August 15, 2022

The Syracuse fans were alive with the kind of possibilities that put the madness in March, and it seemed the entire Barclays Center was closing in hard on Duke. Mike Krzyzewski and his players had a built-in excuse Saturday for what never should have been portrayed as a shocking loss to North Carolina, not with the extreme pressure that shaped Coach K’s last game at home. 

But what was Duke’s excuse in Brooklyn five days later? This wasn’t Cameron Indoor Stadium, the world wasn’t watching this ACC Tournament quarterfinal, the Orange weren’t the rival Tar Heels, and Jim Boeheim wasn’t fielding anything better than a .500 team missing its two best players — his injured center Jesse Edwards and his suspended son Buddy. 

A loss under these circumstances would’ve had devastating consequences. No, Duke would not have entered the NCAA Tournament next week with any degree of confidence that it was destined to send out Krzyzewski the way UCLA sent out John Wooden, with one last national title for the road. 

So the Blue Devils reached down deep and restored order in their rocked world. Trailing by a point with three minutes to play, four different Duke players (Wendell Moore Jr., Paolo Banchero, Jeremy Roach, and Mark Williams) scored the game’s final 10 points and a fifth, Trevor Keels, contributed two assists in that closing run — filling the void left by freshman star AJ Griffin of Archbishop Stepinac, limited to three field-goal attempts because of an apparent case of food poisoning. 

As it turned out, Krzyzewski and assistant Chris Carrawell were also among the Blue Devils who spent some preparation time fighting off food poisoning, or some sort of bug, and throwing up in the bathroom in between film study and practice. But after 47 years as a Division I coach, 42 of them in Durham, Coach K knows the score when it comes to competitive sports: If you are healthy enough to show up and compete, all excuses are checked at the door. 

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Mike Krzyzewski reacts during Duke's win over Syracuse.
Mike Krzyzewski reacts during Duke’s win over Syracuse.

Duke didn’t need any in the end. Roach decided the game with 19 points off the bench, and the Blue Devils played just enough defense in the end to hold off the Fighting Boeheims, Jim and Jimmy, who were angry that Buddy’s discipline for punching a Florida State player in the stomach wasn’t applied in that game. 

Father Jim responded with a verbal assault on the conference and on Wednesday’s officiating crew (“They didn’t do their job,” he said, “so Buddy got punished.”). Big brother Jimmy, Cornell transfer, responded with 28 high-major points. (“I was playing for this kid today,” he said, with little brother sitting to his immediate left.) And an emotional Buddy responded with a master class in how to end a decorated college career by showing as much grace and accountability as could be expected from a 22-year-old kid. 

“It’s the best season I’ve ever had coaching,” Jim Boeheim said of his 16-17 season, his first losing year after a remarkable 45 winning years in a row. 

Boeheim’s best friend, Mike Krzyzewski, still has a chance to make this final season his best season, too. Maybe not a great chance, but a chance nonetheless. And those final few minutes Thursday, when every Blue Devil threw a punch in the knockout of Cuse, might’ve explained why Duke could reduce that epic-feeling loss to North Carolina to a footnote by season’s end. 

Coach K’s players tried to play for Coach K in that farewell game at Cameron, and all it got them was a nationally televised scolding before a ceremony that turned a bit bizarre. The Blue Devils can’t play for him in the postseason — the burden is too big for college students, especially freshmen. They need to play for one another, for a lot of reasons. 

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Jim Boeheim
Jim Boeheim had his first-ever losing season as coach of Syracuse.

For one, Krzyzewski has already won five national championships. 

“I think that’s enough,” Boeheim said. “I don’t think he’s worried about winning another one.” 

Krzyzewski’s legacy will survive without No. 6. 

For two, given the near-certain NBA departures of at least four Blue Devils, this Duke team is facing a one-and-done shot. This is also the players’ last chance. This journey will bond them for life, and they need to understand that the brotherhood Duke forever talks about is strengthened by a championship ring — a truth confirmed by scores of former players. So the motivation to win it all must start there. 

Paolo Banchero (5) embraces Mark Williams (15) and Wendell Moore Jr. (0).
Paolo Banchero (5) embraces Mark Williams (15) and Wendell Moore Jr. (0).

“It’s huge,” Williams said of that motivation. 

“It’s the most,” Krzyzewski interjected. 

“It’s the most,” Williams repeated. “Obviously we won’t get this squad of 14 back,” Williams continued, “and we have one opportunity to [win it], and it can be taken away in one game. … It’s huge for us to win every game we play from here on out.” 

It’s huge for youth to not be wasted on the young. Duke’s players won’t get another crack at this, ever, and that should mean a lot more to them than a perfect sendoff for a 75-year-old man.