SAN FRANCISCO — Before his players could answer a question that everyone in the room wanted to ask, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski intervened.
“Let’s not talk about me,” he said after the Blue Devils’ 78-69 win over Arkansas in the Elite Eight on Saturday at Chase Center. “Talk about them. They’ve won a regular-season championship and they’ve won the [west] regional championship. They did that. They did it for us. And enough about doing it for the old man here.”
Krzyzewski, who secured his record 13th trip to the Final Four in the final season of his career, seemed to know it was a futile attempt to minimize the narrative that will reign over everything that unfolds in New Orleans. In his 47th and final season as a head coach, Krzyzewski will head to the Final Four with a chance to retire as a champion.
Sure, he already has five national titles and is widely viewed as the greatest coach in the history of the game. But the dreamy finish Duke fans imagined when he announced last year that this season would be his last is now just two victories from reality.
“Everybody knows it’s his last season,” Paolo Banchero told ESPN after the game. “We want to send him out on top.”
The Hollywood ending feels real now because this Duke team continues to grow. Before Duke beat Texas Tech and Arkansas in San Francisco, it was trendier to talk about what the Blue Devils were missing over what they had.
Their youth and late-season slips — as seen in losses to North Carolina in the regular-season finale and to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament title game — offered enough evidence for the doubters to question their staying power on a stage that has ousted more freshman stars than it was rewarded.
Over the past two games, however, Duke has grown and showcased the potency many had anticipated when Krzyzewski signed Banchero (16 points on Saturday), Trevor Keels (nine points), and AJ Griffin (18 points) and paired them with returnees Jeremy Roach (nine points), Mark Williams (12 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks), Wendell Moore Jr. (14 points) and Marquette transfer Theo John.
Toward the end of the first half on Saturday, Duke demonstrated the matchup problems that any team it sees in New Orleans must decipher.
Banchero hits a 3-pointer to extend Duke’s lead to seven points with 1:26 left. He’s a 6-foot-10 athlete who can’t be left alone on the perimeter. Williams, a 7-footer, gracefully soared to the rim and scored, too. And Keels hit a deep 3-pointer that gave the Blue Devils a 12-point lead at the half, making Arkansas jog back to the locker room with the look of a team that had been worn down and perplexed by a unit with five players who are projected to get picked in the first round of this summer’s NBA draft.
Banchero was one of six Duke players who finished Saturday’s game with at least nine points. The Blue Devils made 40 percent of their 3-point attempts and eliminated the team that had eliminated Gonzaga, the top seed in the NCAA tournament, on Thursday.
“It has just been a great year with the team, and as a team we’ve had highs and lows, and we’ve just stuck together through it all,” Banchero told reporters on Saturday. “We knew we were capable of this, and that’s what we’ve worked for since June. 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.”
The questions in the second half of Saturday’s game mostly centered on Duke’s potential margin of victory. The Blue Devils’ lead was never threatened. Even when Arkansas cut the deficit to five midway through the second half, it was short-lived.
This is not an NCAA tournament that has obeyed logic. Saint Peter’s run has been magical. North Carolina, Saint Peter’s opponent on Sunday in the Elite Eight, lost to Kentucky by 29 points in December. Villanova didn’t win the Big East. Miami was picked to finish 12th in the ACC in the league’s preseason poll. Yes, Kansas is still alive, but the three other No. 1 seeds — Baylor, Arizona and Gonzaga — are all gone.
Duke’s run has been one of the few things that has made sense in this NCAA tournament. The most talented team in the field continues to win. And it has reached its peak at the right time.
Krzyzewski, who made his first Final Four in 1986, became the first head coach in Division I history, men’s or women’s, to reach a Final Four in five different decades, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The 36 years between Krzyzewski’s first and last Final Four appearances are the most by any head coach since 1950.
He also is the 10th coach to advance to the Final Four in his final season as a Division I head coach and first since UNC’s Bill Guthridge in 2000.
And now, the Blue Devils will go to New Orleans with a chance to send Krzyzewski into retirement with a sixth national championship. It would be a Hollywood ending for the legendary coach’s career. But it also would be more than that.
Krzyzewski’s longevity alone is not his most impressive trait. The key to his success has been his ability to adapt through different eras. He won two national championships in the physical 1990s. He won a title in 2001 by playing through guard Jay Williams and versatile star Shane Battier. He won a national championship in 2010 with a group of sharpshooters, including Jon Scheyer, who’ll be his successor. And he earned another ring in 2015 with Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, proof that he wouldn’t take a step back in the one-and-done era.
If Krzyzewski wins a sixth national title with this group, however, it would mean a 31-year gap between his first title in 1991 and his last title. John Wooden won 10 rings in 12 seasons. But no coach in the history of college basketball and perhaps any sport has ever experienced that level of success across three decades.
With Saturday’s win, Krzyzewski broke the tie he had with Wooden for most Final Four appearances.
“It’s an honor. Coach Wooden, if he kept coaching, would probably have 24,” Krzyzewski said. “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. That’s what you put banners up for.”
When the Blue Devils lost to North Carolina in its regular-season finale, the possibility of Duke cutting down the nets in Krzyzewski’s final year seemed too good to be true. After Saturday’s win over Arkansas, however, it’s possible that the Blue Devils might be too good to lose again.
On Saturday, however, Krzyzewski did not want to talk specifics of his team’s next game, which will either be the first North Carolina-Duke matchup in NCAA tournament history or a ratings-shattering matchup between Duke and Saint Peter’s in a true David vs. Goliath case.
“You know what, it’s going to be an honor for us to go against whoever is the regional champion of that region, and there is no greater day in college basketball than when those four regional champions, four champions, get under one in one arena and play,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s the greatest day for college basketball, and we’re honored to be a part of it.”