When the college basketball world checked into Indianapolis for the Final Four, the expectation was that history would be made in Lucas Oil Dome on April 6. It was – but not the way everyone thought.
Kentucky, which was trying to go 40-0 and become the first team in 39 years to finish a college basketball season undefeated, went home early, still trying to figure out how it lost to Wisconsin in the semifinals. Coach John Calipari can write, ‘we made history anyway,’ on a blackboard 1,000 times a day and it won’t make it true. His team, superb all season, goes down as another very good team that couldn’t get to the finish line, joining teams such as 1983 Houston, 1985 Georgetown, 1986 Duke, 1991 Nevada-Las Vegas and 2008 Memphis (another Calipari-coached team).
With Kentucky gone, the history-making was left to Duke, specifically to the Blue Devils’ historically great coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won his fifth national title when Duke rallied from nine points down in the second half to beat Wisconsin, 68-63. That means only John Wooden, with 10, has more national championships than Krzyzewski. It means that on men’s college basketball’s coaching Mount Rushmore, Coach K sits at Wooden’s shoulder looking down at everyone else.
Apart from his 1991 team that upset UNLV, this may have been Krzyzewski’s most surprising national champion. A year ago, Duke lost in the first round of the tournament to Mercer, the second time in three seasons it failed to win an NCAA tournament game. Krzyzewski’s two best players, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, left for the NBA, which – being honest – didn’t break his heart. Krzyzewski’s heart and soul reside on the defensive end of the court, and Parker and Hood played defense as if whomever they were guarding was radioactive.
Three gifted freshmen arrived in the fall – two of them certain one-and-dones, the third at least thinking about it. There was a fourth freshman, too, someone looked to this season for deep depth. Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow were passing through Durham on their way to NBA millions and the only thing perhaps preventing Tyus Jones from following them was his lack of size. The team’s best returning player was senior Quinn Cook, who had been very good and very bad throughout his career. The rest were complementary players, not the kind you build a championship team around.
Krzyzewski threw the freshmen into the deep end from day one. They were his three best players, and he built his offense around them, especially Okafor, a true low post player in an era when big guys playing in the low post are anachronisms.
The gifts of all three freshmen were apparent from the start. With Cook growing into his role as the leader on and off the court, the Blue Devils became a team that was very hard to guard. The problem was on defense. Winslow was a gifted defender, but Jones had trouble keeping people out of the lane and Okafor looked bored most of the time when his team didn’t have the ball. As North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said about one of his players, “He thinks defense (pronounced da-fence) is something you build around your yard.”
In January, the Blue Devils were blown out in back-to-back games by North Carolina State and Miami, their first back-to-back losses in six years. In the Miami game they were embarrassed, 90-74, because they couldn’t guard Hurricanes guard Angel Rodriguez. The loss was their first in 41 homes games.
There are only two things in life Krzyzewski despises more than playing zone defense: golf and losing, not in that order. Late at night, after the Miami loss, he came to the conclusion that losing was more painful than playing zone. And so, when the Blue Devils traveled to Louisville that weekend, there was his team in a 2-3 zone.
“It helped us,” he said simply. “That’s why we went to it.”
It helped because opposing guards weren’t driving to the basket like they were in an HOV lane anymore. Okafor wasn’t asked to help on defense as much – beneficial because he really didn’t know how to help on defense. The zone stopped the bleeding, helped Krzyzewski get to 1,000 career wins and put the team back on track.
But Krzyzewski is sneaky fast. He didn’t abandon his man-to-man; in fact, he insisted his players continue to work on it. By the time March rolled around, they hadn’t mastered it, but they had improved markedly.
Defense, surprisingly, got Duke to Krzyzewski’s 12th Final Four. The Blue Devils gave up 54 points a game en route to Indianapolis. And defense, plus Grayson Allen, saved them in the championship game.
Grayson Allen? The only Duke freshman who likely isn’t one-and-done? The afterthought in Krzyzewski’s mega-recruiting class? Yes.
With Okafor and Winslow in foul trouble and the team in a deep hole – Wisconsin had taken a 48-39 lead on a layup by Frank Kaminsky with 13:26 left – Allen took over the game. He hit a long three-pointer to cut the margin to 48-42. Then he stole the ball from Kaminsky, and a few seconds later he hurtled to the basket, making a spectacular layup while drawing a foul. The free throw made it 48-45. A minute later, Allen made a jumper to cut the margin to 50-47.
The tide had been stemmed, the Duke bench was alive, and Wisconsin was stunned. Grayson Allen? The same Grayson Allen who had scored 16 points in the entire tournament prior to Monday night? Just for good measure, Allen hit another jumper to give Duke the lead, 58-56. Wisconsin tied it a moment later, but never led again. Jones, who won the Most Outstanding Player Award, made every key play in the final moments, but it might not have been possible without Allen.
And so, a season that was supposed to be about Kentucky and its quest for 40-0 ended up being climaxed by a kid who will be a sophomore next season and by a coach who won his first national championship 24 years ago and, at age 68, may not yet have won his last.
“I had great players this year,” Krzyzewski said. “They became a great team.”
There was a reason they became a great team: the guy cutting down the last net for the fifth time.
John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.