It’ll be Duke vs. UNC for a fourth time — and for all the marbles
There are great teams across America, but there isn’t another collection of players like Duke’s.
Jayson Tatum is playing the best basketball of any freshman in America. Veterans Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen can score on anyone, anywhere, anytime. Seniors Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones — ruthless defenders — are the backbone of the team. Freshman guard Frank Jackson hits one big shot after another. And don’t forget big man Harry Giles, who arrived in Durham, N.C., widely regarded as the best freshman in the land.
The key for this team has always been finding that next gear, a process that might’ve gone more smoothly if not for Giles’ need to heal from an ACL tear and less serious injuries to Jefferson and others. Allen’s tripping incidents and tantrums didn’t help. Nor did the in-season back surgery that knocked incomparable coach Mike Krzyzewski out of action for weeks in January and February.
But guess what: The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament came. Duke became the first ACC team to win four straight nights. Down went regular-season champ and rival North Carolina in the semis. Down went terrific Notre Dame in the final.
Duke found the next gear, and then another. As ever in Coach K’s program, it was a matter of him pulling back and letting his marvelously talented players come together in magical harmony. There were no plays called from the bench in the critical moments of the ACC tourney — just “motion,” which is code for a symphony of offensive basketball.
“It meant that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Krzyzewski said.
Not at all — he knew exactly what he was doing. With ball-handlers everywhere, shooters to burn and fierce camaraderie in place, the Blue Devils were ready to seek their peak.
“We haven’t paid any attention to standings or seeds or rankings,” the old coach said. “We just haven’t talked at all about that because so much has happened. We just said, ‘Let’s talk about us and let’s get better.’ It has worked.”
Love or hate Duke, who wouldn’t find a Duke-Villanova East Region final at Madison Square Garden utterly gripping? So let it happen. Down goes the defending national champion.
And try this on for size: meeting North Carolina — for the first time in the history of the rivalry — for all the marbles in the Arizona desert. Can you imagine it?
The Tar Heels lose in the title game for the second year in a row. Cue more Roy Williams tears.
I see title No. 6 — maybe his last — for 70-year-old Krzyzewski, the greatest coach since John Wooden.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.