SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Krzyzewski, old Army point guard, was saved by his young Duke point guard. Jeremy Roach won a big game for him Thursday night the way Bobby Hurley used to win big games for him, driving fearlessly into the lane and sinking jumpers and making the plays winning NCAA quarterbacks make.
So Coach K’s incomparable career lives to see at least one more night, and isn’t that something? Who would have guessed that Duke would have lasted longer in this West Region than Gonzaga?
And here’s a crazy thing: Krzyzewski, one of the all-time advocates of man-to-man defense, switched to a zone defense to prevent third-seeded Texas Tech from beating up his second-seeded Blue Devils. “It kept down the amount of physicality,” was the way Coach K put it, “because they were wearing us down. It gave us a chance to dance around the ring a little bit instead of being in a corner.”
Even crazier: Krzyzewski listened to his players in the end when they pleaded with him to switch back to a man defense. Nobody would’ve ever fathomed that Coach K would work long enough for a small circle of players to actually convince him to abandon a zone.
“It was like a Catholic boys choir; it was a chorus,” said the 75-year-old Catholic boy from Chicago. “They said it with enthusiasm: ‘We want to do this. We want to go man.’ … They’ve grown up so much in the last 12 days. It’s such a joy. It’s an amazing thing.”
It was amazing to watch his Blue Devils play tougher than Texas Tech, as rough and tumble as they come. But there was Roach in the final minutes, slicing and dicing Texas Tech’s renowned no-middle defense, delivering the complementary points needed for all-everything freshman Paolo Banchero, who led Duke with 22. And there was AJ Griffin of Archbishop Stepinac in White Plains, making both ends of a one-and-one with 12.9 seconds left to effectively seal Coach K’s 100th NCAA Tournament victory, and a trip to the Elite Eight to face Arkansas.
Before he left for the night, Krzyzewski asked his players to slap the floor with their palms as they prepared to make a defensive stop. It was a throwback move, and the Duke fans went wild. Of course they did.
Now it’s on to the Razorbacks, who beat the No. 1 overall seed, Gonzaga, by playing ugly-ball. The Red Raiders tried to do the same to the Blue Devils, and it didn’t work. Krzyzewski walked out of the Chase Center with career victory No. 1,201, a 78-73 decision, and a cleaner path to what would be his 13th Final Four.
“The resolve of Jeremy Roach was incredible,” Coach K would say. “His drives against that defense were so strong, so determined, and then Paolo did a couple of things tonight that he’s never done in his life, and he did it instinctually. He just wanted to win so badly, and it was so beautiful to see.”
Coach K’s players were more heavily recruited than Mark Adams’s players, by a lot, but they were also younger and less mature. Tech’s leading scorer, Bryson Williams, is a sixth-year senior who turns 24 next month. Duke’s leading scorer, Banchero, is a one-and-done freshman who doesn’t turn 20 until November. This was grown men against young men, and usually the grown men win.
“They probably have as many transfers as any program in the country,” Krzyzewski had said. “We have one of the youngest teams, if not the youngest team I’ve coached, and you’re trying to build habits.”
The Sweet 16 is a tough place to build habits, especially against a defense Krzyzewski described as probably the best in the nation. The Red Raiders’ grit appealed to Coach K, as did the dirt road traveled by their first-year head coach Adams, who was 65 years old when he finally landed a head coaching job in the big leagues.
Krzyzewski said Adams learned the game from bus stop to bus stop, rather than through the comforts of first-class plane tickets. “When you are at the bus stops,” Coach K said, “you don’t make a lot of money. You better love what you do.”
Nobody has ever loved what he did more than Krzyzewski, who made the big money and still coaches like he’s desperate and broke. In the immediate wake of his 1,200th victory Sunday at Michigan State’s expense, Coach K was as overwhelmed as longtime Duke observers had ever seen him after an early-round NCAA game. He choked up as he looked down at his players at the postgame press conference and said, “You guys were terrific, man. I’m really proud to be your coach.”
He was just as proud Thursday night, when he reminded everyone that he’s always been willing to adapt — by switching to the zone — and that he’s always been willing to empower his players — by embracing their unanimous call to go back to man-to-man.
“Whenever they can own something, they’re just going to do it better than when they just rent it,” Krzyzewski said.
His players have owned everything all year. They took ownership by winning 31 games and counting, and by advancing to the Elite Eight … and counting.
They also did it by managing a remarkably unique season without much problem. That’s been the Blue Devils’ greatest gift to Coach K, who gets at least one more magical NCAA Tournament night.