Picking Duke's All-Time Final Four team under Coach K
Saturday — or perhaps Monday — feels destined to be one of those historical dividing lines in college basketball.
College hoops may ultimately be defined in terms of the Pre-Coach K era, the Coach K era, and whatever the brave new world of the Post-Coach K era will be.
But before we move on to the future, let’s honor the past and present. Coach K’s 13th Final Four team will take the court Saturday night, which means he’s had enough Duke players in Final Four competition to form a small league.
But rather than a league, we’ve selected our all-time Duke Coach K Final Four team.
The rules are simple: They had to play in a Final Four for Coach K (sorry, Zion). Beyond that, here’s the best of the best of a golden era of college basketball. And if you stumble onto a time machine, good luck finding a roster to beat this one.
Jahlil Okafor, C (2015 Final Four): Yes, he was a one-and-done. Yes, his numbers don’t stand up to the scrutiny that some guys on this list can reach. In 6 NCAA Tournament games, he only broke 10 points 3 times. But he did average 15 points per game and help Duke outlast Michigan State and Wisconsin in the Final Four to claim another title. One-and-done is fine … as long as the job is done, and in Okafor’s case, no complaints.
Elton Brand, F (1999): Yes, he only played 2 years at Duke and he didn’t win a title. But Brand was absolutely rock solid as the best player in the country in 1999. In 10 career NCAA Touranment games, he averaged 14.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and shot 63%. His lone moment of weakness was an early foul out against Kentucky in 1998, which might have cost Duke another Final Four trip in his freshman season. (Incidentally, if the current run results in a title, this space goes to Paolo Banchero. He’s averaging 18.5 points and 7 rebounds per game. Brand didn’t win a title, and if Banchero does, we’ve got a late replacement.)
Brian Davis, F (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992): OK, the bad news first. His career stats are 6.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. So why is he on an All-Final Four team? Well, a couple of reasons. First, notice the 4 Final Fours. Aside from Christian Laettner and Greg Koubek, not many people can claim that. Notice the 2 national titles, the ones that took Duke from being a good team but no real national threat to the top dog in college basketball. And ultimately, he’s a symbol of every really good player who sacrificed numbers and honors and fame to be part of something bigger. None of this is to say that he wasn’t a legitimately strong player. An excellent defender, a dependable teammate, and a glue guy, Davis had 15 points in the 1991 massive semifinal upset of UNLV. As a senior, he had 21, 15, and 13 points in consecutive games to get Duke to the Final Four — and then came off the bench in the last game of his career as the Devils took down Michigan’s Fab Five. There are 50 players with better numbers, but particularly on a sub-set of the team with guys who made one Final Four, there might not be anybody better suited to complete a team.
Grayson Allen, G (2015): You might notice a theme here, but Allen was an incredibly productive guard who made 1 Final Four trip. The freshman version of Allen had not matured into his full Broadway-themed arch-villain of college basketball. But he did put up 16 points (3rd highest-scoring game of his season) including 4 critical 3-pointers in the NCAA title game against Wisconsin. Yes, he never made another Final Four. But Allen was a great player who had one of his first big games on the biggest stage of all. In a close call on a crowded backcourt, Allen’s body of work gives him the edge over one-and-done teammate Tyus Jones, who starred in the title game win over Wisconsin.
JJ Redick, G (2004): He only made 1 Final Four and won no titles, but Redick is perhaps the gold standard for pure perimeter shooters. As a sophomore, he averaged 16 points per game and made 15 3-pointers in leading Duke to the national semifinals. Overall, his 2,769 points and 457 3-pointers at Duke are video game numbers. How did he only make 1 Final Four?
Danny Ferry, F/C (1986, 1988, 1989): He made 3 Final Four appearances, and was the key contributor on the last 2 of those teams. The case against him is that he never won an NCAA title, but he played 19 games in the NCAA Tournament. He scored 269 career points in the Big Dance, including 34 in a semifinal loss to Seton Hall that ended his college career. Ferry was the first ACC player to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists, and he was a key component in K’s culture of winning, even if he didn’t reach the top prize.
Kyle Singler, F (2010): On the other hand, Singler was a deeply OK player on a deeply OK team that was Coach K’s no-star title winner. Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith might take exception, but Singler, with his remarkable consistency, was the straw who stirred the drink all the way to the 2010 championship. He averaged 18 points per game in the 2010 tournament, hitting 14 3-pointers, and going for 19 points and 9 rebounds in the title game win over Butler.
Trajan Langdon, G (1999): The “Alaskan Assassin” helped Duke reach just a single Final Four, but he was ahead of his time as a court-spreading, 3-point shooting superstar. Langdon scored in double figures in 8 of his 11 career NCAA Tournament games, and he averaged 18.2 points per game and made 17 3-pointers in getting the Devils to within a fingernail of the 1999 title against UConn. His career totals of 1,974 points and 342 long-range bombs attest to his general greatness.
Jay Williams, G (2001): Williams also reached just one Final Four, but did have the consolation of taking him the big prize in 2001’s win over Arizona. Williams averaged over 20 points per game in NCAA Tournament play and put up a massive 25.7 points per game in that 2001 run. He also averaged 5.5 assists overall and had 31 steals in his 12 total games. 3 seasons at Duke yielded 2,079 points and 644 assists. His NBA career was cut short, but on this team, Williams is definitely a standout.
Chris Duhon, G (2001, 2004): Like a more modern, slightly better scoring Brian Davis, all Duhon did was win. In the NCAA Tournament, he could score (6 double-digit games), rebound (1 double-digit game, 5 games with 5+ rebounds), pass (6 games with 6+ assists), and defend (7 games with 3+ steals). Duhon helped Duke win a title as a freshman with a typical performance (9 points on 3-for-5 shooting, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1 turnover), while Arizona’s guards not-so-mysteriously shot 4-for-22 from 3-point range. In a pure résumé sense, he might not be here. But if you saw him play, you get it.
Christian Laettner, F/C (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992): He’s one of the greatest college basketball players ever. Won 2 titles, played in 23 NCAA Tournament games, scoring 407 points in the Tournament. Both remain a record and likely always will. National college player of the year, legendary pain in the butt. As a working-class kid who somehow came to exemplify Duke’s apparent class privilege, Laettner might be the most misunderstood player in college basketball history. Love him, hate him, but when the ball went up, you’d want him on your team.
Shane Battier, F (1999, 2001): Battier is another guy who opposing fans loved to hate. In 19 career NCAA Tournament games, he scored 278 points — which is also roughly the number of charges he drew. Battier was a contributor as a freshman and sophomore, then matured into a legitimate star. In his last 2 seasons, he scored 20+ points in 7 of his 9 NCAA Tournament games (and has 18 in another game). He averaged a double-double in leading Duke to the 2001 title and was a career 37% 3-point shooter in the Tournament. But seriously, if this team was in a 1-point game late, who’s sliding under a driving offensive player? It’s Battier.
Grant Hill, F (1991, 1992, 1994): Laettner and Hurley steal plenty of the headlines for the 1991 and 1992 titles. But aside from his role on those teams, Hill’s indisputably here because he carried the 1994 team to within a couple of shots of an incredibly unlikely title. He was a nightly triple-double threat while dragging Cherokee Parks, Antonio Lang and Chris Collins to the threshold of their own national title. Also can’t forget that he threw the perfect baseball pass to Laettner against Kentucky in 1992. Always the coolest guy in the room.
Bobby Hurley, G (1990, 1991, 1992): Hey, somebody has to check Laettner’s ego. Hurley was a legitimately great quarterback for his offense. But he’s here because of one thing — in 1990, Duke met UNLV for the NCAA title and freshman point guard Hurley was thrown to the wolves: 0 points, 3 assists, 5 turnovers, and Duke lost by 30. A year later, Duke met the game UNLV in the semifinals and pulled a massive upset. Hurley played 40 minutes and had 12 points, 7 assists, and the coolest head on the floor in one of the most pressure-packed games ever. In 20 NCAA Tournament games, he had 145 assists and was a 44% 3-point shooter. He’s on the team.
Johnny Dawkins, G (1986): Why is Dawkins on this team? There’s a legal term that explains it clearly — sine quo non. It translates to “Without which, not.” Without Johnny Dawkins, it’s not clear that Coach K keeps his job beyond the late 1980s. He certainly wouldn’t have made his first Final Four or national championship game without the 1986 Naismith Player of the Year. And in a Marty McFly world, if Dawkins is erased from the picture, there might not be a picture at all.
That aside, Dawkins scored 2,556 points, which was Duke’s scoring record until Redick broke it. He scored between 24 and 28 points in every NCAA Tournament game in 1986, and was always an excellent on-ball defender. Smart, gutsy, and too cool to be uncomfortable, Dawkins is the prototype for everything that came after. Good enough.