“I got to do something,” he said to himself. “I got to help in some way.”
Three weeks later, Krzyzewski has Duke in the Final Four for a 13th time, back to the only stage prestigious enough to provide an appropriate exit. With a 78-69 victory over Arkansas in the West Region final, he didn’t just keep his Duke fairy tale alive. He completed the task of figuring out his last team and steering the Blue Devils to reach their potential. Now he is two victories from a sixth national title.
But as only Coach K can, he corrects anyone who tries to make it all about his accolades. He prefers to celebrate the feat as his current players’ first Final Four berth and their chance to win a title for themselves.
“Enough about doing it for the old man here,” Krzyzewski said to deflect attention. “We’re not going to do it unless we all own it, and we all owned this. We all owned this moment together. That’s what we’re playing for.”
During the ACC tournament, he calmed all the emotions and quieted all the noise, and when he heard his own voice, he found clarity for this last mission. And he told himself to lock in and do an even better job of something he has been focused on all season: living in the now.
Krzyzewski planned tweaks in strategy, but mostly he wanted to alter his approach. He wanted to connect better, be more earnest in addressing the players and coach them harder after reestablishing those deep bonds.
“It’s had a really good impact,” Krzyzewski said. “Like when we lost [to North Carolina] at my whatever you want to call that day, and I looked and I saw my team, I felt really bad for them. I felt really bad that we lost.”
He called the loss that day “unacceptable” during a postgame address to the crowd. He clarified what he meant before Saturday’s Elite Eight game.
“When I said unacceptable, it wasn’t that they were unacceptable,” Krzyzewski said. “It was the result was unacceptable, and I wanted to make sure that that was not misconstrued by them. … It’s part of growing together, growing up, and I take responsibility for that.”
Improvement some time after Krzyzewski’s self-talk. Duke lost to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament final. The Blue Devils had to win an intense game against Michigan State in the round of 32 and then survive another highly physical competition against Texas Tech in the Sweet 16.
On Saturday at Chase Center, it all came together. Duke saved perhaps its finest game of the season for the Elite Eight. Against an outstanding defensive team in Arkansas, the Blue Devils were deadly efficient, shooting 54.7 percent from the field, attacking the teeth of the Razorbacks defense and refusing to settle for contested jump shots. They were balanced, with four players scoring in double figures, led by freshman AJ Griffin’s 18 points.
Duke closed the first half on an 8-0 run to take a 45-33 lead into the locker room. After a slow start to the second half, the players settled in and increased the lead to 18 points. It was a thorough dissection by a team that looked as if it was running out of steam at the beginning of March.
With the way the Blue Devils played Saturday and the tough tests they have survived throughout the NCAA tournament, they suddenly look like the favorite to win it all.
“I would be surprised if they’re not playing to win a national championship,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said.
Said Duke forward Wendell More Jr.: “For us, the job is not finished. We want to hang one more banner.”
It seems Krzyzewski, a master of adapting to the times, is helping another young team with multiple future NBA draft picks peak in this tournament. His greatest talent is the ability to manage people, to build cohesion among groups of alphas, to lead with empathy while establishing an exacting standard. Earlier in his career, the coach could develop a team over several seasons, but for quite a while that hasn’t been possible. Unlike other older coaches, the 75-year-old Krzyzewski doesn’t complain. He just talks to himself and meets the players where they are.
“When you only have them for a year, you’re trying to avoid as much adversity, but in the last 10 days or so of the regular season and the tournament, we experienced a very deep level of adversity,” Krzyzewski said. “And in some respects, it really helped us. I would rather not have experienced it, but I think it helped us. It hurt. They grew together, and we all took responsibility and figured out what was wrong, and then we tried to correct it. It was actually in some respects a good thing, but that usually happens over a period of time.”
As his 17th Elite Eight appearance concluded with a record 13th triumph and Final Four appearance, the coach was noticeably calm. No fist-pumping like after the Texas Tech game had been clinched. He just shook hands and started off the celebration in the simplest, most humble manner possible.
It was another win for the record books. But what mattered most is that he had figured out this group. “They are really a good group of kids, and they’re becoming men,” Krzyzewski said before the game. “How lucky am I?”
Afterward, he didn’t need to ask a rhetorical question about his luck.
“It’s on them because they’re the ones,” Krzyzewski said. “No matter what you do as a coach, they have to show that level of character, and in this tournament, it’s really lifted them. They’ve been beautiful. They’ve been sensational. And they were really good before. I loved them before, but now I respect them so much.”
On Saturday night, the lucky old man climbed a ladder once more, snipped the final piece of the net and took down the twine. From up high, he looked at his players and mouthed, “I love you!” Then he turned in every direction and thanked the crowd.
A few seconds later, the coach moved gingerly down the ladder, his surgically repaired hips and knees just sturdy enough to manage. The crowd chanted, “We want six!” Krzyzewski simply wanted to hug his players and staff another time. And so he did, shuffling from one long embrace to the next, walking on blue and white confetti with every step.