College Basketball

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski the best, win or lose in NCAA title game

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski embraces Tyus Jones (5) in the closing minutes against Michigan State in the NCAA semifinals, Saturday April 4, 2015 at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski embraces Tyus Jones (5) in the closing minutes against Michigan State in the NCAA semifinals, Saturday April 4, 2015 at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Few competitors are more familiar with Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke men’s basketball program than Leonard Hamilton. Hamilton’s Florida State clubs have faced the Blue Devils at least once a season since 2002-03, longer than any active ACC coach. Their squads have met 20 times overall, often engaging in fierce clashes that resemble hand-to-hand combat as much as basketball.

Along the way, Hamilton came to admire Krzyzewski not only for his on-court prowess but for the way he runs his program and for his “giving of himself for the cause of basketball” through committee work, participation in USA Basketball and other endeavors.

“The wins are just part of his legacy,” Hamilton says. “He’s done it the right way. He’s a class act. He does it consistently year in and year out. He never complains. He just goes out and gets it done.”

Given all that, Hamilton is bemused and a bit perplexed by the notion that, in reaching a 12th Final Four and positioning his team to win a fifth NCAA championship Monday night against Wisconsin, Krzyzewski somehow might enhance his stature either in historical terms or among his peers.

“If there is a level higher than the greatest, we might have to find another category for him,” says Hamilton, a coach since the 1971-72 season. “We might have to find another category that’s above the best ever. I don’t know if there is a category that’s better than the best.”

Signs of respect

You can bet media members will strain to meet Hamilton’s linguistic challenge. But words – including favorable comparisons with UCLA’s John Wooden, long considered the greatest college basketball coach of all time – aren’t the best way to measure Krzyzewski’s standing in the game.

Imitation as a form of flattery speaks volumes, too. No team has made more men’s Final Four appearances since 2000 than Michigan State, which Duke defeated 81-61 in Saturday’s national semifinal. Since the 2010 season, only four schools, Duke among them, have won more games than Gonzaga, which the Blue Devils defeated in the Elite Eight. Both the Spartans’ Tom Izzo and Bulldogs coach Mark Few readily acknowledge emulating Krzyzewski in crafting their programs.

A more striking sign of esteem emerged from an unexpected source prior to the final game of the 2014-15 regular season.

Fans and media rightly tout the Duke-North Carolina rivalry as the best in college basketball, if not in U.S. sports. For the longest time heated feelings were a natural byproduct of that competitive friction. Lately, though, while fans continue to harbor grudges, respect has thoroughly supplanted animus among Tar Heels and Blue Devils players and coaches.

That unaccustomed state of affairs was evident when Duke visited Chapel Hill on March 7. Prior to the game, Krzyzewski was honored in a brief ceremony for surpassing 1,000 victories and for the gracious public regard he and Duke expressed for deceased North Carolina coach Dean Smith. UNC’s formal acknowledgment was disorientingly divergent from the passionate prologue of previous years, so at odds with the postured hostility offered by the likes of TV’s Kenny Smith and author Will Blythe, members of the sellout crowd momentarily were unable to decide whether to boo or applaud.

Certainly Duke’s success under Krzyzewski can grow tiresome, if not grating, as ACC opponents once felt about Smith. Even so, any self-respecting observer – or opponent – must recognize Krzyzewski belongs atop modern coaching’s competitive pyramid.

Success taken for granted

Start with his 1,017 wins, best among major-college men’s coaches, 73 at Army and 944 at Duke. Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils squads have averaged 27 wins per season and a Final Four berth every three years across his 35 seasons. They’ve won at least 30 games, including a 34-4 record so far in 2014-15, in 14 seasons. That’s two shy of matching the 30-victory marks collectively compiled by every other program in ACC history.

“I’ll tell you, I love to compete against coach Krzyzewski, because you know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton says. “You know that if you’re not at your best, you’re not going to have a very good chance of being successful.”

Yet Krzyzewski’s excellence is so taken for granted within his own neighborhood, he hasn’t won ACC Coach of the Year honors in 15 years, a period during which Duke captured two NCAA titles, eight ACC championships, and finished lower than third in the league just once (2007).

The Blue Devils’ 2001 championship came after center Carlos Boozer was hurt in late February; in arguably his greatest coaching job ever, Krzyzewski revamped his lineup literally overnight. Duke’s 2010 title surprised everyone, Krzyzewski included, and evened his record in NCAA championship games at 4-4.

On the NCAA tournament’s neutral turf Krzyzewski’s teams have played and won more games than anyone. He and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim are tied with 31 NCAA tournament appearances, most ever for a coach. Krzyzewski’s 20 consecutive NCAA visits top all active streaks and tie UNC’s Roy Williams for the most all-time. “I have tremendous respect for what Mike has done,” says Williams, insisting his Durham counterpart’s achievements surpass even those of Wooden.

‘Rarified air’

It’s no surprise this season’s gifted Duke squad – Krzyzewski’s youngest since a 1982-83 group that finished 11-17 – reached the Final Four. Krzyzewski now stands second to Wooden in Final Four games (21), consecutive Final Four appearances (five) and Final Four victories (13). Duke reached seven Final Fours in nine years from 1986 through 1994, a run only Wooden eclipsed.

Krzyzewski’s 12 Final Four visits match Wooden for the most ever, despite competing during an era when it takes more victories to advance to the national semifinals. Wooden made 10 championship game appearances, one more than Krzyzewski. If the Blue Devils beat the Badgers for a second time this season, Krzyzewski will stand alone behind only Wooden’s 10.

Duke’s back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992 were the first since Wooden’s Bruins ran off an unequaled seven in a row from 1967 through 1973. “Once we started winning championships,” says Krzyzewski, who evaluates his program in four-year increments, “then what are the consistent things (that work), and then how do you continue to adapt to the changing culture of the kids that you’re going to have to teach and coach?”

Facilitating that adjustment, Krzyzewski also directed U.S. squads populated by NBA players to a pair of Olympic gold medals (2008, 2012), two world championships (2010, 2014) and a cumulative 75-1 record. The coach’s unique opportunity for professional development didn’t prevent Duke from falling off its previous Final Four pace: This year’s appearance is only the program’s third in the past 14 seasons, a rate of frequency that freshened Krzyzewski’s appreciation of the feat.

“It’s rarefied air,” he says. “How lucky are you? Also, look, you’re a bucket away, a play away (from success or failure); I’m a realist about that. We’ve gone to Final Fours at times where, how did that team get there? But because we went numerous times it was almost like, ‘Boy, it’s disappointing you didn’t go.’ You’ve got to be kidding me!”

Actually, he knows we’re not kidding. We have a third of a century of evidence to go by. Regardless of what happens in this year’s final, Krzyzewski already has earned not only our respect but our confidence.

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