On Saturday evening in New Orleans, the greatest rivals in college basketball will face off in the most important game in their long histories. The stakes could not be any higher: The winner of the NCAA semifinal game between the Duke University Blue Devils and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels will get to play for the national championship Monday evening.
Yet even setting that enormous prize aside, it's hard to overstate the significance of the competition — and not just because of how much these teams hate each other. Duke and Carolina have never played each other in the NCAA tournament, and their eventual meeting now, in the Final Four — once only an imagined possibility — has previously been described as "college basketball Armageddon." But the biggest consequence tonight is that, depending on what happens, it could be the final game of the greatest coach in college basketball history: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
Dear readers, if you are expecting an unbiased assessment of Coach K and Duke basketball, you will not find that here. As a Duke alum and certified "Cameron Crazie" — I missed only one home game during my four undergraduate years — my blood runs a deep blue, not that insipid lighter shade of the other team. And I'll be yelling "Go to hell, Carolina!" until the final buzzer tonight.
Without question, I want Duke to beat UNC. Whether that happens by two points or by 20, I will relish the victory. But when it comes to the issue of Coach K's legacy, here's the plain truth of this evening: The game's outcome doesn't matter.
Despite what all the Duke haters say (and there are a lot of them), Coach K doesn't have to beat Carolina and doesn't need to win another national championship to prove anything. His legacy as the best ever coach in college basketball history has already been secured.
In making his thirteenth Final Four appearance — the most ever by a college basketball coach — Coach K has guaranteed that whatever happens (including on Monday, should the Blue Devils make it to the championship title game), it is just the royal blue icing on a cake that was baked far before his final season began.
Krzyzewski didn't even have to get to this year's Final Four for that to be so. The numbers of his nearly half-century-long career, including 42 seasons at Duke, speak for themselves: 1,202 career victories (also the most ever by a college coach); five national championships; 15 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championships; 13 ACC regular-season titles; and 101 NCAA tournament wins — you guessed it, also a record. And those are just a short selection from a very long list of achievements and accolades that belong to Coach K. There's good reason he's known as the "GOAT."
Because he's been so good, naturally, many have wanted him to fail. Cheering against Duke has always been a popular pastime. But hoping Coach K's final season would fall apart seemed an especially futile endeavor given how good the player roster was this year. With Coach K directing them, Duke spent the entire season ranked in the top 10, including one week at No. 1, and secured a No. 2 seed for the NCAA's "March Madness" tourney.
Such accomplishment on top of an already wildly successful career meant that the hysterical glee Coach K's critics had for Duke's two late-season losses was as overzealous as it was pathetic. Sure, the loss to UNC in Coach K's final regular-season game at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium was a stinging way to close out a career in front of the home crowd, not least because of all the media hype and the nearly 100 former players who had come back to watch their coach's last game in Durham. One week later, Duke looked lifeless in its defeat by Virginia Tech in the ACC title game.
Those losses got the smack talk going, especially on Twitter. Duke wouldn't make it past the second round, they said, maybe not even the first. Coach K would end his career in embarrassment, a humiliating loss to a low-seeded team marking his exit.
That didn't happen. Instead, Coach K regrouped the team for the tournament, and they've never played better. Dispatching one team after another, including a fairly easy win over a very good Arkansas squad in the Elite Eight matchup, the Dukies have entered the Final Four as the favorites to win it all.
To do that, they'll have to beat their archrivals, the Tar Heels. If they don't, the internet will violently erupt with the predictable Duke hating that is always at the ready.
But such short-sighted responses, should they happen, will only underscore how enormous Mike Krzyzewski has been in the world of college basketball. No matter how this final season actually ends, Coach K is going out a winner.