Duke, UNC coaches enter Final Four from very different places
NEW ORLEANS – Mike Krzyzewski’s last Duke team has to get past Hubert Davis’ first North Carolina team in order to play for the national championship.
And vice versa.
The long-time ACC rival programs meet Saturday night for the 258th time – and first time in the NCAA Tournament, let alone the Final Four.
It’s a collision between the end of a historic coaching era and the beginning of what may or may not become some sort of an era.
The Blue Devils and the Tar Heels have much in common as 2 of the most successful programs in college basketball history, but the status of the 2 coaches couldn’t be more different.
Coach K arrived at Duke 42 years ago – when Davis was 10 years old – as an outsider – a native of Chicago and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, where he played for Bob Knight and then started his head coaching career.
He has won more games than any other coach in college history (1,202 with an opportunity to add 1 or 2 to that total) before retiring.
Coach K built Duke’s program into what the Tar Heels’ program already was under Dean Smith.
Davis didn’t build his program, he inherited it.
He grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., some 75 miles from the UNC campus, played for Smith and was an assistant under Bill Guthridge and Roy Williams, who announced his retirement a year ago Friday.
Davis called accepting the job as Williams’ successor “an act of service.”
“It was more than wins and losses,” Davis said. “It was being put in a position to give these kids everything I have gotten from Coach Williams and Coach Guthridge, and everything that the coaches have given the North Carolina players over the last 18 years.”
The announcement last summer that associate head coach Jon Scheyer would succeed Coach K enabled the retiring coach to skip recruiting and spend more time on campus getting to know his final – and one of his youngest – teams.
Both of these teams were struggling not long ago. Duke was primed for a celebration of Coach K’s final home game when it hosted UNC in what was assumed to be his last game against his biggest nemesis.
But the Tar Heels spoiled the celebration by beating the Blue Devils 94-81 on March 5. Duke bounced back with consecutive wins against Syracuse and Miami in the ACC tournament before losing to Virginia Tech.
Once the NCAA Tournament began, any game could have been Coach K’s last, but the Blue Devils have played the way they mostly have played during this time of year in his tenure – beating Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas.
“I don’t know how this will turn out,” Coach K said, “but our guys are playing well.”
UNC’s struggles came earlier in the season after the Heels lost back-to-back games to Miami and Wake Forest to fall to 12-6 and 4-3 in the ACC.
Then UNC won 4 straight and 11 of 13 to close the regular season before going 1-1 in the ACC Tournament. The Heels have beaten Marquette, Baylor, UCLA and Saint Peter’s to reach the Final Four.
Several players said the turnaround came when they started playing more selflessly and stopped getting complacent over brief success.
“I felt like at the beginning of the year the thing that I had to coach the most was effort and toughness,” Davis said. “I haven’t had to do that the last 2 months at all.”
Coach K said Davis has done a “marvelous job.”
“There’s a lot of pressure taking over a program the level of North Carolina’s, with the tradition of excellence that they’ve had,” Coach K said. “He’s under immense scrutiny and they got knocked back a number of times. I just thought he always had poise and he has great humility. And it worked together.
“And he had a belief in his players and in what he was doing. He’s run his own race. He hasn’t tried to be Dean Smith or Roy or anybody else. He’s been himself in that culture. But he knows that culture. He’s worked in it and he’s played in it.”
Soon Scheyer will become custodian of the Duke culture that Coach K created.
“I didn’t do this season to have a storybook,” Coach K said. “I did it because I wanted to coach one more year and I wanted to have a good succession plan for our program.”