Duke’s (and Chicago’s) Mike Krzyzewski is putting the ‘final’ in Final Four
He isn’t loved by everyone outside of the Duke bubble, but his absence from the college game will leave a void. And what an epic way to end a career.
Forty years ago, at what then was called the Louisiana Superdome, North Carolina freshman Michael (or was it Mike?) Jordan made a last-minute jumper for a 63-62 lead against Georgetown. Hoyas freshman Patrick (or was it Pat?) Ewing only could look on in horror at what happened next: Teammate Fred Brown passed the ball to James Worthy, a monumental mistake in light of the fact Worthy played for the Tar Heels. What a way for an epic national championship game to end.
Is it even worth mentioning that DePaul was a No. 1 seed in that same NCAA Tournament? Probably not. Either way, the Blue Demons were back in Lincoln Park, having perfected the art of crushing fans’ spirits with a third consecutive loss in the first round.
Also watching from home was 35-year-old Mike Krzyzewski, who’d just wrapped up a not-so-sparkling season — his second — at Duke, going 10-17.
‘‘There is no doubt in my mind that Mike is the brightest young coaching talent in America,’’ then-athletic director Tom Butters had said upon introducing Krzyzewski (whose name he mispronounced with a hard ‘‘K’’) to the media.
But Krzyzewski got off to a rotten start, at least in the win-loss department. And is there any other department? Season 3 would be another clunker: 11-17.
‘‘I hope that the confidence that these people have in me,’’ Krzyzewski said then, ‘‘that you’ll see results from it.’’
Results? Krzyzewski, who went from Ukrainian Village kid to winningest college basketball coach ever and will retire after coaching Duke in one last Final Four — his 13th — at 75, has had a few. Five national championships is pretty good. One assumes 101 NCAA Tournament victories would keep just about any fan base happy.
He isn’t loved by everyone outside of the Duke bubble — the Blue Devils certainly aren’t, either — but his absence from the college game will leave a void, no matter how well carefully groomed successor Jon Scheyer fares.
And what an epic way for a career to end: in the Final Four, at what now is called the Caesars Superdome, with a matchup Saturday that couldn’t be more perfect. After Kansas and Villanova do their business in the first semifinal, Duke will lock horns one more time — the 98th of the Krzyzewski era — with archrival North Carolina.
Despite each school’s mountain of postseason successes — UNC likewise has five national titles during the Krzyzewski years — it’s the first time the Blue Devils and Tar Heels will play in a Final Four. For one coach, Hubert Davis (career wins: 28), it’s an early chance to author his own indelible entry in rivalry lore. For the other (career wins: 1,202), it’s well beyond that: an end that’s happy and sad, long and sudden, expected and incomprehensible all at once.
‘‘Any emotion that I’ve shown, it has not been because it’s my last season,’’ Krzyzewski said. ‘‘It has been because of something that [I’ve] interacted with a player or the team about. If you’re being emotional [because] it’s your last season, you’re really a selfish person. Although there are people out there that think I am, in this respect, I am not. I have always thought that shared emotion is the best. And to be able to share that emotion and accomplishment with these guys has been really good.’’
There are as many other good storylines in this Final Four as one could hope to find. An especially fun one is that four players — Villanova’s Brandon Slater, UNC’s Anthony Harris and Duke’s Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels — were state champions together in Chantilly, Virginia, and remain great pals. Duke’s AJ Griffin and UNC’s R.J. Davis won a state title together in New York.
Those skeptical of the one-and-done approach will watch with interest as Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Griffin and Keels try to put fab freshmen back on the championship map. And anyone with a heart will feel for terrific Villanova junior Justin Moore, who must sit and watch after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in the Elite Eight.
We have a Bill Self-Jay Wright semifinal clash that, under normal circumstances, would be a main focus of attention. Villanova’s Wright is 60, Kansas’ Self will get there this year and between them they have eight Final Fours and three titles.
And Davis, 51, might be just a rookie, but he was smart enough to hang pictures of the Superdome in his players’ lockers on the very first day of preseason practice. He was a Knicks rookie when his alma mater won it all in New Orleans in 1993.
‘‘I remember feeling two powerful emotions,’’ Davis said. ‘‘Joy and happiness because they won but also sadness because I wanted to be there. I had always wanted to cut down the nets and be a national champion at North Carolina.’’
Where does the time go? It has been 28 years since Hue Hollins blew his whistle and called a phantom foul on Scottie Pippen in the playoffs, sending Davis to the line for two free throws that won the Knicks a playoff game and put the Michael Jordan-less Bulls in peril. Some of you are saying, ‘‘Oh, yeah, I remember Davis now.’’
And Krzyzewski? There’s a decent chance we’ll remember him, too.