Mike Krzyzewski empowers Duke players in crucial moment as Blue Devils advance to Elite Eight
SAN FRANCISCO – Mike Krzyzewski has been Duke’s head coach for 42 years now.
But, on Thursday night in the Sweet 16, he let the players coach themselves in a crucial moment.
Even after all this time. Even after 12 Final Four trips and 5 NCAA championships, sometimes he knows you have to let the players take ownership of their on-court performance.
The reason the Blue Devils are advancing to the Elite Eight to face No. 4 seed Arkansas on Saturday night following a 78-73 victory over Texas Tech is because of a choice the players made as a group to switch from a zone defense back to man-to-man.
“I thought when we went zone, that helped us,” Krzyzewski said. “These guys, with a few minutes left, they said, ‘Coach, we want to go back to man.’ They were playing so well, I figured I’d listen to them.
“It was like a Catholic boys’ choir. It was a chorus. They all said it. They all said it, and they said it with enthusiasm. ‘We want to do this. We want to go man.’ God bless them. What a great group, these kids. They’ve grown up so much in the last 12 days.”
Clearly, the switch back to man defense worked, as the Blue Devils closed the game on a 14-8 run and made their final 8 shots from the floor. The switch led to multiple stops of Texas Tech, too, providing Duke with energy on both ends of the court. So, that begs the question – why go zone in the first place, then?
Coach K said he did it to let his players catch their breath after a physical stretch against a strong, athletic Red Raiders squad.
“I thought they were wearing us down,” he said. “No, I didn’t think that. They were (wearing us down). And (it was) just to try to give them a different look.”
At first, Texas Tech took advantage of the zone defense for some easy buckets. Then? Coach K credited his assistants for making a crucial switch.
“What happened was the zone was too far out,” he said. “So, at the timeout, Jon Scheyer and Chris Carrawell said, ‘They’re beating us on cuts, not on 3s,’ so we made the adjustment.”
But then, it was back to man for the closing minutes. One iconic floor slap later, Duke was celebrating a Sweet 16 victory.
“With this team, they’re so young and they’re still growing,” Krzyzewski said. “Whenever they can own something, they’re going to do it better than if we (the coaches) just run it. When they said (they wanted to switch back to man defense), I felt they were probably going to own it. They’ll make it work, and that’s probably more important than strategy during that time.”
And that floor slap with 1:08 remaining and the Blue Devils up 73-68? Even Coach K couldn’t help but crack a smile and laugh.
“What the hell?” he shrugged. “Why not? Our guys really wanted that because it’s kind of a cross of the bridge to the brotherhood. They can now say they did that. Hopefully they can say that again, at least on Saturday.”
Whatever happens on Saturday night against Arkansas, it’s clear Krzyzewski is enjoying this final ride as Duke’s head coach. He couldn’t stop smiling while praising his players. Jeremy Roach scoring 11 of his 15 points in the second half, including some clutch buckets down the stretch. Paolo Banchero with a sensational 22-point effort. Mark Williams scoring 16 points and grabbing 8 boards (and throwing down a big-time dunk late in the game).
Even after all these years, even after 100 NCAA Tournament wins (yes, 100 wins in March Madness alone), Coach K loves watching his guys find success in big moments.
“The resolve of Jeremy Roach was incredible. His drives against that defense were so strong, so determined,” Krzyzewski said. “Paolo did a couple of things tonight that he’s never done in his life, and he did it instinctually. He just wanted to win so badly. It was so beautiful to see. Mark, with the rebounds. Boy, my guys are really doing a great job. They’re really doing a great job.”
This wasn’t Roach’s first time playing hero. Heck, he did it just last week against Michigan State in the second round. This time, a step-back jumper all but clinched a Duke win:
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2022
When asked about Roach stepping up and taking over the point guard role when Duke needed an answer at that position, Banchero took issue, saying the Blue Devils have always trusted Roach.
“Well, first off, he has been the point guard all year,” Banchero said. “I wouldn’t say we were in need. He has always been able to step up in big moments, and so we trust him 100%. We’ve trusted him this whole year. Gonzaga, he made big plays down the stretch. Every game, he has stepped up in the clutch, so we trust Jerm 100%.
“We know that’s what he does. He is comfortable out there all the time, so when the ball is in his hands, we’re comfortable. Have you ever seen him get it taken from him? Exactly. That’s all that needs to be said.”
Banchero had plenty of heroic moments himself, including this 3 to give the Blue Devils a 69-68 lead from which they wouldn’t look back:
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2022
Coach K is getting plenty of (well-deserved) attention during his final NCAA Tournament run, but on Thursday night at the Chase Center, he was just glad he had a front row seat to watch Banchero.
“I’m just so happy that I was there for that moment with him, because it’s his,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s his, but it benefited all of us.”
How many more moments does this season have left in it for Coach K? That question lingers large over Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup. But, for now, he’s just enjoying one last ride with a team that continues to grow up before his very eyes.