Arguably no coach in college basketball history – other than maybe John Wooden – has had the impact on a program and university like Mike Krzyzewski has had at Duke. Coach K even resembles the team’s Blue Devil logo.
Krzyzewski announced prior to this season that he’d be retiring, and he fittingly coached his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against longtime rival North Carolina (with tickets to that game being sold for astronomical rates). Tributes have been pouring in all season from rival coaches, former players, media members, and others that Krzyzewski in his 42 years coaching at Duke.
Several players have talked about the lifelong bond he forms with players. “It really is a life contract when you play for him. He’s always there in our darkest hours,” former player Chris Collins told USA Today. “And somehow he just knows when we need him. He has three daughters but never had any sons of his own. In a lot of respects, I think he believes that the guys he’s coached are like his sons. He treats us like that. He’s been a second father to me.”
Krzyzewski has five national championships, and more wins than any men’s college basketball coach in history. He’s led some of the most iconic teams in NCAA history. The team already announced that former Duke player and current associated head coach Jon Scheyer will succeed Krzyzewski after the season, so his legacy and the program’s immediate future seem secure.
But that legacy also isn’t quite finished yet. Lost in all of the celebration of Krzyzewski’s career and past impact on the game is the fact that he’s currently coaching a pretty good team, one that could potentially win him a sixth National Championship. At +1200, Duke’s national championship odds put them among the top five or so teams favored by betters to win it all. They have the No. 1 seed in their conference tournament and, assuming they don’t suffer an early upset, should also be a favorite to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Here are three things Duke needs to focus on to give Krzyzewski one more long tournament run.
Account for their lack of tournament experience: It’s difficult to think of a team with Duke’s history as pretty inexperienced in the NCAA Tournament, but this version of the Blue Devils certainly is.
Duke missed the NCAA Tournament last season, and the COVID-19 pandemic caused the tournament to be canceled the previous season. Among their current top players, only Joey Baker was a member of their 2018-19 team that advanced to the Elite 8.
The Blue Devils have performed well against elite competition this year. They have a win over No. 1 Gonzaga, last year’s national runner-up and the current favorite to win the national title. But they haven’t played a ranked opponent since early in the season, so a strong run through the ACC Tournament should help them get prepared for the intensity of competition they’ll see in March Madness.
Unleash Paolo Banchero: Banchero is one of the best freshmen in the country and, after the season, he could give Duke its fifth No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Four of those players (Banchero, Elton Brand, Kyrie Irving, and Zion Williamson) were coached by Krzyzewski.
But before we get to that point, Banchero could use an elite tournament run to help separate him from the competition (namely Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren) for that selection. Banchero is averaging 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists per game while shooting 46 percent overall. His three-point shooting could use some improvement as he’s hitting just 33 percent from the perimeter. But his size, scoring ability, and ability to make plays for others could make him a huge weapon in tournament games.
Banchero seems like a player destined for stardom, and if he takes a big step on that path in the tournament, it could bring Coach K his sixth championship.
Can they find defensive consistency?: Few teams advance deep into the NCAA Tournament without an elite defense. Duke has shown this season that the Blue Devils have the ability to defend as well as some of the elite teams in the country. But, like many inexperienced teams, they’ve also had moments where the defense has failed them.
It’s not that Duke has had sustained periods of poor defense – it’s just that those rare moments have happened to occur late in games. As the Charlotte Observer points out, Duke has had defensive breakdowns late in three close losses that cost them those games.
If they can learn from those experiences and avoid them in the NCAA Tournament, expect the Blue Devils to be a Final Four team.
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