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With Final Four in Hand, Coach K and Duke Have a Truly Epic Ending Within Reach

Three weeks ago, his farewell tour seemed to overwhelm the young Blue Devils. Four NCAA tournament victories later, they may be the team to beat.

SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Krzyzewski showed some agility for a septuagenarian with a slight limp, dodging workers bringing the podium onto the court for assembly and making a backdoor cut behind Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips. He was headed to the Duke cheering section to embrace his wife, Mickie, and the generations of family members who were with her. Retirement was pushed back again; another Final Four needed to be celebrated.

The looks on the faces of the Krzyzewski family Saturday night—and the faces of the Duke players—were diametrically different from exactly three weeks ago. Stricken then, beaming now. Coach K’s grandiose send-off from Cameron Indoor Stadium had flopped on March 5, ending with an upset at the hands of North Carolina that left him apologizing to the crowd and declaring the performance “unacceptable.” At that moment, his team buckling beneath the weight of trying to make a legend’s final act a success, it was hard to envision these Blue Devils transforming into the likely Final Four favorite.

Four NCAA tournament victories later, here we are. Duke is fresh and formidable, rolling toward a national semifinal that will either be the ultimate rivalry game (vs. North Carolina) or the ultimate David–Goliath matchup (vs. Saint Peter’s). It’s one last juicy stop in a Farewell Tour extending all the way to a final Final Four.

Coach K and his Duke team celebrate winning the West Region

The Blue Devils pose with the West Region trophy.

“I’m a grandfather, I’ve lived through my daughters and then my granddaughters, and now through these guys,” K said, gesturing to his team after Duke’s authoritative, 78–69 victory over Arkansas. A couple moments later Krzyzewski excused himself from an oncourt media scrum, saying, “I’m going to go cut down the net.”

He knew the drill. This was the 13th time he’d climbed a ladder and snipped a regional championship net, surpassing John Wooden for the most men’s Final Fours in history. The first time Krzyzewski did it, in 1986, he was 39. The 36-year span between first and last Final Fours ties DePaul’s Ray Meyer (first 1943, last 1979) for the longest in history.

When the West Region net had been snipped, Krzyzewski turned and handed it to someone before descending the ladder under the basket. The last thing anyone needed was a mishap now, so K used both hands to steady himself. At age 75, with a chance to become the oldest national championship coach by a whopping seven years, this was no time to take chances.

The frailty that accompanies aging can soften hard stances in the sporting world. Tiger Woods was loved by plenty but also disliked by plenty—yet when he unexpectedly won the Masters at age 43, there was an accompanying surge of respect and affection. This feels similar for Krzyzewski, whose career arc has included a couple of decades as a popular villain.

The roars in the Chase Center Saturday night drowned out the haters by a large margin. They still exist—online, especially—but this next week could be a Louisiana love-in.

At this point, the daunting task facing this team is largely fulfilled but tantalizingly incomplete. The young Blue Devils, with nobody older than 20 playing more than five minutes against the Razorbacks, have done enough to send out their legendary leader on a high note. If reaching the Sweet 16 is a benchmark of tournament success, reaching the Final Four is “the Promised Land,” as Krzyzewski put it Saturday. That’s when good seasons become great seasons.

This team has done what coaches always strive for. It has reached its potential.

“That’s either the biggest good feeling you could have or the biggest bad feeling you have,” Krzyzewski said Friday. “If our season ended after Virginia Tech [a loss in the ACC tournament championship game], even though we won the league … it would have been a downer. So we’re very fortunate to have this, and for these guys to do so well in their end-of-game situations. I don’t remember records as much as how we ended, and so I hope this doesn’t end tomorrow.”

Not only did it not end, there wasn’t even much stress involved in extending the season to the final weekend. After white-knuckling through consecutive thrillers against Michigan State and Texas Tech to reach the regional final, the last one was a stroll. Duke seized command late in the first half, and other than a brief flurry from the Razorbacks near the middle of the second half, this game was firmly in control most of the way.

So, yeah, Final Four mission accomplished. This was how Krzyzewski described it Friday: “I call it crossing the bridge, and very few people cross that bridge. I've been able to cross it with my teams 12 times, and to cross with this team would be an amazing thing for me. I know what's on the other side of the bridge. They don't. They can only look at it. So it makes me want it more for them.”

Saturday night he issued an update: “They crossed the bridge, man.”

But there is still territory to conquer on the other side of the bridge. This Duke team has fulfilled its potential, but hasn’t yet achieved all its goals. And in what has been an entertainingly ruinous tournament, the Blue Devils can absolutely win it all.

No. 1 seeds Gonzaga, Arizona and Baylor have been dismissed. Fellow No. 2 seed Villanova is limping to New Orleans, after what looked like a major injury to Justin Moore in the final minute of the South Region championship—a disastrous development for a thin team. Kansas could stake a claim to being the Final Four favorite, but first the Jayhawks have to beat Miami. The way Duke played in smoking the Hogs, it could well be the team to beat.

Duke’s Paolo Banchero cuts down the West regional final net

Freshman star Paolo Banchero had 16 points against Arkansas.

The Devils have done enough to make Krzyzewski’s final season a success. But they have a realistic opportunity to do more—with a final chapter that could be epic.

Although it has proven fatal to overlook No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s, the matchup looming larger than life would be Duke–North Carolina. The two mega-rivals have played each other 257 times, but they’ve never met in the NCAA tournament. If the first matchup is a Final Four game—with K’s career in the balance and revenge in the air for that shocker in Cameron—Tobacco Road may spontaneously combust this week.

When a reporter tried to ask the Duke players their thoughts about another potential shot at the Tar Heels, Krzyzewski intercepted the question. Sensing a potential rhetorical land mine, he erected a barricade that kept his team from stepping on it. (Intercepting potentially tricky questions is nothing new for Coach K. Ironically, it may well be something he learned from old rival Dean Smith at North Carolina. Smith was well-versed in controlling the direction of a press conference.)

“You know what, it's going to be an honor for us to go against whoever is the regional champion of that region,” Krzyzewski said. “There's no greater day in college basketball than when those four regional champions, four champions, get under one in one arena and play. It's the greatest day for college basketball, and we're honored to be a part of it.”

No bulletin board material for you, Carolina and Saint Peter’s.

Two legendary coaches have memorably gone out on top in this sport, in different fashions: UCLA’s Wooden in 1975 at the age of 64, and Marquette’s Al McGuire in ’77 at the age of 48. Wooden dropped his bombshell news during that Final Four in San Diego, announcing after winning the semifinal game against Louisville that the championship contest against Kentucky would be his last. McGuire made his announcement in mid-December, just four games into that season.

Both put pressure on their players to pull off the perfect ending. Krzyzewski did it even earlier, calling his shot last June and citing a desire to be ethical in recruiting—he didn’t want anyone to commit to play for him and then pull the rug out by retiring. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they had the talent to send off their coach properly.

Even after it appeared to be going off the rails just three weeks ago.

Former Duke hero Grant Hill, who was in the arena here as a CBS TV analyst, also was among the nearly 100 former Krzyzewski players present for the letdown in Cameron. After this win he termed the loss to the Tar Heels “an embarrassment,” and said the Blue Devils appeared to be worn down by the weight of the occasion. Ultimately, though, it was a defining moment—regroup or wither.

“It was one of those things you either don’t recover from, or it gives you that grit and resolve,” Hill said. “It’s done the latter, for sure.”

And now, with plenty of talent and a fresh infusion of positive energy, Duke surges to New Orleans in search of the perfect ending for Mike Krzyzewski. As he headed for Chase Center exit, Hill delivered an appropriate walk-off line:

“It smells like destiny.”

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