Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour was almost over.
Duke was 5-10 ahead of Sunday’s game, 70-65 behind Michigan State and there was next to nothing he could do about it.
“I’m an army guy,” recalled Krzyzewski, who played for Bobby Knight at West Point and began his coaching career there. “But it looked like our ship was going to sink.”
From the moment Krzyzewski announced in June that his 42nd season would be his last, it was all about him. And really, how could it be otherwise? Coaches have always been the enduring stars of collegiate sports and nobody since John Wooden has lit up the firmament quite like Coach K.
Now imagine you are a kid in a Blue Devils uniform, watching the light flicker.
“‘We can either lay down,'” freshman Paolo Banchero recalled as he thought, “‘or turn it up.'”
Duke responded with a 20-6 run the rest of the way. The 6-foot-10 banchero rolled over Michigan State’s Joey Hauser on a drive to the night’s biggest bucket for a 75-74 lead. Jeremy Roach followed with a 3-pointer to extend the lead to fourth by 1:16. Krzyzewski won’t officially become a spectator until that one final run through the NCAA tournament ends in defeat, but he’s already learning to enjoy the prospect.
“You guys were great, man,” Krzyzewski told the players seated beside him after Duke notched an 85-76 win over the Spartans to advance to the Sweet 16 and a matchup with Texas Tech. “I’m so – I’m really proud to be your coach.
Coach K was hoarse from the start of the tournament, but he insisted on taking a point. “It had nothing to do with coaching in the last four, five minutes,” he said. “It had everything to do with heart and togetherness.”
That may be an exaggeration, as talent is a more reliable measure of success than emotion. But not in every case.
Just ask No. 10-seeded Miami who have Jabari Smith and Auburn’s Walker Kessler — both likely NBA lottery picks — on their way to the day’s biggest upset, a 79-61 win over the No. 2 Tigers handcuffed.
“It’s the first time we’ve gotten it,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “We didn’t know how to react.”
Or for that matter, the 11th state of Iowa, hitting No. 3 Wisconsin 54-49 in Milwaukee, just a quick hour’s drive from the Badgers’ Madison campus. Wisconsin had Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis, a hard-earned reputation for tending the ball — a nationally low average of 8.4 turnovers per game — and a frenzied crowd behind him.
But the Badgers gave the ball ominously away eight times in the first half alone and didn’t shoot much better. Davis was 0-7 from 3-point range and his teammates weren’t much better, just 2-15.
“Today shot the ball unusually badly. Flipped the ball. We’re #1 in the country for the fewest sales. Today,” summarized coach Greg Gard, “we weren’t.”
If it’s any consolation, two other Big Ten teams joined the Badgers as they headed for the exit.
Second-seeded Ohio State drew 60-58 against No. 2 Villanova with just six minutes left and then went colder than cold. Instead of panicking, the Wildcats got two turnovers and boosted defense, pulling away to a 71-61 win when the Buckeyes missed six of their last seven shots from the ground.
Coach Jay Wright has quietly built a Coach K-Caliber program after winning national championships in both 2016 and 2018. That kind of continuity pays off.
“That’s what happens when you play against great teams and it’s happened to you before and you can fight your way through. If you haven’t, it’s hard, you can panic,” Wright said. “But all those guys were there.”
Houston, a Final Four team last season, could have counted on experience. Instead, the fifth-ranked Cougars lost their two best players, guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, to season-ending injuries and had to make three transfers to rebuild. But Taze Moore rose by 21 points and Jamal Shead added 18 in what turned out to be a comfortable 68-53 win over Illinois on Sunday.
“We have a brand new bunch,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said afterwards. “But the culture never changes.”
Illini All-American center Kofi Cockburn knows that feeling all too well. He missed a shot in the NBA last year in search of some redemption. Instead, Illinois were picked off for the second consecutive year during the tournament’s opening weekend.
“We always want to leave feeling good, you know?” Cockburn said. “We fell short. I really can’t put it into words.”
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