NEW ORLEANS — It is Friday at the Caesars Superdome, and the bluest of Final Fours is imminent. What’s on the minds of the field — or as Kansas’ Remy Martin called them, “heavy-hitter teams with great coaches?”
Duke is ready . . .
Are the Blue Devils the villains? They almost always are. “People hate Duke because we win,” Wendell Moore Jr. is saying. “When you win everybody’s going to like you, but when you win at the rate Coach does, some people might get tired of you winning and start disliking you. We’re always the most disliked team on the road. But we still fill the stadiums, though.”
Perhaps there is a tinge of sentimental tolerance for Duke, just this time. Only when a coach retires after 42 years.
The Blue Devil players have heard the same theme all year, as co-stars in the Mike Krzyzewski drama. Even more so this week — question after question after question about being part of The End. This as they prepare to face their fiercest rival on the brightest stage.
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“It’s kind of been something that’s been following us really every game we play in. Coach’s last something,” Moore says. “So now the fact that it’s the Final Four, realizing that it is not only Coach’s last something, but it’s our last something as a team. This group of 14 won’t be together anymore after this, so we just all stay in that moment together.”
But the reality of the moment is hard to miss, even for the other coaches, who look at Krzyzewski this weekend and see themselves. “It’s got to be mind-blowing,” Villanova’s Jay Wright says. “You think about it after each year, you think about where your life is, what are you going to do . . . I think about it because there’s going to have to be a time when it’s time for the next coach of Villanova.
“And honestly, if you’re him and you’ve done it for that long and you’ve been that successful and it’s so been much a part of your life and you think about the longer you do it, the more relationships you have . . . that’s probably something that’s got to be really difficult to deal with.”
Later, at Duke’s open practice, Krzyzewski thanks the fans, the cheerleaders and the band, and says in his interview that he’s excited. “At 75, it’s nice to be excited about something.”
He won’t comment much about retirement. North Carolina is his focus. Meanwhile, seven rows up in the stands, wife Mickie and former Duke star Grant Hill have a long conversation, perhaps sharing memories.
The practice ends, and the Duke team gathers at midcourt for an academic award being given to Blue Devil reserve Michael Savarino for his 3.83 being the highest grade point average of the Final Four. He’s one of Krzyzewski’s 10 grandchildren.
“He hasn’t said anything,” Moore says, “about this being the last games of college basketball in his life as a coach.”
North Carolina is ready . . .
This is the Tar Heels’ 21st Final Four. That’s a lot of history to live up to.
“North Carolina is the standard. We’re supposed to be here,” Leaky Black is saying. “We really want to come home with some stuff to show people that we can do it. We’re always hearing about past stories of players doing this, bringing this home, I feel like we all want our little part in it.”
And the team they're playing? Any last words about them?
"We've been told to look at it as just another game, it's just Duke. I can't really give you guys what you want with this question, but we all know how big a game this is."
Hubert Davis understands what this week means. He has been through it as a player and assistant coach. Before they go eyeball-to-eyeball with Duke Saturday night, he wants his players to savor the moments in the Superdome.
“Before we went out to practice. I said this is the first and only time I want you to bring your phones,” he says. “As they walked out, just to see the floor, just to see how big this place is, the smiles on their faces, it was like when my little kids coming down for Christmas.
“Caleb (Love) said, `all those seats are going to be filled during the game?’ I said `yes, is that OK, because I’m looking to play you a lot of minutes. Are you OK here?’ He was like, yeah, yeah. `OK, I just want to make sure because I need you to make some buckets.’”
Making buckets can be a challenge in a dome, where the wide-open spaces can jar the senses and skew the perception. The coach doesn't put much into that. "Just give me a basketball, two baskets and let's shoot," Davis said. "Just shoot the ball. And if it goes in, it goes in. If you miss, you miss."
Same for his players. Brady Manek for instance: “If you never shot outside in the driveway with the wind blowing and you miss it and it rolls down the street, you haven’t really shot a basketball. So I don’t think it will be too big of a problem for us.”
Kansas is ready . . .
For April Fool’s Day Friday, Jayhawks reserve Mitch Lightfoot sends out a tweet. He is coming back again next season. But he comes clean later: “I promise, I’m not coming back for year seven.”
He has been a Kansas player for six years, long enough to play in 166 games and two Final Fours. With college basketball now resembling an airport with comings and goings, he has become a rarity. Having invested so much of his life in the sport and the program, no one probably appreciates this weekend any more than he.
“How crazy is that? If COVID doesn’t happen, I’m not here. If I don’t redshirt (in 2019-20) I’m not here,” he says. “I sometimes step back and tell myself this is so special. Not a lot of people get to do this. Relish it while you’re here. Appreciate everything you get to do.
“I’m going to cherish these memories for the rest of my life. I would say this Final Four is even a little bit more special than the last one because this is the way I get to go out, this is the last one, this is kind of all she wrote.”
He is one Jayhawk who understands the sting of the 2018 Final Four 95-79 shellacking by Villanova, because he played in it. Someone else who understands is Bill Self, who actually has recently re-watched a tape of that bad day.
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“I didn’t really watch it to try to have memories,” he says. “I watched it to see when they backed their guards down, did they have the same action off the ball, stuff like that. I got through about 12 minutes of it, and after that, it was very obvious I wasn’t going to learn very much. There’s other tapes to watch. That was probably good for me to see from the standpoint of how dangerous they can be when they’ve got it cooking, which they’re capable of.”
Duke-North Carolina. That's where all the buzz has gone this week as if Kansas-Villanova was the junior varsity game. Might the Jayhawks be feeling a little slighted on this pre-game Friday?
"It's perfect," Christian Braun says. "We don't need anyone to talk us up. I feel like we know who we are. We're Kansas."
Villanova is ready . . .
Wright has been assessing the mental state of his team, especially after the loss of injured Justin Moore. That has many analysts scratching the Wildcats off the list.
“And I was thinking to myself, do I need to talk to them about this?” Wright says. “So I just called Collin Gillespie and said, `do I need to talk to these guys about being ready, believing we can do this without Justin?’ He’s like, no way. Everybody is good. Don’t worry about it.”
Wright has had other concerns. He is renowned for being one of the classiest dressers in the profession, but with coaches now going mostly causal, he’s wearing school apparel with the rest of his staff. He didn’t even pack a suit for New Orleans.
“I don’t think I’m going to wear a suit because I don’t have one,” he says. “The hardest thing for me is we all dress the same. They send me pictures of what of what to wear, I can’t tell the colors. I’m always nervous I match up with the right gear. That’s been challenging for me this year. The head coach is not as good using the phone, seeing what I’m supposed to wear.”
Meanwhile, the Villanova family of past champions is gathering around this bunch of Wildcats. Slater has been hearing from several of the 2018 champions. “They all preached the same thing. It is like 10 Coach Wrights texting me,” he says. “All those guys still believe the same thing.”
Caleb Daniels has another motivation. He went to St. Augustine High School, which is only 3.5 miles from the Superdome. He’s come home.
And so Mike Krzyzewski has had his last Friday practice, and the North Carolina players have taken their cell phone pictures of the Superdome as their coach suggested and Bill Self has watched his films and Jay Wright has the correct Villanova shirt unpacked.
The Final Four is here.