Sunday, December 3

This season started about Coach K, but a powerful push to the Final Four has made Duke’s players the big story

SAN FRANCISCO — There wasn’t ever a second to waste. Every moment in every timeout was opportunity. There are only so many more days, minutes, hours and seconds Mike Krzyzewski has left to coach this team. This was for — as Krzyzewski has referred to it this week — a chance to walk across the bridge to the mecca of college basketball.

Final Four glory was on the line.  

They know bridges well in this city. The most famous of them all stands in distinction — “international orange” is its official color — a mere seven miles from the Chase Center, looming over the Presidio and linking one part of San Francisco to another. In this metropolis of drastic slopes, where streets pitch and droop like ski pistes, and where the inclines and tablelands of its thoroughfares give incredible views around this beautiful slab of earth and water, everything was, instead,  steady, level — in balance for the second-seeded Blue Devils on Saturday night.

For as big as this Elite Eight matchup against No. 2 Duke and No. 4 Arkansas was, we were low on drama.

Duke was its unrelenting best here in a 78-69 victory vs. Arkansas. The Blue Devils grew again, proving their talent was as irrepressible as this storybook narrative itself. Can’t be that Krzyzewski’s going to the Final Four in his last season, can it? Is this really happening? It is. Passage has most definitely been earned. 

“They were a close team before the NCAAs, but during these last four games they have been terrific,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m so proud of you guys and happy for you. You crossed the bridge, man, and we beat an outstanding team.”

Back to those timeouts. With a press row perch behind Duke’s bench for this game, CBS Sports was able to eavesdrop in on every huddle over the course of two hours. The Blue Devils briefly trailed 9-6 early, but otherwise held this game in its control. Krzyzewski had fire in his tummy and a classic coach’s scratch in his throat as he bellowed out over the PA system and pep bands.

“You gotta go! We’re going too slow!” he told his team at the under-16 timeout of the first half. He looked inflamed. The game had barely begun. 

Krzyzewski didn’t allow himself to show relief, not even when Duke was in command late and most of the building realized what was happening here. To wit: a Trevor Keels deep 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer gave Duke a 45-33 lead going into the break. Moments later, one support staff member quietly dropped four golden pairs of scissors to the Duke side of the scorer’s table. The regional-champion trophy, and the box it was stuffed in, was also not-so-inconspicuously tucked near the Duke bench as well.

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“Duke was phenomenal,” Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman said. “Would be surprised if they’re not playing to win a national championship.”

Only with less than 30 seconds remaining did Krzyzewski let out a “YES!!!” before returning to business-as-usual before the game hit triple zeroes. 

The Blue Devils are still in this thing. This story won’t quit. The old man’s done it one last time, breaking his tie with John Wooden for Final Fours, now sitting at 13 ahead of Wooden’s 12. After doing it the hard away, Duke’s season and Krzyzewski’s career will end in in the Big Easy.

There was only one point in the second half where things got hairy. Arkansas managed to cut it to a 53-48 Duke lead with 13:13 to go. It was the only time the entire night where Krzyzewski waited a minute to address his team. Duke’s starting five — Wendell Moore Jr, Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams, Jeremy Roach and Keels — all sorted matters out amongst themselves before K pulled up a chair once more and got to directing on the whiteboard, marker in hand.

Coming out of that timeout, Banchero and Griffin made back-to-back plays to make bloat Duke’s lead to 57-48. Soon enough it was a 16-6 run, and Duke had a 69-54 lead.

“We were getting ready to get knocked out, and they the last 12 minutes they didn’t get knocked out,” Krzyzewski said. “They played beautiful basketball.”

It was effectively over. Yet with 3:58 on the clock, Krzyzewski was still treating the game like Arkansas needed one 3-pointer to take the lead again. 

The score was 72-57.

“Listen! LISTEN!!” he commanded to his team. “No let-ups!”

He’s coached his 75-year-old ass off the past two weeks in this tournament. The man has said over and over and over again that he’s ready to retire, but to see him run a huddle, it sure doesn’t look it. Almost every second of time given is methodical. 

Duke never did let up. Because of that, the program is going to its 17th Final Four. The Blue Devils got 46 points in the paint against Arkansas, continuing a trend that has defined Duke’s teamwork instincts. The Blue Devils have gotten by with 52% of their points through four games in the paint, according to ESPN research. It’s one of the most dominant near-the-rim teams in tournament play ever. They’ll get you from deep too, though. A mere 10 3-point attempts for the Blue Devils vs. Arkansas, but four of them feel true. Toss in seven steals and 12 points off Arkansas turnovers. A dash of deep-threat scoring combined with interior relentless, which has turned this team into the No. 1-rated points-per-possession offense in the sport.  

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“We knew we were capable of this, and that’s what we’ve worked for since June,” Banchero said. “So to finally be able to get to New Orleans and have a chance to play for a national championship is a blessing. I’m just proud of the way we came together.”

Krzyzewski wants to make this about the players, and we should. Here’s to them. This is theirs. So much of this season and the pressure around it has fallen on them. That was Krzyzewski’s doing, of course, but he’s said it was the only way he felt how to do it and be ethical with recruiting. He wanted one more year but didn’t want to privately know the end was coming. With that, a burden of sorts was placed on Duke’s players. They’ve handled it brilliantly, particularly after not winning the final home game vs. North Carolina, then getting run out of the ACC Tournament by a Virginia Tech team that rallied to win the ACC championship before going one-and-done in the Big Dance.

The four-in-a-row response to make it to the national semifinals amounts to one of the more impressive March showings a Krzyzewski team has ever put forth.

Williams must be singled out. He was outstanding again: 12 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, and tangibly the most valuable player for either team. 

“He is a hell of a defensive player,” Roach said. “Love having him on the court. Makes it so much easier for the guards to really try to pressure the ball. So they really don’t have to worry if a guy gets past you, you know big fellow is always back there to back you up. He is a huge part of this team. We wouldn’t be here without him.”

It’s exceptional how Duke has seen every starter elevate his game — even A.J. Griffin had a quiet team-high of 18 points against Arkansas. Yet again, Krzyzewski wasn’t having much in the postgame press conference about what this means for him. His passion and gratitude was for the players. Program win. Players win. He’s right. You can roll your eyes at Krzyzewski all you want about what’s come of this season and how announcing his retirement nine-plus months in advance inherently makes him the story, but on this Saturday night, the story is the resolve and incredible evolution of Duke’s team. 

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They have had a claim as the most talented one in the sport all season. Now that the talent is meeting potential, Duke has become the top team and favorite to win the entire thing. 

“They did it for us, and enough about doing it for the old man here,” Krzyzewski said. “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.”

This is not the same team, not by many measures, that was filleted by North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium 21 nights prior.

“But you really find out about character in those situations,” Krzyzewski 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.”

Krzyzewski is heading to his 13th Final Four in a fifth decade: three in the ’80s, five in the ’90s, two in the 2000s, two in the 2010s, and now this one to wrap an unparalleled career. 

A North Carolina win Sunday would put the greatest rivalry in sports on the biggest stage in college basketball. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have played 257 times in their history, but never in the NCAA Tournament. Something phenomenal awaits in Louisiana: either Duke will face its blood rival in a revenge game, with Krzyzewski’s retirement on the line after UNC embarrassed Duke at home in K’s last home game ever or … 

Well …

Saint Peter’s. Duke vs. Saint Peter’s. It would be the greatest symbolic representation of David vs. Goliath in sports history. That’s the other outcome. Either one is incredible. This Duke run has been incredible. The mere fact that it’s going to play North Carolina or the first No. 15 seed in a Final Four is so outrageous it borders on fiction. We’ll learn what our reality is soon enough. Duke’s reality moves toward New Orleans all the same. Mecca awaits. These players are two wins away from achieving what would be one of the grandest championship-run stories in American sports history. 

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