The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. We kicked things off with Kentucky on Tuesday, and followed with Wisconsin yesterday. Today, it’s Duke‘s turn.
Coach K in the record books. It’s been a pretty special year for Mike Krzyzewski, highlighted by his 1,000th win and an NCAA Tournament run resulting in his 12th Final Four appearance, tying former UCLA legend John Wooden for the most of all-time. And Coach K might not be done. He has a chance to improve his impressive 8-3 record in National Semifinal games this weekend in Indianapolis, the best such record of any coach. And with two more wins, he is poised to move into sole possession of second place in all-time national championships with five (his current mark of four is tied with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp). Coach K’s long career means that he’s also experienced his fair share of postseason disappointments, but those exits more than anything speak to just how tough it is to win in March. The consistency with which Krzyzewski’s teams have gone deep into the second and third weekends of the Big Dance is astounding.
Duke is here because of its defense. Much has been made of Duke’s struggles on the defensive end of the court this season. The Blue Devils had an especially rough stretch in January and February during which they gave up more than a point per possession in eight of 10 games. Conventional wisdom suggests that it was Duke’s offense that carried it to a sterling 28-3 regular season record. But since the onset of the NCAA Tournament, Duke’s defense has been the driver behind its Final Four run. The Blue Devils have held all four of their opponents to fewer than 0.90 points per possession and, as a result, have now cracked the top 20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Their performance in crunch time of the Elite Eight win over Gonzaga exemplified that improvement. Duke held the Zags to a single Byron Wesley free throw over the final 5:43 of the game. There hasn’t been a discernible difference in Krzyzewski’s philosophy — he’s always stressed the importance of team defense — but perhaps Duke’s young players have developed a better understanding of his defensive principles and it is translating now more than ever, a dangerous proposition for the rest of the Final Four.