Duke's Krzyzewski cements his place in history

By The Sports NetworkApril 1, 2015 at 10:02 AM
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Chances are programs that go up against Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski are wishing the famed leader of the Blue Devils would just ride off into the sunset.

That's not happening anytime soon though, especially after Krzyzewski's top- seeded Blue Devils pulled away down the stretch of Sunday's 66-52 Elite Eight victory over second-seeded Gonzaga.

Krzyzewski's accomplishments throughout his career are already legendary, but the former West Point player and coach cemented his place in history Sunday when he summited the Mount Everest of coaching accolades.

Krzyzewski is taking Duke to its 16th Final Four appearance in program history, and the 12th under his direction. That matches the mark set by immortal UCLA coach John Wooden for the most by a coach all-time. He has now won a record 86 NCAA Tournament games in his career - 21 more than greats Dean Smith and Roy Williams.

The Duke leader passed Smith (11 Final Four appearances) on Sunday. Three coaches in history have made seven Final Four appearances, including Michigan State's Tom Izzo, whose team will meet Duke in the Final Four in Indianapolis on Saturday.

This path is all too familiar for Krzyzewski, who last navigated his Blue Devils to a Final Four in 2010, when they won the national championship by beating Butler. The Blue Devils earned the top seed in the South Region that year, and went through Houston to reach the Final Four.

Sound familiar?

Since losing to Notre Dame in the ACC championship bout, Duke has ripped off a series of impressive wins since garnering the top seed in the South Region with a No.4 ranking in the nation. Duke stomped out Robert Morris in the second round, then proceeded to pull off a 19-point win over San Diego State, a six-point effort over Utah and the 14-point victory over Gonzaga, which was closer than the final outcome may show.

The win over Robert Morris was the program's 100th in NCAA Tournament history in its 38 appearances on the national stage. The Blue Devils are now 103-34 in the NCAA Tournament, with four national championships to boot. All of them were won with Krzyzewski at the helm.

The most impressive part is that Krzyzewski has been able to maintain a standard for success in this day and age, despite the fact that the NCAA and the top programs in the country, like Duke, have become a rotating door for players looking to use college as a quick stepping stone on their way to the NBA.

That's the case this season for Krzyzewski, who relied on three freshmen that looked exceptionally mature for their age in coming back from a deficit against Gonzaga on Sunday. But for Coach K, it's not about what will happen once the season comes to a close. He's living in the moment and soaking up every minute with this current Final Four team.

"Just being with these kids and sharing this moment and this Final Four, I'm so happy, I'm so happy for them and to be with them," Krzyzewski said. "I love my team. ... They're taking me to Indy, which is kind of neat."

Krzyzewski has recruited some of the best players that have come through college basketball in recent years. He and John Calipari, the coach for Kentucky, head two of the most notable destinations for high school recruits.

Last year it was Jabari Parker. Back in 2011 it was Kyrie Irving. And this year's upcoming NBA Draft is expected to be headed by none other than freshman sensation Jahlil Okafor, who became the first freshman ever to win the ACC Player of the Year award.

However, it's not just Okafor. The supporting cast of freshmen Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow and senior guard Quinn Cook make for a dynamic lineup. Throw in juniors Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, sophomore Matt Jones and freshman Grayson Allen, and the Blue Devils become a team with some depth behind three of not just the best freshmen, but three of the best overall players in the nation.

This Final Four appearance for Krzyzewski may be special for him because it's his record-tying 12th in his career, but it's equally as special for the players who are making their first (some of them second) trip to the national semifinals.

"Coach has been to however many Final Fours, but this is his first one with this group, and that's what means the most," Winslow said following Sunday's win over Gonzaga. "Living in this moment, living right now."

Gonzaga held its largest lead - four points - with 16:20 left to play in the game on Sunday. It looked like the Bulldogs might be turning the tables on the Blue Devils, but a run by Duke helped the top seed regain the lead, which was sustained through the final minutes.

With 45 seconds to play, Jones stole the ball from Gonzaga and took a breakaway all the way down for a layup and a 66-52 Duke lead. Krzyzewski was lost in a fit of joy, jumping up and down and pointing to the crowd as his team sealed its travel plans to yet another Final Four.

Even after 35 seasons, the typically stoic Krzyzewski was able find the fountain of youth with this new adventure and a youthful team he so dearly loves.

"A teacher should learn with every new year he or she has an opportunity to teach, because the students bring out new things for you," Krzyzewski said. "... I think when you stop learning you should retire. Learning is what keeps you fresh."

[SportsNetwork.com]

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