Now that the ACC has failed to reach the Final Four for three straight years for the first time since 1961, let’s set the record straight about Duke and Coach K.
Krzyzewski is a terrific coach, called “the John Wooden of this era” by Sunday’s vanquisher, Louisville’s Rick Pitino. Certainly with four national championships, 11 Final Fours and two Gold Medals with the U.S. Olympic team (which Wooden never coached), you can make a case for the man with the most major college victories in basketball history as the best sitting head coach.
But compared to the perception that Duke is in the Final Four every year, the Blue Devils have hardly lived up to that reputation. There are so many cable sports center shows (ESPN alone has too many to count), young announcers seem given to hyperbole. For example, one late Sunday said this before going to a clip from Coach K’s post-game press conference.
“So the Final Four will go off without the man who is there year after year.”
Let’s get real, people. Duke has been to exactly TWO Final Fours since 2004 — hardly “year after year.” Yes, Krzyzewski has been amazingly consistent in accumulating those 957 career victories. But his NCAA record over the last 10 years is less than sterling. It doesn’t even compare to Roy Williams, who beat K and Duke in the 2003 Sweet Sixteen in his last season at Kansas (and second straight Final Four year for the Jayhawks). Here are the numbers since Roy’s return to UNC:
Duke’s Last 10 Stops Carolina’s Last 9 Stops
1 NCAA title (6-0) 2 NCAA titles (12-0)
1 Final Four (4-1) 1 Final Four (4-1)
1 Elite 8 (3-1) 3 Elite 8s (9-3)
4 Sweet 16s (8-4) 0 Sweet 16s (0-0)
1 Round of 32 (1-1) 3 Round of 32 (3-3)
2 Round of 64 (0-2) 0 Round of 64* (0-0)
While playing in more NCAA games (35) than Duke (31), Carolina under Williams has a better post-season record. And (*) never losing in the round of 64 in his 25 years as a head coach, Williams holds the active NCAA mark of 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with at least one victory.
The Tar Heels did miss the NCAA Tournament in 2010, following the loss of four starters and stars off their 2009 national championship team. As written here before, UNC has had 13 NBA first-round draft choices over the last nine years, 11 of whom went out early to cost Carolina a total of 17 seasons of eligibility.
Duke, by contrast, has eight first-rounders during that same period, with early departures costing the Blue Devils 10 seasons of eligibility. This June, they will likely have three more seniors drafted in the first round – Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
But, based on Sunday’s one-sided loss to Louisville, none of those players is a sure-shot pro, compared to Cardinals Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who have the hops and speed to have made Duke look slow and cumbersome. In the second half, when Louisville began setting high ball screens a little farther out, Siva and Smith blew by the Blue Devils still trying to get out to help on the screens.
The game, of course, was halted late in the first half by the tragic injury to Louisville sophomore Kevin Ware, who landed awkwardly on his right leg and snapped the bone in two places. The scene was so gruesome, driving Cardinal players, coaches and fans to tears, CBS did not to show a replay of the incident over and over. The cameras concentrated on the emotion of the moment.
It was difficult to say how the injury would affect both teams, and Louisville appeared unglued until a late 10-4 run that provided a 35-32 lead at halftime. And when ahead at the break this season, the Cardinals are now 29-0. Much of that can be attributed to Pitino’s halftime adjustments and his teams amazing speed and skill and its depth to cover for sixth-man Ware’s loss.
Duke, meanwhile, appeared slow and slow to adjust to Louisville’s isolating Siva and Smith at the top of the key. Once either of those speeding bullets got into the lane, the Blue Devil big men could not contend. When Duke lost control of the game, it lacked the speed on defense and firepower on offense to get back in.
Louisville represents how the college game is trending, and those teams that cannot compete in recruiting and style will be left behind. The Cardinals apply relentless pressure on both ends of the court, trying to wear opponents down with their speed on offense as well as defense. They usually press in the backcourt and then fall back into changing man-to-man or zone defense, which Duke was slow to recognize and attack. The second half was no contest.
Pitino got a measure of revenge from his Kentucky team’s last-second loss to Duke in the 1992 Regional Final in Philadelphia, the famous game in which Christian Laettner did not miss a free throw or field goal, including the buzzer beater from 18 feet as time expired. Pitino, now at UK’s arch rival, continues to carve out his own Hall of Fame career, matching Roy Williams’ seventh Final Four.
Where college basketball, particularly in the revamped ACC, goes from here is unknown. More conference realignment may be coming, but for now Louisville, Pitt and Final Four-bound Syracuse are headed for the ACC. And even with Duke’s over-hyped post-season performance, it looks like all the movement meant to help football will give slumping ACC basketball a much-needed boost.