Mike Krzyzewski somehow lost his touch?INDIANAPOLIS – With every year that passed with a Duke-free Final Four, the skeptics became louder: Had
Perhaps the 63-year-old Hall of Famer was merely waiting for his current crop of maturing players to figure out how to storm through a bracket. It might have taken longer than it ever did during his three-decade reign in Durham, but Coach K is back at the Final Four.
And at least one of his former stars never questioned whether he'd return to college basketball's biggest stage.
"I didn't have any doubts. One thing people need to know about Coach K, is if they have doubts, they are mistaken," said Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer, who led Duke to its most recent national title in 2001.
"That guys figures out ways to be successful," he added. "That's why he's been successful for 25 years. He's got three championships, working on a fourth championship maybe this year in Indiana. He takes critics on, and he figures out ways to be successful. We don't have the most talented team in the country, but guess where we are?"
They're in familiar territory for their coach, even if none of the current players have advanced this deep into the bracket before.
The Blue Devils (33-5), who play West Virginia (31-6) on Saturday night in the national semifinals, are in the Final Four for the 11th time under Krzyzewski but first time since 2004, when these players were in high school — or younger.
And for those doubters who wondered whether Krzyzewski had grown out of touch with younger generations of players, whether his time coaching the U.S. Olympic team had taken too heavy a toll back home in Durham, or whether he simply became a victim of his own success — well, Coach K just doesn't seem to care too much about them.
"Anyone who's successful over a period of time is going to have detractors, not just for a few years, but throughout your career," Krzyzewski said. "That's just part of the game. Everybody has that, and not to take that personally. No one is going to get everybody supportive of them. So I think you just go about your business. This isn't about my vindication or anything like that. It's about coaching this group of kids who deserve your full commitment."
What impresses his next adversary is how Krzyzewski, a noted protégé of Bob Knight, has been able to carve out his own path, whether he's leading the Americans to the gold medal or chasing a fourth national championship with the Blue Devils.
"I think there's no question that (Knight) had a tremendous influence on Mike," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "Mike's done a great job through the years of playing to his guys' strengths and letting them play to their strengths. I think that's to be commended. I think Mike is very much his own man."
Krzyzewski, who is seven wins shy of 800 at Duke, has long maintained that his second job with the Olympians has only made him a better college coach because working with NBA players gave him a broader perspective on the game.
"Some people would say that's hurt your program — that's just so crazy dumb to think that," Krzyzewski said. "It was one of the worst trains of thought of how you analyze me, that (coaching Olympians is) going to hurt me and my program, because it's done nothing but help, and help, I think, a lot. I know I'm a better person.”
In a break from the school's recent past, he reportedly accepted a verbal commitment from the first junior-college transfer in Duke history, forward Carrick Felix of the College of Southern Idaho.
While NCAA rules prohibit him from discussing recruits before a letter of intent has been signed, Krzyzewski said he would entertain the idea of signing a JUCO player only if he could play three seasons "because it would be impossible to graduate from Duke."
Said former player Elton Brand, one of the first to leave Duke early for the pros: "Coach really wants guys to be there for longevity. He wants guys to graduate and become great men, regardless of basketball. That's what he's about. He's about family, and he's about seeing his student athletes grow into great individuals."
Krzyzewski also sounds determined to make Final Fours an every year thing again at Duke — and maybe even chase a coincidental bit of symmetry. Nine years passed between Krzyzewski's second title in 1992 and the '01 crown. Nine years later, and Duke's back in the Final Four again, still dealing with those heightened expectations that were raised during the days of Christian Laettner and Grant Hill.
"I'm really very excited for my team. I really love these guys," Krzyzewski said. "They have suffered from comparisons, which shouldn't happen. It just absolutely shouldn't happen, to what's happened before. It's a different landscape. It's different. They haven't been given credit along their careers for what they're doing and what they're trying to accomplish. I'm really pleased for them."