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Coach K, The ACC And The Final Four

A lot of people really got things wrong this year.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament West Regional-Arkansas vs Duke
Mar 26, 2022; San Francisco, CA, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski waves to fans before he cuts down the net as they celebrate their win over the Arkansas Razorbacks in the finals of the West regional of the men’s college basketball NCAA Tournament at Chase Center. The Duke Blue Devils won 78-69. 
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Soon we’ll be reminiscing, today’s suspense and anticipation translated into memory.

Two facts should linger.

Well, three.

First, good teams evolve, their play elevated by their response to good coaching. How well a team develops across the course of a season is a good gauge of quality guidance from the bench, in practice sessions away from prying eyes and in games where lessons are publicly put into effect. Players also evolve, gaining confidence and savvy as time goes on.

We expect teams to improve; the best coaches shepherd their squads to peak performance as postseason play arrives. That’s certainly been a trait of Mike Krzyzewski’s teams, even in this era of herding yearlings to success.

Records and casual observers fail to differentiate between the one-and-done era and preceding seasons. But those who pay close heed know it’s especially impressive to guide a group of underclassmen to high achievement, as this year when Duke has three freshmen among its top six, joining a pair of sophomores and a single junior.

Another fact that should be evident is that the ACC is better than critics thought.

Of course the same evaluators who downgraded the ACC rushed to explain their misguided judgment by attributing their conclusions to ragged play during early, nonconference competition.

Don’t believe it. This analysis is as imprecise as the experts’ original evaluations. ACC teams fared poorly in the ’21 polls and in ’21 NCAA seeding and results, cementing an impression that carried over to this season.

Before they even took the floor in 2021-22 ACC members were denigrated as a group, a conclusion apparently impervious to oncourt results. Duke stood alone for most of the season in the AP top 10. Meanwhile Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech improved sufficiently to earn NCAA bids. Still, they were virtually excluded from the polls, denied the recognition they deserved among the game’s elite.

Now the ACC has a pair of teams in the Final Four for the fourth time in 21 seasons, after 2001 (Duke and Maryland), 2004 (Duke and Georgia Tech) and 2016 (UNC and Syracuse).

Duke and UNC are each going for their fourth NCAA championship of this century. Villanova is going for its third, Kansas its second.

Finally, it’s almost too good to be true that Krzyzewski’s intensely scrutinized final season has blossomed as the NCAA tournament arrived.

All season it was evident the Blue Devils had the wherewithal to compete for a national title, if only their defensive focus and late-game execution steadied. Sure enough, perfecting those collective skills, combined with continued individual development, took Duke to the final weekend for the 13th time under Krzyzewski.

Toss out Coach K’s first three seasons — when he was executing the transition from a Bill Foster system to one with his own recruits and precepts — and he’s led an average of one Duke team to a Final Four every three years (13 of 39) at Durham. That little-noted rate of sustained excellence will be as tough to duplicate as any of his other coaching achievements.

Final Four Entrants Since 2001 (2022 Participants in Bold)
No. League, School Members Or Years
16 ACC UNC (6), Duke (5), Maryland (2), Virginia, Georgia Tech, Syracuse
13 Big 10 Michigan State (6), Ohio State (2), Michigan (2), Wisconsin (2), Illinois
11 Duke/UNC 2001, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2022 (2)
10 Big 12 Kansas (4), Oklahoma (2), Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech
10 SEC Kentucky (4), Florida (3), Auburn, LSU, South Carolina
8 ACC Titles Duke (2001), Maryland (2002), UNC (2005), UNC (2009), Duke (2010), Duke (2015), UNC (2017),Virginia (2019)
6 UNC 2005, 2008, 2009, 2016, 2017, 2022
6 Kansas 2002, 2003, 2008, 2012, 2019, 2022
6 Pac-12 UCLA (4), Arizona, Oregon
6 Michigan St. 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2019
5 Duke 2001, 2004, 2010, 2015, 2022