INDIANAPOLIS -- And so one more time, Duke reaches for the ring, here in the Age of K.
Yes, the massive legion of Duke Despisers out there are eyeball-to-eyeball with another bad Monday. They are committed members of the sect who believe Duke gets the breaks (and the calls). Duke gets the free pass. How come nobody relegates Duke -- with its three freshman starters of NBA caliber -- to Kentucky’s neighborhood of One and Done? Duke has just been too successful for anyone else’s own good. A smug dynasty, just like the old Yankees. The current New England Patriots. Maybe a few other would-be villains with enlarged trophy cases.
It was Mike Krzyzewski who came up with the stat that in the past 18 years, Duke has had 47 losses on the road when the fans stormed the court, like the Goths sacking Rome. No word in the NCAA history book if that is a record.
So here is a question sure to make many cringe. If Krzyzewski wins another national championship Monday night, should the post-game song be changed to ... Five Shining Moments?
He is back near the end of a road he knows so well. Four titles, and a fifth maybe barely hours away. Kentucky is gone (imagine the dilemma of empire-haters everywhere if that was Monday’s matchup?) and only Wisconsin remains. Wisconsin, the team with a 67-year-old coach who has never won a Division I national championship, and a gaggle of likeable seniors on their last shot.
The sentimental favorite Monday night sure ain’t the team from Durham.
But before the Anti-Duke Party starts, arguing what a gilded path Krzyzewski has been lucky enough to follow, maybe we should go down memory lane with Coach K. It has not always been so smooth, or easy.
Remember when Duke hired him from Army in the spring of 1980? The Associated Press story made a point of spelling his name phonetically, kre-ches-skee. Very helpful to the readers. Except, it was wrong.
Remember his first three years at Duke? He went 38-47. That’d get a guy fired now.
Remember when he first started escorting Blue Devil teams to the Final Four? He fell short of the championship four consecutive times, sometimes by a bunch. Duke lost by 17 points to Seton Hall, and 30 to UNLV. He was the man who couldn’t quite close the deal.
Remember when Krzyzewski disappeared from the radar screen during the 1994-95 season, citing back problems and exhaustion? The first stages of burnout, maybe? And he was not yet 50.
Remember 2012? Duke lost in the NCAA Tournament's first round. To No. 15 seed Lehigh. In Greensboro. Remember just two years later? The Blue Devils lost their first game again. To No. 14 seed Mercer. In Raleigh. Remember when Mike Krzyzewski was getting too a) old or b) stale or c) distracted by the Team USA business?
Remember this past January, when Krzyzewski showed the door to junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon, the first Duke player he had ever kicked off in 30 years? Suddenly, he looked around and had eight players.
But here he and the Blue Devils are. Again. "He’s a rock," senior guard Quinn Cook said of Krzyzewski. Rare is the man who can say he has been around long enough to win four national championship games, and also lose four national championship games.
During Duke’s Age of K, Kentucky has gone through six coaches and the White House has gone through six presidents. At 68, Krzyzewski could become the second oldest man to coach a national champion Monday night, behind only Jim Calhoun. And if he doesn’t, Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, only 10 months his junior, will. Only chess matches and bridge clubs are supposed to have adversaries that age.
But have either of these guys seemed old lately? Ryan and his Badgers have just slain a giant. "Kentucky’s undefeated performance overshadowed, I think, just how good Wisconsin has been," Krzyzewski said Sunday. "Until last night, when there were no shadows anymore."
Duke has stayed this course with freshmen who did not know the way. But their coach does. On his right hand Sunday, as it has been for a month, was the ring from the 2010 title. A reminder and a message.
"It’s not as much about what the ring looks like, but what it stands for," Justise Winslow said. "It’s more about seeing the ring and all the visualizations that you get in your head and all the hard work that you’re going to have to put in. That’s really what the ring has reminded me of -- not so much the finish line, but the journey to the finish line."
Krzyzewski has a senior, Cook, who was so ineffective last season the coach called him into a meeting a few days after the last game. Cook walked into the room to find ... his mother. She was there at Krzyzewski’s invitation.
"It was some things I didn’t want to hear, but I needed to hear," Cook said. "That’s something about Coach. He doesn’t beat around the bush. Basically he was telling me I needed to grow up, that I could still be the leader for this team."
Krzyzewski has three freshmen starters -- Jahlil Okafor, Jones and Winslow -- who went to Duke for this moment. Just after the Blue Devils lost to Mercer in 2014, Jones sent his future coach a text. "I just told him, this won’t happen again next year," Jones said.
Krzyzewski has a team that understands him, the school and the mission.
"We want to be one of those teams that Coach is talking about five or seven years later. It’s a motivation for us to be special," Cook said. "We don’t get tired of it. We love it when he breaks into one of his stories."
And he has a team that appreciates the fire that still burns.
"There hasn’t been a practice or a game where I can say Coach wasn’t there that day," Cook said. "He brings it every day, every game, and for a guy with four national championships to have that drive and hunger, it shows why he’s one of the greats. He instills that drive into his players."
Krzyzewski nearly pulled an all-nighter Saturday, up until nearly 6 a.m. Easter morning, watching Wisconsin tapes or as he described, "Having fun, trying to figure out how to defend [Sam] Dekker and [Frank] Kaminsky."
He mentioned the other day how, "I still try to approach everything like I’m coach at Army. I think that’s what my players deserve. They deserve you to be hungry and prepared."
So another title shot beckons. Another jewel to put in his legacy, though on Sunday, he claimed that as no special motivation. Not compared to the chance of seeing his current players as champions. He's been there, done that. Lots of times.
"We have our spot already," he said. "I know I’m one of the really good coaches. I know we’re one of the really good programs. Monday night is about them. They shouldn’t think of anything else. It has nothing to do with Duke historically, or me.
"They know that. We’ve sent that message throughout the year.
"It’s their moment. We’re in it with them."