On March 28, 1992, Rick Pitino was 39 years old, with exactly 200 collegiate wins to his name. Mike Krzyzewski was slightly his senior, as a 45-year-old with 367 wins. That night, Christian Laettner hit what would go on to become one of the most famous shots in basketball history, sending Duke to the Final Four with a 104-103 victory against Pitino’s Kentucky squad.
Saturday night on Paradise Island, more than 20 years and nearly 1000 collective victories later, Pitino and Krzyzewski will square off again as the Blue Devils take on Louisville for the Battle 4 Atlantis championship.
Already having played and beaten Kentucky, the No. 2 Cardinals (5-0) will be No. 5 Duke’s (5-0) second matchup against an opponent ranked inside the top five. Although the action on the court will be intense, undoubtedly some focus will be diverted to the two venerable men on the respective benches, who have been forever linked by one of the most memorable plays in the history of college basketball.
“We were in a moment in ’92,” Krzyzewski said of his close friend Pitino. “And he recognized that, even though he was on the losing side, which is incredible. It’s really one of the incredible things I’ve ever seen an opposing coach do.” Another incredible thing Pitino has done is put together this year’s Cardinal team, which features outstanding talent but also some memorable stories.
Arguably Louisville’s most important player is center Gorgui Dieng, who has shown vast improvement in his game since 2009, when he first arrived in the U.S. from his native Senegal weighing a reported 187 pounds. The 6-foot-10 junior now weighs 245 pounds, adding a remarkable 7-foot-6 wingspan to round out his remarkable physical prowess.
Even prior to this season, he had established himself as a force on defense and on the glass, but this year he has continued to build on his offensive arsenal, adding 8.2 points per game to his averages of eight rebounds and three blocks. He will match up with Mason Plumlee down low in what could prove to be the Duke senior’s toughest test of the early season.
Dieng’s journey from Africa is inspiring enough, but senior point guard Peyton Siva’s backstory is perhaps even more moving. As a 13-year-old growing up in a gang-ridden Seattle neighborhood, Siva dissuaded his often-absent father from committing suicide in a drug den. Their bond has grown along with Siva’s basketball skills, as he has become one of the nation’s premier distributors, averaging 6.8 assists per game.
And there is no shortage of talent around Dieng and Siva. Junior shooting guard Russ Smith has upped his scoring average from 11.5 points per game last season to 19.6 this season, taking over 35 percent of the Cardinals’ shots when he is on the floor. His 15-for-37 performance from beyond the arc so far makes him a threat to score from deep, and despite his slight frame at 165 pounds, he has shown ability to penetrate as well. Add in defensive skills—he registered six steals Friday against heralded Missouri point guard Phil Pressey—and he will be a handful for the Blue Devils.
But the players who may cause the most trouble for the Blue Devils have not even averaged double digits in scoring. Sophomore wings Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan are both athletic and talented in an offense full of weapons, but they will be particularly valuable against Duke since the Blue Devils have featured almost exclusively a three-guard lineup early in the season.
The duo of the 6-foot-5 Blackshear and 6-foot-6 Behanan has combined to average 18.8 points and 12.0 rebounds. Behanan, at 250 pounds, could be a particular matchup nightmare.
Bench production comes from 6-foot-8 freshman Montrezl Harrell, who looks like another star big man in the making, and 6-foot-6 junior Luke Hancock, who had made just 4-of-29 3-point attempts until he drained 5-of-7 for 19 points Friday against Missouri.
With so much talent on both sides of the scorer’s table, the game may come down to a pair of point guards—not Siva or Duke’s Quinn Cook, but Krzyzewski and Pitino, who each played the point during their collegiate careers. They never faced each other as players, but will square off once again as coaches with a tournament championship on the line.
“He understood that [it] was a game that’s going to go down in history, and it did because of what two teams did, not because of what one team did,” Krzyzewski said. “One of the things that I really respect about Rick is that we both understand that the game is bigger than us. And sometimes, the basketball gods—if you realize that—they put you in moments. As long as it’s not your moment, [but] the game’s moment, they might put you in another one.”