Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski shows he can still lead

SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Krzyzewski has been on the planet for three-quarters of a century and has proven he can still connect with a wide circle of kids. The world’s most famous prospective retiree is heading into his 13th Final Four because he still knows how to communicate with, adapt to, and inspire teenagers.

He still knows how to win with them at the highest level of his sport.

So there he was at the Chase Center Saturday night, pumping his fist and waving to the Duke fans to make him more noise in the closing seconds as his Blue Devils defeated Arkansas 78-69 in the West Region, his 101st NCAA tournament win in his career.

John Wooden’s record of 10 national titles at UCLA will never be broken, so Krzyzewski only got halfway in his 42nd and final season at Duke, and he did the next best thing.

He broke his own tie with Wooden for Final Four appearances, though the Wizard spent his career needing to win two games to advance to the national semifinals before Coach K spent his career winning four games to get there .

“It’s an honour,” said Krzyzewski. “Coach Wooden, if he continued to coach, he’d probably be 24. [The regional final] is the greatest game a college coach has to coach because it takes you to the promised land. The fact that I have this 17 times now is a great thing for me. I’m very proud of that. My teams put me in that position and we’ve won 13 of those now and what happens after that happens now. It’s a Heckuva thing.”

Damn right it is.

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski
Getty Images

When asked if he could compare this team to his past greats, Coach K said, “I don’t judge my daughters or my grandchildren. I won’t do that. Obviously this is one of 13 that went to a Final Four, so they’re up front.”

Krzyzewski’s team meets the team that wins the East Region Finals on Sunday: St. Peter or North Carolina. Both offer surreal matchup opportunities in New Orleans for completely different reasons.

But that wasn’t a problem during Saturday night’s on-court ceremony, when Duke fans chanted “We want six” for Coach K’s sixth national crown as the Blue Devils were presented with the regional trophy. The players threw buckets of blue and white confetti at Krzyzewski, who happily wiped it from his hair and eyes.

When it came time for Coach K to cut the final strand of netting, he carefully climbed the ladder, took the ceremonial final cut, and waved his hands and the netting to all corners of the crowd. He descended a little less cautiously and left the seat, holding the hand of his 53-year-old wife, Mickey, whom he married on his senior day at West Point.

Archbishop Stepinac’s White Plains freshman AJ Griffin gave Krzyzewski 18 points and classmate Paolo Banchero, the West Region’s most outstanding player, gave him 16.

“They did it for us,” said Coach K. “Enough with doing it for the old man here.”

Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke players receive the regional trophy after beating Arkansas in the Elite Eight.
Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke players receive the regional trophy after beating Arkansas in the Elite Eight.
Getty Images

So much for the detriments of Krzyzewski’s winning streak crushing those Blue Devils, who went 45-33 at halftime after Trevor Keels nailed a 3-pointer just before the horn. After Arkansas cut the lead to five with more than 13 minutes left, Coach K called a timeout and drove a game for Banchero, whose driving layup fueled a 10-0 run that effectively sealed the deal.

“When we came into the tournament, we wanted to let go of all that,” Banchero had said. “I think we sort of pushed past the cloud that it’s just his last year and it’s all so much pressure.”

In his 47th season as head coach, Krzyzewski pushed all the right human buttons to get his team playing at the highest level at the perfect time. After switching from his prized man-to-man defense to a zone against Texas Tech on Thursday night, he empowered his players by later following their pleas to switch back to man. When Krzyzewski asked his Duke defenders to hit the ground as a nod to program tradition, they did so with great enthusiasm.

As it turns out, Coach K had to reconnect with his team after suffering a loss to North Carolina in his farewell game against Cameron. First, he said he had “a good meeting with myself” during the ACC tournament before losing to Virginia Tech. For the first time ever, Krzyzewski decided to pull out a chair and talk quietly to his players for five minutes at halftime against Michigan State and Texas Tech.

The players responded to the old man and brought what Coach K described as “very deep adversity” into this spirited postseason run. “Let’s go to New Orleans,” Krzyzewski said at the end of one of the loveliest nights of his professional life.

Krzyzewski loves this group of players, and clearly this group loves him back.

“He’s probably the best person I’ve ever met in terms of connecting and making you really want to win with him and for him,” Banchero said. “He’s a great motivator, a great coach and just a great person overall.”

And that’s a great endorsement for a 75-year-old teacher to receive from a 19-year-old student on this incredible journey back to the Final Four. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski shows he can still lead


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