Duke Blue Devils: How They Got Here
The Duke Blue Devils have been a March Madness fixture over the years. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has made 26 Sweet 16s at Duke and 13 Final Fours, the most of any coach. Making the Final Four this year gave Coach K the edge over John Wooden of UCLA. Coach K is entering his last Final Four, his last weekend, and his last games as a collegiate head coach. He is pursuing a sixth national championship and a storybook ending to an iconic career. Let’s review how Krzyzewski got here and turned things around after Duke lost by 13 points to North Carolina on March 5 in his final home game as Duke head coach.
Cal State Fullerton
The Blue Devils were never threatened by Cal State Fullerton in an easy win which reset the dial for this team and put it in the proper frame of mind to make a deep March run. When highly-seeded teams struggle in the first round, that tells their future opponents how vulnerable they truly are. Duke did not show any vulnerabilities in that first round, which enabled the team to move forward after the North Carolina loss and the loss to Virginia Tech in the championship game of the ACC Tournament on March 12.
This is the game when Duke really grew up and seemed to find the identity of a championship team and a national contender. Duke was down five points to Tom Izzo and Michigan State late in the second half. The Final Four dream, the national title dream, the dream of a perfect ending to Coach K’s last season were all in danger. Then Jeremy Roach, who had not had a particularly strong season for the Blue Devils, hit big baskets to help Paolo Banchero and the rest of the Duke lineup. Duke entered this NCAA Tournament without much 3-point shooting outside of A.J. Griffin. Roach’s ability to provide another perimeter shooter transforms this Duke team. First, it reduces the burden on the rest of the supporting cast. Second, it enables Banchero to operate with more open space. Defenses can’t double-team him as easily. Third, with fewer players needing to look for offense, more Duke players can emphasize their roles and responsibilities at the defensive end of the court. Roach’s evolution began in this Michigan State game, a key turning point for Coach K and his group.
The Blue Devils carried the momentum from the Michigan State win into this West Regional semifinal in San Francisco against Texas Tech. Duke entered this game knowing that Texas Tech had one of the best defenses in the country. Duke was ready for the challenge. Scoring 78 points is something which has rarely happened in Texas Tech this season, and one of the very few times it happened was when Kansas scored in the 80s in a double-overtime game. Roach continued to hit big shots for Duke to help Banchero roast the Texas Tech defense. Duke knew that the Big 12 was a tough and deep conference, and that Texas Tech was a top-three team in the Big 12 all season long. Overcoming this challenge enabled Duke to firmly believe that it had all the goods to win the national championship.
The Blue Devils benefited hugely from Arkansas’ upset over Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Duke had beaten Gonzaga earlier in the season, but beating the Zags twice would have been a huge challenge. Gonzaga would have been in a position to make adjustments and, beyond that, simply play at a much better level than it did against Duke in late November. Arkansas doesn’t have nearly as good an offense as Gonzaga does, and that enabled Duke to dominate this game with its much-improved defense. The Blue Devils lifted Coach K to that record-setting 13th Final Four. Now we’ll see if this team can complete the storybook ending in New Orleans.