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Mike Lopresti | | March 5, 2022

Coach K's curtain call begins, as it should, with a final home game vs. North Carolina

2022 NCAA tournament men's bracket predictions on the first day of March

It began on a Saturday. Duke vs. Stetson in Cameron Indoor Stadium, 10 guys on the court in short basketball pants, a new young coach on the bench. The Blue Devils’ first possession was a turnover.

Things would get better for Mike Krzyzewski.

Nov. 29, 1980. There was no shot clock in college basketball, no 3-point line, no women’s NCAA Tournament. The Big Eight conference was in business. So was the Pac-10, the Metro, the Eastern 8, the Southwest. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were starting their second season in the NBA. Michael Jordan was a senior in high school.

There were 23 teams in the NBA, including the Kansas City Kings and San Diego Clippers. Some of the NBA Finals would be seen on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, because CBS refused to clutter up primetime and preempt Dallas. Gas was $1.19 a gallon.

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Hubert Davis, the North Carolina coach whom Krzyzewski would face 42 years later in his final Cameron game, was 10 years old. Jon Scheyer, destined to one day take Krzyzewski’s chair, was seven years away from being born.

Duke defeated Stetson that day 67-49, led by 19 points from guard Tom Emma. Thirty-one years later, Emma would fall 11 floors to his death in New York City in an apparent suicide. The coach Krzyzewski beat, Glenn Wilkes, was a Stetson legend who won 552 games. He died in 2020 a week shy of his 92nd birthday.

That was Cameron victory No. 1 for Krzyzewski and the first of 145 different schools he would beat in his house –more than 40 percent of Division I. Only three programs have ever visited Krzyzewski’s Cameron and never lost: Illinois, Stephen F. Austin and Wagner.

If Duke can put away North Carolina Saturday, he will leave with 573 victories in the friendly confines. Just his home victories alone would put Krzyzewski 50th on the all-time list of coaching winners, ahead of some pretty renowned names. He’s won more games in Cameron than Gene Keady won everywhere. Or John Chaney. Or Lou Carnesecca.

He just had his last true road game Tuesday night. Won by 30 at Pittsburgh, which gives him a final count of 201 ACC road victories. Another record. Saturday night will end the journey, or at least the Durham part of it. Since that first tipoff against Stetson, there have been eight U.S. Presidents. North Carolina has had five coaches, Kentucky six, UCLA eight. It will be dramatic and emotional and loud. Yet it is not the last station in this farewell season. March is here.

And now we really begin to wonder how it will end for Mike Krzyzewski.

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Ahead lies his 36th and last NCAA Tournament. If Duke can win three games, he will get to 100 tournament victories, which would be 21 more than second-place Roy Williams, 35 more than Dean Smith, 53 more than John Wooden, 55 more than Bob Knight. Krzyzewski is in his own time zone.

And it is not just the five national championships and 12 Final Fours that distinguish his legacy. His teams have been very hard to push out of the way. In the Age of K, Duke has been eliminated nine times by the eventual national champion and 19 times by opponents that would advance to at least the Final Four. There have been four one-point losses, seven more by two, three or four. His Blue Devils have rarely gone easily, and it almost always has taken a heavyweight.

United States Military Academy Archives/NCAA archives Mike Krzyzewski during his West Point College years.Mike Krzyzewski during his West Point College years.

Oh, there was the occasional Eastern Michigan, Lehigh and Mercer. And this is the 20th anniversary of the year Duke was defending national champion and No. 1, but blew a 17-point lead in the Sweet 16 and was stunned 74-73 by unranked Indiana. No, that wasn’t Bob Knight’s handiwork, that was Mike Davis. So it has not all been peaches and cream this month for Krzyzewski.

Now the calendar tells is we can really wonder what the final act will be.

With Krzyzewski sobbing in the final seconds of a national championship victory, as Marquette's Al McGuire so unforgettably did, leaving the game for good at only 48?

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With a tournament loss, the same as the two North Carolina icons he competed against for so long? Dean Smith was beaten in the Final Four by Arizona, Roy Williams was blasted in the first round by Wisconsin. In neither case did anyone know it was their final games. That news came later, though there were hints in Williams’ post-loss press conference last March. “I started the season when I was 70 years old,” he said. “I feel like I’m 103 now.”

Adolph Rupp, bitter that a Kentucky state law called for mandatory retirement at age 70, departed with a 19-point loss to Florida State in the 1972 Elite Eight. “I’m on Social Security, I’ll do all right,” he said, but he was not taking it that lightly. Knight and John Thompson both ended their careers during the middle of the season, suddenly with no more desire to go on.

And then there was the Wizard.

In the national semifinals in 1975, UCLA barely slipped past Louisville 75-74 in overtime on a Richard Washington shot with two seconds left. Had Washington missed, or had the Cardinals’ Terry Howard – who made all 28 free throws he tried during the season – not rolled a 1-and-1 in and out with 20 seconds left, UCLA’s season might have ended right there. John Wooden’s career, too. The drama that followed would have never happened.

Wooden had not gone public with his retirement plans, but after the Louisville escape he decided to tell his players in the sanctity of the UCLA locker room. The championship match with Kentucky would be his final game. He was later asked to describe the Bruins’ immediate response: “Quietness.”

Two nights later, UCLA took the court with a deep purpose. “We want to win it for him” Washington said. The Bruins did, 92-85, using only six players to accomplish the mission, sending their coach into the sunset with his 10th national championship. Even the normally calm waters of Wooden were a little unsettled that emotional night. He had to be restrained from chasing after one of the officials following a technical foul.

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Afterward, Wooden just hoped aloud the UCLA brass would let him keep his locker in Pauley Pavilion, so he could continue his daily five-mile walks. “I won’t coach again, ever,” he said. “But I always hope to be involved in some way with basketball.”

He was only 64. Krzyzewski had 12 more seasons to finish at 64.

Maybe that will be the way it ends. A final glorious one shining moment, and him hoping Duke still gives him a locker in Cameron. Maybe in tears like McGuire. Or must the last page after 1,200 wins be a defeat?

All the sport waits to find out. But before that, there will be one last Saturday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium. One last dance with his sky-blue ancient rivals from eight miles down the road, a team he has met 96 times but never in the NCAA tournament.

What will it be like for Mike Krzyzewski, this night at Duke like none other? “I told my team I’ll be with them. Otherwise, you’re selfish. I ask them not to be selfish,” he said Tuesday after the Pittsburgh game. “I want to be in their moment. And for me to say, 'no, look at me, it’s my last game' ... I’m not going to do that.

“I’m sure it will be emotional but it’s going to be about my team. Always. Always, always, always.”

And then Krzyzewskiville closes for good.

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