In many ways, the celebration was quite ordinary. Confetti fell, team photos were taken and by the end of it all, head coach Mike Krzyzewski had climbed the ladder to cut down the final piece of the net, signaling the culmination of Duke’s run to the Final Four. The Blue Devils were kings of the West, and would soon be traveling to New Orleans for a chance at the biggest title of them all.
In San Francisco, the Blue Devils often looked not just like the most talented team in their region, but in the wider NCAA tournament. They were supposed to be on that stage, celebrating that win.
But it didn’t always appear so, especially after Duke lost to rival North Carolina—its improbable Final Four opponent—in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was a crushing loss that turned spectacle to sorrow, one that was followed up when the Blue Devils lost to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament championship game a week later. Even after a nearly flawless February and a regular-season conference title, those losses put Duke at a low point, and at the most inopportune of times: leading into the Big Dance.
“During those 10 days I learned something, and I saw my team hurt,” Krzyzewski said Friday ahead of Duke’s matchup against Arkansas. “Not just by a loss, but by a whole bunch of things.”
A Duke win in Krzyzewski’s last time on the sidelines in Cameron Indoor Stadium felt like somewhat of a foregone conclusion. The Blue Devils had strolled into Chapel Hill just a month earlier and dismantled their rivals in their own stadium, using freshman forward AJ Griffin’s career-high outburst to win by 20 points, their largest win in the series since 2002. Even without the impetus of Krzyzewski’s Senior Night, the Blue Devils were the consensus.
The rest is history: North Carolina rode its starting five to a second-half lead it would never relinquish and walked off of Coach K Court as the winning side. In the aftermath, with a crowd stunned into silence looking on, Krzyzewski spoke at center court to begin a ceremony in his honor. He didn’t mince words: “Today was unacceptable, but the season has been very acceptable.”
“When we lost at my, whatever you want to call that day, and I looked and I saw my team, I felt really bad for them,” Krzyzewski said Friday. “I felt really bad that we lost. When I said unacceptable, it wasn't that they were unacceptable. It was the result was unacceptable, and I wanted to make sure that that was not misconstrued by them.”
Krzyzewski’s words that night in Durham were not, evidently, empty words. In hindsight, it almost seems like an invitation to his team, a call to embrace the adversity and hurt that he speaks of today. With the way these Blue Devils have risen to the challenge in recent weeks and clear growth that they have put on display, that call has been answered.
“When you only have them for a year, you're trying to avoid as much adversity, but in the last ten days or so of the regular season and the tournament, we experienced a very deep level of adversity, and in some respects it really helped us,” Krzyzewski said. “I would rather not have experienced it, but I think it helped us.”
All those lessons learned and all that growth was put to the test early in the NCAA tournament against Michigan State, and again in the Sweet 16 against Texas Tech. The Red Raiders, in so many ways the opposite of the Blue Devils with their veteran roster and playing style, provided Duke with a uniquely tough test.
With their backs against the wall, the Blue Devils came through, proving to be a different and more mature team than the one that lost to North Carolina and Virginia Tech. They proved it again in the Elite Eight, silencing a second-half run from the veteran Razorbacks—playing in the regional final for the second straight season—with a 10-0 run of their own.
“We were in four really tough games against teams that were really good defensively and physical, and they made us better,” Krzyzewski said Tuesday. “We had to be better in order to beat them… we’re playing better than we did before that wall, but I think the lessons that we learned from those mistakes and then the competition, you get better if you beat really good competition, and that’s what’s happened for our team, thank goodness.”
While the team has grown, Krzyzewski has also altered his approach, if only slightly, after holding what he called “a good meeting with himself.” That sharpened approach includes, at least outwardly, a heightened and rejuvenated sense of awareness for his team. Against both Michigan State and Texas Tech, Krzyzewski confessed to doing something for the first time in his long career, taking advantage of the extra-long halftime in the most intangible of ways: “I just pull out a chair, and I sit with them for about five minutes and just, okay, here's where we're at and just talk to them.”
Krzyzewski’s approach and his players’ growth collided in the Sweet 16 to create a magical moment, as the Blue Devils entered the huddle and asked their coach to abandon the zone defense that had helped spark their do-or-die second-half run. Together, the fruits of Duke’s late-season adversity helped it move one step closer to “crossing the bridge”—a phrase Krzyzewski has used often recently—to the Final Four.
The Blue Devils would cross that bridge Saturday against Arkansas, setting forth the celebration and setting up college basketball’s reckoning after an equally remarkable run by the Tar Heels. Perhaps we all should have seen it coming—North Carolina had recovered from a dreadful start to win six of seven before taking down Duke, and despite a semi-inexplicable loss to Virginia Tech at the ACC tournament, looked every bit the part late in the season.
“I really think each of us was a different team,” Krzyzewski said of playing North Carolina again. “We were different when we played them there and so were they, and then when we played them here, they had developed into an outstanding team, and we weren’t at that time. And so to me, the thing is, I think we’re going to have two really good teams play against one another, whereas the last two games we were better than them at that point, and they were better than us at the other point. And now, we’ll see what happens.”
Duke emerged in the postseason different than before, largely because North Carolina forced it to change. Now, after the trials of its first four NCAA tournament games, it’s the odds-on favorite to win it all, a far cry from where it stood two weeks ago. And if not for its most bitter rival, it might never have reached this stage of its quest for a national championship.
“You can’t go into the Final Four just thinking rivalry, payback or any of those things," Krzyzewski said. "You got to go in that, ‘we want to win a championship.’”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.