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Mike Lopresti | | February 1, 2022

Duke basketball is starting to hit its stride in Coach K's farewell season

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Duke has come to town. The taco stands in Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion are closed. No hot dogs or popcorn or soda or water, either —COVID no-concession regulations. It’s a dry arena Monday night, but hardly a quiet one, the crowd aroused by the name in Gothic letters on the visiting team's blue jerseys.

Mike Krzyzewski has come to town. Nearly 40 years ago, he was a frequent sight at DeMatha High School practices in Maryland, recruiting Danny Ferry to Duke. During all those stops, he became more and more impressed by the work of a young DeMatha assistant coach named Mike Brey. In 1987, Krzyzewski hired Brey, who would stay in Durham eight years — great dynasty-building years.

“I call him the Final Four assistant,” Krzyzewski says. “Six Final Fours, two national championships. Having he and (Tommy) Amaker together with me was magical.”

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Three decades later, on the final day of January 2022, Krzyzewski and Brey are facing one another as opponents — maybe for the last time. It is a night to check in and see how the Coach K victory lap is going. The answer turns out to be a little ominous for those in Duke’s way down the road.

As tipoff nears, Notre Dame seems a scary foe, having won 10 of its last 11 games and staying a perfect 9-0 at home, with two of the victories over Kentucky and North Carolina. The Irish will send out a veteran lineup that includes four seniors or graduate students, including leading scorer Dane Goodwin, who is the only Division I player in America above 50 percent in both overall shooting and 3-point attempts, while averaging at least 15 points.

The crowd is buzzing for an upset, especially all the students in green at one end who enthusiastically boo the Blue Devils when they first appear. But there are few boos from the students when a 74-year-old man pops out of the tunnel 4:35 before tipoff, walks past the Irish leprechaun, and heads over to embrace Brey.

Coach K is in the building. They know about legendary coaches here. Just across the walkway from the arena is the football stadium with all the statues; Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, etc. And sitting in his courtside seat at one end is Digger Phelps, who on a Saturday in 1974, set this place on fire, directing the Irish in their wrecking of UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. John Wooden was on the visitor’s bench back then. Krzyzewski is there Monday night.

His team is about to show why his last ride might go well into March, or even April.

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Two hours later, it’s over. Duke 57, Notre Dame 43. It’s been something of an ugly night. The two teams have combined to go an awful 6-for-37 from the 3-point, but Krzyzewski sees that from a different perspective. “We both have good shooters. That means somebody played good defense,” he says. “When somebody doesn’t play good defense we’ll shoot better from the 3.”

The Blue Devils — the 10th most prolific scoring team in the land — have had a very modest offensive night, except for Paolo Banchero. They have shot only three free throws. Three free throws? Duke?  But they led by 22 and won in a hostile place by putting a defensive headlock on Notre Dame.

The Irish shot 19 percent in the first half and were 3-for-18 from the 3-point line for the game. Goodwin, Notre Dame’s hottest hand, missed all seven shots and went scoreless.

“They swarmed us,” Brey will say in his post-game press conference. “We tried a little bit of everything, we couldn’t get anything going . . . We’ve eventually been able to get loose in the second half (against other teams). No shot tonight.”

Duke has been out of the spotlight a bit since losing at Ohio State and dropping from No. 1. So much attention swayed to Auburn. Or Gonzaga. Or Baylor, or Purdue, or the Pac-12 powers. But Monday is a picture into the Blue Devils' journey.

There have been some tough times with COVID. Krzyzewski mentions how Duke had to dial back for 10 days, and more than 40 people affiliated with the program have been infected, including his own wife.  “I’ve never been through anything like that,” he says. “So it’s been a hell of a month.”

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Also, makeups of postponements have forced Duke into a current stretch where five of six ACC games are on the road, something the Blue Devils haven’t seen in 30 years. Duke won at Louisville Saturday, now Notre Dame. Next is North Carolina in Chapel Hill Saturday, then home to Virginia, then back out to Clemson and Boston College. That’s a big ask for a team whose rotation includes three freshmen and two sophomores. But so far, so good.

“You’ve got to do what they ask you to do and try to use it as a positive,” Krzyzewski said. “We have a young team, so going through this, you get confidence, you get older.”

The thing is, all virus complications aside, this team is starting to roll.

Prized freshman Banchero is more and more a force. He had 21 points Monday and 10 field goals — or only three fewer than the entire Notre Dame starting lineup. Led by Banchero, Duke has the tools to outscore a team. But if the shots aren’t falling, there is also the ability to shut down an opponent. Take Monday for instance. “One thing we can always count on is our effort and defense,” Banchero said. “Obviously we have to clean up the offensive end. Tonight was a good example of how our defense can win us some games.”

Maybe most imposing of all is the Blue Devils’ sheer physical talent and presence. Having seen the business end of Duke Monday night, Brey speaks at length about that.

“We’ve had Kentucky come through here, we’ve had Carolina come through here with bodies,” he says. “They don’t have bodies like these guys.”

The Irish would normally try to combat that with the 3-point shot. They made 13 against North Carolina, and seven against Kentucky. They had three Monday night. And when they tried to drive to the rim against the wide bodies such as Mark Williams and Theo John, that didn’t work, either.

“You can tell your guys, `finish strong, go in there,’” Brey said. “Well, when they’ve got guys with 7-3 wing spans, it’s a little tricky.”

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Brey mentions the Duke freshmen — Banchero, Trevor Keels, AJ Griffin — and how their physiques don’t match their years.  “Are they 18?” he asks. Keels and Griffin are, Banchero is 19. The Notre Dame coach has a big laugh at that. “My strength coach is sitting there going, we could have Nate Laszewski bench press for five years. But that’s OK, that’s who we are and sometimes we get you. But not tonight.”

No, not tonight. The two coaches and friends share some words afterward and then Krzyzewski leaves the Purcell Pavilion court for the last time. That’s what this winter is like for him. A lot of last walks out of places where the audience has come to see his farewell. Or even better, maybe to see him lose.

Brey mentions how “the moment got us a little bit,” referring to how the Irish seemed to rush and be out of form in Monday’s bright lights. But Duke faces the moment every game. Not like last year’s empty arenas.

“It’s better to play with a lot of noise than with no noise,” Krzyzewski says. “I’ve got a pretty young team. They are never nervous about their environment. We won’t lose because we’re nervous. Every place we go is a pretty good environment. And if we lose, it’s a rushing to the court. There’s a lot to look forward to.

“I’m only paying attention to our team and how we develop. I can’t compare it to anybody, I don’t watch anybody else. I think we’re getting better.”

So it would seem. Duke is now 18-3, with the three defeats by a combined six points. In all three losses — Ohio State, Miami, Florida State — the Blue Devils led in the last two minutes. They are not that far from 21-0. And they appear to be coming on.

As Krzyzewski leaves the press room Monday, a young boy and his father stand outside hoping for an autograph. The coach with 1,188 career wins obliges, carefully spelling out the kid’s first name. Then he heads for the locker room, and the plane, and the next stop on the tour. So many goodbyes to say, so many challenges to face — with a final team growing into its mission.

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