NEW ORLEANS — “This is the GOAT right here,” Duke freshman star Paolo Banchero said on a live broadcast following his team’s advancement to the Final Four, referencing coach Mike Krzyzewski — the winningest coach in college basketball history.
“Shut up!” Krzyzewski jokingly scolded.
The exchange is indicative of a year that’s been dominated by headlines honoring Coach K in his curtain-call season — which will end either Saturday after the national semifinal vs. archrival North Carolina (8:49 pm, ET) or Monday following the national championship game.
Krzyzewski’s words of wisdom are typically a lot more in-depth. The 75-year-old coach often looks at his role as that of a teacher. And his biggest teaching feat him with this year’s young team hasn’t been Xs and Os. It’s been psychological — helping these young players harness their thoughts and emotions — when the outside noise has often been a distraction.
Can you win it all for Coach K? Can you strike revenge against North Carolina for embarrassing you in Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium? Are you ready for the biggest rivalry game in sports? The questions were in abundance for players at Thursday’s news conferences, as they have been all season.
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“I said (to them) you only have so much room, mind space where you can get in-depth about anything,” Krzyzewski said. “You can put a lot in your mind but not necessarily deep about what we’re doing. The further you go, it’s harder on them. And so we’ve talked about that.”
Krzyzewski said his former coach at Army, Hall of Famer Bob Knight, taught him how to have tunnel vision: “I remember Coach Knight saying you have to approach it where each game is a championship game,” he said. “By putting that out there, it creates an environment where you can think that there’s going to be something else.”
Players have listened. “This is a championship game,” point guard Jeremy Roach said of the semifinal matchup with North Carolina. “We’re not looking at it as a rivalry or whatever everybody else is saying.”
“That was his message to us, and we accepted it,” guard Trevor Keels added.
But Coach K hasn’t just used a psychological approach when addressing the team collectively. He’s used it particularly in one-on-one connections with each player. “The relationships that coaches and players have, not just at Duke, but in sport, are very deep or can be very deep,” he said.
It’s been a year in which the sport was as old as it’s ever been thanks to the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic. And yet here Duke is with one of the youngest teams in all of college basketball and one of the youngest in Krzyzewski’s 42-year tenure.
“There’s no question that you’d rather have an older team than a younger team,” Krzyzewski said. “But if we have a younger team, you have to get them as old as possible during the season and develop a camaraderie to compete against those older teams.”
“This idea of recoiling the one-and-done players, it’s just not true,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “Some of the winningest teams in college basketball, Kentucky, Purdue and Tennessee are all done playing. If there’s a question about whether you can win with young players, the answer is yes. And Coach K has proven that, doing what he always does. He coaches the team he has in front of them, trying to accentuate their strengths and remove their weaknesses.”
Those weaknesses have shown up in the form of inconsistency. While the talent on paper has always been there for the Blue Devils — ranked No. 1 in KenPom offensive efficiency — it was evident that growing pains were still showing as recently as the ACC Tournament when a lethargic-looking Duke squad got outplayed by Virginia Tech in a 15-point title game loss.
“We won a lot of games and the (ACC) before we played poorly for two weeks,” Krzyzewski said. “We went back to the other side of the bridge (momentarily). We played four really tough opponents. They made us better. We had to be better to beat them. There were lessons learned from their mistakes.”
The spotlight especially appeared to take a psychological toll on the group in Coach K’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium when North Carolina upset the Blue Devils by 13 points — an outcome Wendell Moore Jr. calls “heartbreaking.” Now, they’re in a rematch that’s being hyped as one of the biggest games in college basketball history — the first meeting in the NCAA Tournament between Duke and UNC.
The biggest difference between that March 5 nightmare and now? Krzyzewski has taught his team to play for themselves, not for him.
“I feel like during that point in the season we were kind of not playing within ourselves. We weren’t talking as much, communicating,” Banchero said. “And I think (Krzyzewski) just basically told us, we need to get back to that. That’s what changed. He told us we all needed to get back on one bus, and we win. But if we didn’t, then we’d be going home early.”
Krzyzewski has trusted his players’ intuition — even in his final season. He said in this NCAA Tournament he’s had to change his approach to him. In a Sweet 16 win over Texas Tech a “chorus” of players challenged him to switch from zone to man-to-man.
“I didn’t see us ending anywhere else than here,” Banchero said of the Final Four.
That swagger has always been there. Krzyzewski just found a way to tame it.
“Pressure? They don’t feel pressure. I’m amazed at that,” Krzyzewski said. “I try to remember being that age. I would have felt pressure and nervous and maybe a little afraid. They’re not. I admire that in them. It’s not anything we taught. They brought that to us.”
Follow colleges reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism