I think Arkansas just took control,” Krzyzewski said. “We weren’t playing well and we were getting ready to get knocked out.”

Just as momentum started to swing toward the Razorbacks, Krzyzewski called for his team to switch to zone defense—something they rarely do, but executed successfully in their Sweet 16 win over Texas Tech on Thursday.

The adjustment worked: Duke freshmen Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin came alive and sparked a 16-3 run and put the Blue Devils back up by 14. 

“Obviously Arkansas plays pretty fast, so we were trying to slow them down and give them different looks on defense,” Williams said after the game. “We went zone for a little bit and I thought that helped.”

Their lead would never shrink below nine points for the rest of the contest. Williams finished with a double-double; Griffin paced the team with 18 points, including a clutch 3-pointer at the end of Duke’s biggest second-half run. 

“Mark really was the difference maker for us tonight,” Krzyzewski said. 

Duke moves on to the Final Four with one of the youngest teams in the tournament—its starting five has an average age of 19. No. 2 Villanova, the other team to punch its ticket to New Orleans on Saturday with a 50-44 win over No. 5 seed Houston, advanced with a very different looking roster. The Wildcats, who led from whistle to whistle in a defensive battle, have now advanced three of the last six Final Fours. On their previous two trips, in 2016 and 2018, Villanova also finished as champions.

Up next for the Wildcats in New Orleans is the winner of Sunday’s Elite 8 game between No. 1 seed Kansas and Miami, who are heavy underdogs as 10-seeds, in the Midwest region.

Unlike the championship Villanova teams of seasons past, Coach Jay Wright’s team in 2022 lacks a standout superstar. The most notable player is Collin Gillespie, the guard who has played with the Wildcats for five seasons—taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility the NCAA gave all athletes during the pandemic. 

Gillespie scored just six points on Saturday, but his teammates—one of the most experienced teams to advance past the tournament’s first weekend—picked up the slack. Their presence was most obvious on defense, when Villanova locked down the perimeter and held Houston to just one field goal in 20 attempts from beyond the arc, the Cougars’ worst 3-point shooting performance of the season — and worst since March 2001, according to Stats LLC.

The wheels nearly came off for Villanova down the stretch, as Houston went on a 11-2 run late in the second half to narrow the deficit to two points. Wright called a timeout, and the player to break Villanova’s scoring drought was none other than Gillespie with a clutch 3-pointer. The Cougars would never catch up, dealing coach Kelvin Sampson his second loss in four trips to the Elite 8 with two teams. 

Krzyzewski already had one of the highest win-loss records among active coaches for regional final games in the NCAA Tournament, with 12 wins in 16 previous tries. With Saturday’s win, he improves to 13-4 and passes legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for most career appearances in the Final Four.

Duke forward Paolo Banchero celebrates during the win over Arkansas.

While beating Arkansas kept Duke’s championship hopes alive, it also ratcheted up the circus surrounding Coach K’s curtain call. Speaking before Thursday’s game, Krzyzewski indicated he was ready for the spotlight to be switched off.

“It wears on you a little bit,” Krzyzewski said. “I feel for my guys. They’ve had pressure put on them that we’re not putting on them.”

The team has been able to persist through the craziness of the 2021-22 season in part because of their coach’s ability to compartmentalize 40 minute chunks of basketball from the noise and fury surrounding him. It’s something he says that he honed during his training at the U.S. Military Academy. He played for coach Bobby Knight at West Point as a cadet in the 1960s and later served as an officer for five years until 1974.

“You never look back,” he said. “It’s about the battle you are going to fight. Then when it’s over, there’s just going to be another battle.”

Only two more remain for Krzyzewski. And on Saturday night the front line for the Blue Devils shifted from San Francisco to New Orleans for one final shot at a storybook ending.

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