At 63, Coack K is better than ever

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Long before he got the chance to play in a national championship game, before he was even old enough to play competitive basketball, Lance Thomas played for Mike Krzyzewski.

"My cousin and I used to play Coach K Basketball all day," Duke's senior forward said of his coach's short-lived Sega Genesis video game from 1995. "I had no idea then I'd come here to play for that guy right now."

Such is the extent of Coach K's longevity -- and ubiquity -- that his pixilated image was beaming onto televisions when his current players were still in elementary school. And that was after Krzyzewski had already racked up his first two national championships and six Final four appearances.

On Monday night against Butler, the Blue Devils' leader of 30 years will attempt to win his fourth national title, a milestone that would move him ahead of mentor Bob Knight and tie him with Adolph Rupp for second-most all-time, trailing only John Wooden's unreachable 10.

"He's the best of the best," said Butler coach Brad Stevens, who, at 33, is the same age Krzyzewski was when he took over at Duke in 1980. "Ever since I've been watching basketball, Coach Krzyzewski and Duke have been one of the preeminent programs in the country. They've set a standard for everyone else over the last 25-plus years."

Krzyzewski deflects all questions about his own personal milestones, insisting he's solely focused on his players' achievements. The truth is, a victory Monday night won't drastically impact his legacy because it's already a no-brainer Hall of Famer. But while he'd never admit it publicly, winning this trophy with this team -- one most outsiders had long-since discounted -- would be his greatest coaching feat since dethroning UNLV en route to his first crown 19 years ago.

Krzyzewski was 39 when he reached his first national-title game in 1986. Since then he's been through countless changes to the sport's landscape (the three-point line wasn't even instituted until '87) and ever-changing casts of players without ever ceding his perch as the most revered figure in his profession.

"People say he's the same as he's ever been, but that's not true -- he's better," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former Krzyzewski player and assistant. "He's better in every aspect of his coaching. He adapts to the way the game is now."

Many would have disputed that prior to this current tourney run. His program had gone a distressing (by Duke standards) five seasons since reaching its last Final Four in 2004, its talent level a step down, by Krzyzewski's own admission, from his great teams of the past.

But over the past couple of years, the 63-year-old has made some subtle changes, many of which can be attributed to his experience coaching USA Basketball's roster of NBA All-Stars to a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics. His players didn't notice it as much at the time as they do now.

"Winning the gold medal was good for him, but you can tell he wants to taste another [college] championship," forward Kyle Singler said. "Just being around the NBA players has helped him learn and grow. It raised his level of competitiveness."

"I do some things differently," Krzyzewski said. "I think I do them better right now than I've ever done them in my life because of the experience that I've had. My passion has not waned, but my experience has grown. So I think that's a good combination."

If you watch closely enough, says Bilas, you can see the Xs and Os impact of his Olympics experience.

"They've put in some different zone looks, and some of that has been from spending so much time around [Olympic team assistant] Jim Boeheim," he said. "They do a much better job of isolating the weakest defender on an opponent, which is more of an NBA thing."

Whatever the schemes, Krzyzewski has spent much of the past several years working within the limitations of his existing personnel.

While his current cast of players arrived with much of the same acclaim as their predecessors -- starters Singler, Thomas, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer were McDonald's All-Americans -- none will send NBA general managers scurrying for their checkbooks like Grant Hill or Shane Battier did once upon a time. While Duke still does well in recruiting, several elite-level prospects (Georgetown center Greg Monroe, Kentucky point guard John Wall, incoming North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes) have spurned the Blue Devils in recent years.

Plagued with a young roster in 2007 and '08, Krzyzewski's teams failed to make it out of the tournament's first weekend for the first time in more than a decade, and the slow development of Thomas and fellow senior Brian Zoubek left a gaping hole up front.

If Duke wins this title, it will have done so the old-fashioned way: through three and four years of player development. While Krzyzewski isn't actively shooing away one-and-done types, he's quite obviously derived satisfaction from watching his current team grow.

"I think the Olympics helped me a lot, getting away from Duke and learning," Krzyzewski said. "While I was doing it, I was saying I have a group now -- there isn't Jason Williams here, they're not [Christian] Laettner or Grant Hill. This will be cool. Like your younger days, we get in and get to know them even more, be more in the moment with them."

Krzyzewski has talked repeatedly this week about "enjoying the moment" and experiencing this run through the eyes of his players. At times, he speaks like a grandfather just along for the ride on a trip to Disneyland.

"I get great satisfaction, but I get it a different way [than in the past]," he said. "I really try to get it through my guys, to see how happy they are ... I'm very proud of them. That's a good place to be at this time in my life, you know -- an old guy hanging with some 22-year-old guys who are pretty good guys."

Don't be fooled. Once the ball is tipped Monday night, Coach K will be riding those 22-year-olds (not to mention the officials) just as emphatically and passionately as he did Laettner and Bobby Hurley. He may say he doesn't care about numbers and milestones ("You just feel lucky that you're one of that gang," he said of Rupp, Wooden and Knight), but he cares about players achieving their potential.

He's worked as hard, if not harder, to get this particular group to that point than he has any in his career.

"I want to win [the title] for him so bad," Thomas said. "He's been great for us all year, he's given us that confidence. We owe it to him."

Krzyzewski presumably views it the other way.