University basketball works so that almost every team loses their last game. 358 teams take part in the men’s and women’s divisions I, and more than 350 of them will end the season with a loss. One team wins the NCAA Tournament; the other wins the NIT; there are several other fake tournaments such as Basketball Classic and CBI. Hypothetically you can also have such a bad record that you miss your conference tournament but win your last regular season game, but we’ll split. Almost everyone who plays or coaches basketball in college will end their season and career with a loss.
So it does not seem particularly embarrassing that Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career ended in defeat in the Final Four. Dean Smith did the same – and most coaching legends weren’t even lucky enough to go that far. Roy Williams’ last game was in the first round of last year’s tournament; Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun also finished with unceremonious defeats in the first round. Others, like Jerry Tarkanian or Eddie Satan, haven’t even come close to getting into the NCAA tournament in recent seasons.
But no one has ever had a final game like Mike Krzyzewski, whose “Blue Devils” lost on Saturday night all the time against North Carolina. It was a student basketball cataclysm: the first-ever match in an NCAA tournament between the two biggest rivals in the sport in the Final Four, at the end of Krzyzewski’s annual retirement tour. These two teams can play all the time, but they have never done anything like that.
And for some reason the battle of 81-77 more than justified the score.
One would expect any Duke-UNC game to be a relatively equal competition. Both teams are perennial power plants – UNC has six national championships; Duke has five. Back in 2019, both teams received 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Krzyzewski finished his career exactly 50-50 against “Tarny Heels”.
But only Duke seemed a team of champion caliber this season. Duke started the season 7-0, beating Kentucky and Gonzaga’s top 10. They were never below ninth place in the AP poll. And they have four players listed in Kevin O’Connor’s draft, including Paolo Banchero, who is now best in class, winger freshman AJ Griffin (№ 8), sophomore Mark Mark Williams (№ 16) and junior winger Wendel Moore -year (No. 29).
There are no players on this list in North Carolina. They finished 18th in the AP polls and lost their first six games against teams that ended up in the NCAA tournament. They lost with a score of 29 to the Kentucky team, which was defeated by Duke; at 22 to the Wake Forest team, which Duke has twice beaten; to 28 in Miami; and, of course, until February 20 to Duke. They seemed lost in their first year under head coach Hubert Davis, who took office after Williams ’unexpected retirement about a year ago.
But the UNC players improved during the season, and they twice beat Duke’s supposedly best team – first at the Cameron indoor stadium in early March, ruining coach K.’s last home game in Durham, and now in the Final Four, ending his career. era. They grew from a team that failed to defeat a quality opponent, to a team that could win the national championship. And they got to the title game as 8 seed, only the fifth team ever do so.
We see an increase in how the players performed against Duke in February compared to how they played in Durham and on Saturday night. Take Armando Bacot, who was the dominant internal threat in the tournament, averaging 15.4 points and 16.8 rebounds. In February, Bacot had just five rebounds at a loss to Duke with 20 points; he had 21 Saturday nights, the highest number among Duke’s opponents since 2016, and he helped UNC finish with 17 offensive rebounds that equaled the highest number among any team this season. In the first half, Becot had both Williams and his backup, Theo John, has suffered trouble by making rebounds and defending the edge:
Becott is the first player with 20 rebounds in the NCAA tournament after Tim Duncan, and his 21st Saturday on the board was the best player in the final four since 2003. five minutes remained as he fell to the ground writhing in pain after stepping on the foot of a teammate. But he came back less than a minute later and had only two words after re-entering the game: “fuck it.”
Or look at Licky Black, a senior at the UNC, who has learned in his career that he’s not very good at attack – averaging 7.0 shots per game in sophomore year and 3.8 this year. (This is the guy who threw 100 miles per hour fastball off the shield in Round 2.) But he devoted his skill set to ruining rival players ’nights, and unleashed it on Griffin in the last two UNC matches with Duke. Griffin scored 27 points in the first UNC game and only 11 in the last two games combined. On Saturday night he shot 1 on 7 from the field and missed every 3 he took. He was overtaken by Numbers 8-6, who knows he shouldn’t even try to score.
And there was Brady Manek, who began his career as a clean-shaven teammate of Tre Young in Oklahoma and is finishing it as a bearded mountaineer in a national championship match. He played 122 games for the Souners, but two of his seven best-scoring career appearances came in the last few weeks, when he lost 28 points against Market in the first round and 26 against Baylor in the second. He spent three tough threes in the second half against Duke, including in the final:
But no player reaches the peak at the right time, like second-year guard Caleb Love, who has become an absolute killer. Three of the four best scorers of his career have been in this NCAA tournament – 23 points in the first round against Market, the highest in his career 30 in Sweet 16 against UCLA and 28 against Duke. He drilled a dagger 3 over Williams to close the game late:
There are two possible explanations for a team where each player plays the best basketball of their career at the most important moment of the season: almost impossible luck or exceptional training. With UNC I bet on the latter. We don’t have much of a story with Hubert Davis as head coach because this is his first outing. However, by all accounts, it was brilliant: UNC went much further with Davis than they did last season with Roy Williams, even though he had a similar list that required a mid-season turnaround to evolve.
However, we have a story with Mike Krzyzewski. Obviously, Krzyzewski is a legend of all times. He has more wins than any other college basketball coach, and it was his 13th Final Four, a record for men. Krzyzewski did not just train for 40 years; he adapted to the student basketball world that was changing around him. But we have already seen his teams break the game. We’ve seen it in the NCAA tournament with multiple losses from 15-seeded, and we’ve seen it this season: while Duke was undefeated against ranked opponents, they lost seven games to unranked teams by being in the top 10 AP polls. This is a new record.
Krzyzewski’s exit from university basketball is humiliating for all obvious reasons: the final game of his career was a once-in-a-lifetime match on the biggest sports stage with Duke’s biggest rival. And he lost. But it’s especially humiliating because, frankly, Duke shouldn’t have played that game. Duke had a clear advantage in talent, and there must have been a great advantage of the coach – a living legend opposed literally a newcomer. But this newcomer has forced UNC to become a better version of itself over the course of the season. Meanwhile, Coach K.’s Blue Devils haven’t played better than the sum of their games.
Duke obviously had players to become the best team in the country. Instead, his season ended with one of the biggest setbacks in the history of Final Four. While UNC has evolved into a team created for one of the biggest moments in college history, Duke has disappeared and lost Coach K.’s last two matches with his biggest opponent, even though the squad is clearly capable of beating them in 20 .
Almost everyone’s career ends in loss – it is not remembered in itself. But Coach K’s latest game is one we’ll remember for decades.