Oh the days dwindle down to a precious few,
I’m pretty sure Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson weren’t talking about college basketball when they wrote “September Song.”
But it seems apropos.
In the nine months since Mike Krzyzewski announced his pending retirement his professional days have been filled with an endless procession of lasts and finals and farewells and goodbyes and at least one don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
But this is different. Krzyzewski’s next loss will bring it all to an end.
Unless there isn’t a next loss.
There are precedents for Duke coming into the NCAA Tournament off a bad ACC Tournament loss and getting on a roll. Duke won the 1991 ACC regular-season title but was blasted 96-74 in the ACC Tournament title game, by UNC no less.
A little over three weeks later Duke was cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
Duke did not win either the 2015 ACC regular season or tournament titles. In fact, Duke didn’t even make the ACC Tournament title game.
And that team won it all.
Duke made the Final Four after losing the ACC Tournament title game in 1989 and 2004, made it in 1990 and 1994 after losing in the semifinals. Duke made the Elite Eight in 1998, 2013 and 2018 without winning the tournament. Every one of the 22 teams coached by Mike Krzyzewski that made it to the ACC Tournament finals advanced at least to the second weekend except 1984, 2014 and 2017.
So, if Mark Twain was right and history sometimes rhymes, there are reasons to be optimistic.
But only if Duke regains its swagger, re-discovers its mojo and figures out how to stop people.
Moments after losing to Virginia Tech Krzyzewski said that Duke would use this week’s practices to improve its suddenly shaky defense.
Krzyzewski addressed the media Thursday and said that promise was fulfilled.
“Yeah, we’ve had three really good days of practice. Hard, really very enthusiastic. The guys seem fresher since we clinched the regular season against Pitt and played those three road games in six days. We kind of stepped back a little bit, and we haven’t played well since. Spurts, just in spurts. But also during that period we really weren’t able to practice at the level, and with a young team, you get back to old habits real quick. This week was more of reaffirming our good habits.”
Wendell Moore, Jr. said Duke had “a huge week mainly focusing on the defensive end. Getting more pressure on the ball, forcing a lot of live ball turnovers, just so we can really get into our offense easier. It’s been a great week. Definitely feel like our guys got better and also got a lot closer this week.”
Krzyzewski said defensive communication was a big point of emphasis.
Paolo Banchero said that the players were trying to avoid the last-game-for-K hoopla and concentrate on its post-season.
“I think now it’s our last game as a group, so that’s really our mentalities. We’re not trying to end our season any shorter than it has to. As a group, we all like being around each other. We’ve been working hard since June. We know how much work in the preseason and just all year we’ve put in to get to March Madness. That’s really our motivation is to come out, and every game is a championship game and to win and advance. That’s really just all we’ve been thinking about.”
There’s another issue. Even in the one-and-done era Duke has usually had a few key players with NCAA Tournament experience. Reserves Theo John (at Marquette) and Joey Baker have some Big Dance experience but they’re Duke’s seventh and eighth men respectively. We have to go back to 1984, Krzyzewski’s first NCAA Tournament team, to find a Duke team without at least one experienced tournament player in the starting lineup. The 2018 team started four freshmen but had Grayson Allen. The 2019 team started four freshmen but had Javin DeLaurier, admittedly a bench player in 2018.
Moore says his team is relying on the experience of the head guy.
“I don’t have any tournament experience myself. I’m just having Coach really lead us through it all. It’s been great because he knows what to do. He’s been here more than anybody. He’s failed. He’s had success. So he knows the ins and outs of everything. So really just listen to everything he says and really just using it to get closer as a group. The closer we are as a group, the harder we’re going to be able to be beat.”
Krzyzewski says the main thing he’s learned and is trying to teach his team is “to be in the moment. I’m excited. Look, this is a great, great time. I mean, to see college basketball back at this level of stage again with — I’m really honored to be a part of it. I think this is the 36th time. I never would have thought that my first couple years at Army or Duke, but it’s worked out all right.”
How many more days will it work out all right?
We’ll start finding out Friday night.