On Saturday night in San Francisco, Duke gave Mike Krzyzewski the retirement gift he craved most: a record-setting 13th Final Four appearance.
Krzyzewski hugged his players and beamed with delight after his Blue Devils finished with a 78-69 Elite Eight victory over Arkansas to extend their farewell tour for another week.
Exhibiting superior individual talent and a maturity that belied his youth, Duke outplayed Arkansas’ formidable defense and left no question as to who was the better team. The Blue Devils opened up a 12-point halftime lead and responded with another hay after Arkansas cut the deficit to five early in the second half.
“I feel great with my guys,” Krzyzewski said. “In this NCAA tournament, my team is playing very well in pressure situations. They were a close team before the NCAA, but these past four games they’ve been fantastic.”
In beating the fourth-seeded Razorbacks, Krzyzewski surpassed John Wooden as the college coach with the most Final Four appearances. UCLA’s Wizard of Westwood went to the national semifinals 12 times from 1962 to 1975.
Waiting for Duke in New Orleans will be the darlings of the NCAA tournament or the historic rival of the Blue Devils. North Carolina just needs to beat 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s on Sunday to set up the first NCAA tournament matchup between the Tobacco Road foes.
Just four times before this season, Duke and North Carolina made it to the Elite Eight in the same year. Only in 1991 did they both reach the Final Four.
North Carolina’s Armando Bacot said Saturday afternoon that he is “trying to get tunnel vision” in San Pedro, but the possibility of facing Duke is hard to ignore.
“I’d be lying to you if I said that hadn’t crossed my mind,” Bacot said.
If North Carolina is Duke’s next opponent, the Blue Devils will be better prepared than they were the last time they faced the Tar Heels. On March 5, North Carolina crashed Krzyzewski’s party, spoiling his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 94-81 upset.
There were a couple of times that night when the moment seemed too big for Duke, when the Blue Devils seemed to buckle under the pressure to send Krzyzewski off with one last perfect hurray. After the match, Krzyzewski grabbed a microphone and apologized to the dozens of former players in attendance and to a stunned and speechless crowd.
“Let me say that that was unacceptable,” he said. “Today has been unacceptable, but the season has been very acceptable. And I’ll tell you, the season isn’t over, okay?”
Out of that searing speech came some productive conversations that helped pave Duke’s way to New Orleans. Krzyzewski hinted Friday that he regretted how he handled the anguish of that loss and that he had spoken to his players about it.
“I felt really bad for them,” Krzyzewski said. “When I said unacceptable, it wasn’t that they were unacceptable. It was the result that was unacceptable, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t misunderstood.”
Another subtle but significant change Krzyzewski has made is to use the NCAA tournament’s stretched 20-minute halftimes differently. Instead of immediately launching into a speech about what went right and what went wrong, Krzyzewski has spent more time listening to player feedback on him.
“When I get to the locker room, I just pull out a chair and sit with them for about five minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s just, okay, this is where we are and let’s just talk to them.”
If the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament are any indication, Duke appears to be responding well to that mellowed approach. The young Blue Devils seem to be growing up and handling the pressure to send Krzyzewski into retirement with another ring.
They rallied for a second-round win over Michigan State despite falling behind by five with five minutes left. They then seemed overwhelmed early on by Texas Tech’s lauded defense in the Sweet 16, only to shoot 71 percent from the field in the second half and not miss a shot in the final eight minutes.
There was no need for late comebacks against Arkansas thanks in part to a game-changing 8-0 surge from Duke to end the first half. The Razorbacks entered halftime down 12 despite being within 4-6 points for virtually the entire half.
The mistake that really hurt Arkansas was Chris Lykes’ decision to shoot a 3-pointer with just over 10 seconds left in the half. By running out no more time, Lykes gave Trevor Keels time to punish the Razorbacks with a 3-pointer just as the buzzer sounded.