Saturday evening in Indianapolis, the Road To The Final Four had already ended. The roads connecting college basketball’s past and present continued to flow.
The direction of those roads led to Durham, not East Lansing.
Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo had met before in the Final Four — in 1999 in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a loaded Duke team fighting off Izzo’s first Final Four squad at Michigan State. Back in 1999, Coach K had already made his eighth Final Four, one more than the seventh Final Four Izzo reached this week. The visits to the Final Four have not occurred quite as frequently in the latter half of Krzyzewski’s dazzling 35-season run, but Coach K — the best college basketball coach of this generation — has managed to tie John Wooden for 12 Final Fours, the most in his sport’s history.
Saturday, he and his Duke Blue Devils earned the right to compete for a fifth national championship. The drive for five is 40 minutes away from being completed because Duke has clamped down on opponents that didn’t find enough shotmakers in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
This story is being written before the second national semifinal between Wisconsin and Kentucky, but let’s entertain the notion that Kentucky does advance to Monday night’s final. Everyone thought before this tournament that Kentucky would be the team whose defense would be surpremely hard to break down. Yet, Notre Dame showed a way through the Wildcats’ tall trees in an impressive offensive performance.
Five NCAA tournament games have been played by Duke in 2015, and we’ve yet to see one good offensive performance against the team with this logo:
Toss aside a 1-16 game against Robert Morris in this tournament. In the next four games — all games in which it was reasonable to think that the Blue Devils might get pushed (there were some who thought San Diego State was playing at the level of a 4 seed with Dwayne Polee contributing) — Duke has clamped down and put the “D” on its opponents.
San Diego State shot 32.8 percent from the field, Utah 35.
In the Elite Eight, Gonzaga hit 44 percent of its shots but made only two threes and attempted only nine foul shots. The Zags committed 13 turnovers and scored only 52 points.
Saturday in Lucas Oil Stadium, Krzyzewski cooked up an effective defense that — after getting punched in the mouth in the first four minutes by Michigan State’s Denzel Vallentine — dominated the rest of the proceedings. After the Spartans took a quick 14-6 lead, reminiscent of Florida’s 16-4 start over Connecticut in the first national semifinal a year ago, the remaining 36 minutes belonged to Duke’s defense.
In the first four minutes, Michigan State hit 5 of 7 shots. In the remaining 36 minutes, the Spartans hit just 17 of 48 shots, or 35.4 percent. Moreover, that 17-of-48 total includes a string of 20 points scored in a span of 7:30 in garbage time, when Duke easily protected a lead that never dipped below 13 points.
Five NCAA tournament games, five times in which Duke has yet to play a truly bad defensive game… unlike Kentucky. This is the reason the Blue Devils are one win away from another national title won in Indianapolis, their last one coming against Butler in 2010.
Yes, you can say with legitimacy that Duke’s bracket path was tailor-made for this team. Had Iowa State made it through to the South Regional final in Houston, the Cyclones’ quickness and playmaking skill might have given Duke problems, much as other nimble and clever offensive teams had been able to do to the Devils in recent NCAA tournaments. Had a 4 seed such as Maryland been able to play Duke in the Sweet 16, or had an 8 seed such as Oregon been placed in Duke’s path, perhaps we wouldn’t be here today with the Devils one win from forking up another national title.
Yet, this is the reality of bracketed tournaments — first, you can only beat the teams you play. Second, Duke got a No. 1 seed, which merited a favorable bracket path.
The Blue Devils have taken care of the rest, and what’s especially worth noting is that Duke hasn’t even sweated in the final two minutes of a game. Leading by six points with the ball is as close as Duke has come to being threatened in the final two minutes of any of its five NCAA tournament games this spring. The ability to turn the page from the recent past — and turn the corner as a team — has transformed Duke’s defense. Accordingly, the Blue Devils have transformed their March fortunes after five years away from the Final Four.
Duke is back where it knows it belongs. One more defensive masterclass will enable Mike Krzyzewski and his program to climb even higher in the annals of college basketball history.