Is Duke Ready To Give Coach K The Ultimate Sendoff?

Mike Krzyzewski came to Durham, North Carolina in 1980 after five seasons at the United States Military Academy at West Point. At the time Duke wasn't an irrelevant basketball school. The Blue Devils had reached the 1978 Final Four and lost to Kentucky in the national championship game. They fielded great teams in the 1960s and whom reached the Final Four. Basketball mattered at Duke well before the guy with the hard-to-spell last name came to Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

Yet, Duke basketball was not an annual powerhouse. 

The early 1960s marked a brief period of sustained success, but from 1967 through 1977, they didn’t make a single Final Four. The 1978 team created a revival, and the 1980 team made a deep tournament run as a mid-level seed, but Krzyzewski did not inherit a program that was expected to be a yearly juggernaut. 

That was North Carolina, which had firmly established itself as the class of the ACC under iconic coach Dean Smith. There was also Maryland, a formidable ACC opponent for Duke under coach Lefty Driesell.  

In 1980, a young center named Ralph Sampson burst onto the scene at Virginia and became the dominant big man in college basketball just before another big man named Patrick Ewing (at Georgetown) joined him. With North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia all posing huge challenges to the rest of the ACC, it was hard for Krzyzewski and Duke to stay above water.  

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In his first three seasons at Duke, Krzyzewski lost more games than he won. Duke didn’t make the NCAA Tournament and fans rightly wondered if he was up to the job. In 1984, Duke improved significantly, going 24-10 and making the NCAA Tournament. Yet, let’s be real: Duke was nowhere near Final Four-level status. The Blue Devils won only one NCAA Tournament game that year. In 1984, North Carolina had Michael Jordan and was the No. 1 team in the country. Virginia reached the Final Four. Maryland had a superstar in the making named Len Bias, two years before his tragic death just after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.  

Duke was still fighting an uphill battle. Mike Krzyzewski had not yet become “Coach K.” 

It took two more years but Duke finally became the superpower we know and recognise today. The 1986 team – with current college basketball television commentator Jay Bilas in the lineup – went all the way to the national championship game before narrowly losing to Louisville. That year changed everything for Duke. The coach with the funny last name became “Coach K,” and the sleeping giant slept no more. 

Duke made the Final Four in five straight years from 1988 through 1992, winning back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992. By the end of the 20th century, Duke had reached eight Final Fours under Coach K. A third national title came in 2001, a fourth in 2010, a fifth in 2015. Duke was, at its zenith, the closest thing to John Wooden’s legendary UCLA teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Coach K established himself as the best of the best. 

Now, here we are, in 2021. Coach K has reached his last journey. This is his final season. Next year, he will be replaced by former player Jon Scheyer, a member of Duke’s 2010 national championship team. 

Everyone in college basketball is wondering: Will Coach K have the classic ride-into-the-sunset moment John Wooden had when he led UCLA to the national title in his final season in 1975? It would be the “beautiful ending,” the poetic and majestic turn of events which will create an unforgettable conclusion to an iconic career.  

If you love great sports stories such as this one, you might be in luck. Duke, which just defeated top-ranked Gonzaga this past Friday in Las Vegas, seems to be in great position to contend for the national championship. 

Beating Gonzaga is, by itself, more than enough reason to recommend Duke as a frontline national title contender. Yet, the Blue Devils’ strength goes far beyond that core point.  

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Duke displayed an ability to keep up with Gonzaga in a track meet. Not many teams can do that. Gonzaga scored 42 points in the first half of Friday’s game. Duke scored 45. The Blue Devils possess elite offence, and they can certainly match up with any team in America in a 94-foot racehorse type of game. They created a fast tempo against Gonzaga so that it wouldn’t have to deal with the Zags and All-American Drew Timme in half-court situations. Duke has the ball-handlers to create that kind of a game. The Blue Devils possess considerable finesse and skill. The fact that they stood up to Gonzaga – believed by most to be the most skilled team in the country – offers proof enough of that. 

Yet, the Gonzaga game also showed that along with the velvet glove, Duke can display an iron fist as well. Duke bumped Gonzaga cutters and made the Zags work for every basket they got. Duke superstar Paolo Banchero – the main reason the Blue Devils could win it all this season – is not just an electric player. He is a strong player who finishes through contact and can handle a game which gets rugged. 

Banchero embodies why Duke stands alongside Gonzaga as one of the two best teams in the United States: He has a silky and polished game, but he is physical enough to withstand punishment and adjust when a game gets dragged into the mud. Duke isn’t just a bunch of pretty-boy scorers. This team is ready, willing and able to mix it up if a game becomes a slugfest. Skill or physicality alone won’t beat Gonzaga; marrying the two components is a non-negotiable requirement. Banchero and the rest of the Blue Devils displayed that two-fisted total game in stifling Gonzaga. 

Yes, if these teams have a rematch at the Final Four, Gonzaga might gain revenge. It will be hard for Duke to win two games against the Zags in the same season however the Blue Devils have already demonstrated an ability to stand up against the Bulldogs, while Gonzaga, like Duke, will still have to negotiate the intensity of March Madness to book that Final Four spot in the first place. 

Mike Krzyzewski has spent more than half of his 74 years at Duke, presiding over the bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium for more than four full decades. He’s the sport's greatest coach since John Wooden and has a very real chance of authoring the same fairy-tale ending the Wizard of Westwood engineered back in 1975, the first year of Krzyzewski’s head coaching career at Army. 

Every national championship team – at Duke or anywhere else – gains a permanent place in college basketball history. If this Duke team can give Coach K the perfect sendoff, it will own an even more elevated position in the annals of this sport.

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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