SAN FRANCISCO — Spanning several generations, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has molded four-year stalwarts and one-and-done hot shots into championship teams, instilled some teams with a floor-slapping toughness and others with a freewheeling offense, and at times has seemed to be able to bend a referee’s whistle to his will.
Krzyzewski’s neatest trick, though, may be taking his final team—and his greenest—to another Final Four.
The Blue Devils, seeded second in the West region, kept alive their hopes of sending Krzyzewski into a retirement with a sixth national championship by turning back fourth-seeded Arkansas, 78-69, in the round of 8 on Saturday night.
As befitting a talented young team that is hitting its stride at the most opportune time, freshmen Paolo Banchero, who scored 16 points, and Adrian Griffin, who had 18, spurred Duke. They were complemented by the defensive anchor, center Mark Williams, a sophomore, who added 12 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
The victory sends Duke to a Final Four for the 13th time under Krzyzewski — and the first since the Blue Devils won the title in 2015. Duke (32-6) will play either its fiercest rival, North Carolina, or the miracle makers from tiny St. Peter’s next Saturday in New Orleans.
As Duke dribbled out the final seconds, guard Wendell Moore wrapped an arm around his coach’s shoulder, and when the buzzer sounded the Blue Devils danced off the bench.
The players dumped a bucket of confetti on their coach and he climbed a ladder to snip the last strand of the net under one of the baskets.
Krzyzewski, 75, tells his players that reaching the Final Four is like crossing a bridge, and on the other side is an entree into an exclusive brotherhood with the Blue Devils’ best teams, though he refused to compare this team to others. “Just like I don’t miss my daughters or my grandchildren,” he said.
He also intercepted a couple of questions directed as his players — one wondering whether they might secretly be rooting for North Carolina to get another shot at the Tar Heels, and another to Banchero, who had said earlier this week that the players wanted to send Krzyzewski off with a title.
“Enough about doing it for the old man,” Krzyzewski said.
While Duke had earned a high seed and had a roster again dotted with blue-chip prospects, this trip to the Final Four was hard to see coming when the tournament pairings were announced two weeks ago.
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Krzyzewski, who called the Blue Devils’ performance “unacceptable” in a home loss to North Carolina in the regular-season finale, realized he had some work to do to repair the psyche of an exceptionally young team — the top six rotation players are 20 , 20, 19, 18 and 18.
“I had a good meeting with myself,” Krzyzewski said on the eve of the game, emphasizing the leadership importance of being his own chief critic. “I said that I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to help in some way, and part of it was my approach with them.”
He added: “If you don’t put truth on the table and take responsibility, they you won’t make the best out of the situation that you are in.”
A team that looked fragile, even in advancing to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final, has gradually gained its footing in the NCAA tournament. It began with a comfortable win over Cal State Fullerton, and continued with late comebacks against Michigan State and Texas Tech, fueled by impeccable shot making. (The Blue Devils made their final five shots against Michigan State and their final eight against Texas Tech, the nation’s top defensive team.)
Over the last two weeks, Krzyzewski—who was shaped as an Army point guard by the unyielding Bob Knight—has given the air of a coach in tune with his team. He put point guard Jeremy Roach into the starting lineup for the first time in a month to begin the tournament and he has been superb. Krzyzewski turned to a zone — which once would have been unthinkable — in the second half against Texas Tech, and then let his young players convince him to switch back to man-to-man in the final minute.
He even got down on a knee and slapped the floor late against Texas Tech — and his players followed suit, sending Duke fans here into a frenzy.
On Saturday night, with Roach being harassed by the Hogs defense, Krzyzewski turned early to Trevor Keels, who had been replaced by Roach in the starting lineup and played a season-low 14 minutes against Texas Tech. Keels, a freshman with a sturdy build, steadied Duke’s offense and delivered a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to push the lead to 45-33.
When the Razorbacks surged in the second half, narrowing the gap to 53-48, Krzyzewski called timeout to calm his team. “We were getting ready to get knocked out,” he said.
Krzyzewski made sure the offense ran through his best player, Banchero, and signaled “1-2” from the sideline, instructing his defense to switch to zone. Banchero, who would be named the regional’s most outstanding player, scored in the post, passed to AJ Griffin who drove for another basket and made two free throws and in a flash Duke had a working margin at 59-48. The Blue Devils also scored on their next two possessions.
Arkansas never threatened the rest of the way.
A year ago, Krzyzewski had left the impression that he had lost his iron grip on the program that he had become synonymous with: an NBA prospect quit at midseason, he snapped at a reporter from the school newspaper, and his team missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a quarter century.
No men’s coach has retired after winning a national championship since 1977 when Al McGuire, who was 48, retired after Marquette won the title. Two years earlier, John Wooden told his team after a semifinal victory over Louisville that he would retire following the title game, which the Bruins won against Kentucky.
Krzyzewski, 75, gave himself a much longer runway. He took the rare step last June of announcing his retirement effective at the end of this season. He said he did not want to go out the way he did last season, when Duke was 13-11 and saw his chances of making the NCAA tournament vanish when he had to drop out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament because of a coronavirus outbreak within the team.
The decision to announce it — and assistant Jon Scheyer as his replacement — was to avoid misleading recruits who might have asked how long he intended to coach, he said. Still, the whole season has been something of a last waltz tour.
“It wears on you a little bit because everywhere you walk, everyone is taking a picture of you, they’re watching everything,” Krzyzewski said earlier this week. “Look, that gets old.”
He added: “But I feel for my guys. They’ve had pressure on them that we’re not putting on them. I tell them all the time, we’re playing for us — for you — but then it just works out. No one — it’s not a sinister plan against us or anything, but it just happens that way.”
Duke won the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 2010, but lost Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, against North Carolina — which soured the postgame celebration that included 96 former players — and were trounced again in the ACC conference tournament championship game by Virginia Tech.
“All season we’ve been dealing with it,” Banchero said earlier this week. “It’s coach’s last something every game.”
The two late-season losses wiped away any opportunity that Duke would be a top seed—or the chance that the Blue Devils would head to Krzyzewski’s hometown Chicago for the round of 16, as he had requested if they were a No. 1 seed.
Instead, Duke was slotted into the West region, which has been a graveyard for Krzyzewski’s teams.
The Blue Devils had been placed in the West six previous times without reaching a regional final — even in 2011, when as a No. 1 seed they were tripped up by Arizona in the round of 16.
This trip, though, has been a stroll down memory lane.
Krzyzewski spent four six-week stints in the early 1970s living at the barracks at the Presidio, the former Army post that sits in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, when he was playing for the All-Army team that competed in an international military competition.
His team practiced this week at the University of San Francisco, on the same court where he had practiced regularly 50 years ago. His players surprised him by knowing the answer to a pop quiz: who was the best player on the Dons’ back-to-back national championship teams in 1955 and ’56. (Answer: Bill Russell.)
“I was ready to dig in on them, but they knew it,” Krzyzewski said.
And when it came time to take the court, the Blue Devils had all the answers, too.