The way college basketball works is almost every team is going to lose their last game. There are 358 teams in the men’s and women’s Division I, and more than 350 of them will end their season with a loss. One team wins NCAA Tournament; another wins the NIT; there are a handful of other counterfeit tournaments like the Basketball Classic and the CBI. It’s also hypothetically possible to have such a bad record that you miss your conference tournament but win your last regular season game, but we’re sharing hair. Almost everyone who plays or coaches college basketball will end their seasons and careers with a loss.
So on the face of it, it’s not particularly embarrassing that Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career ended in a Final Four loss. Dean Smith did the same – and most coaching legends don’t even get the chance to come to that. Roy Williams’ last game came in the first round of last year’s tournament; Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun also finished with unceremonious first-round losses. Others, like Jerry Tarkanian or Eddie Sutton, weren’t even close to entering the NCAA Tournament in their final seasons.
But no one has ever had a last game like Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils lost a record Saturday night to North Carolina. It was a college basketball cataclysm: the first-ever NCAA tournament game between the sport’s two biggest rivals, in the Final Four, at the end of Krzyzewski’s year-long retirement tour. These two teams could play all the time, but they had never done anything like this.
And somehow, the 81-77 battle more than met the billing.
You expect any Duke-UNC game to be a relatively even contest. Both teams are perennial powerhouses — UNC has six national championships; Duke has five. As recently as 2019, both teams earned 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Krzyzewski finished his career exactly 50-50 against the Tar Heels.
But only Duke seemed like a championship-caliber team this season. Duke started the season 7-0, with wins over top-10 Kentucky and Gonzaga. They have never been ranked below ninth place in the AP poll. And they have four players signed up on Kevin O’Connor’s Big Board draft, including Paolo Banchero, now the top prospect in the class, freshman winger AJ Griffin (No. 8), great Mark Williams (n No. 16) and junior winger Wendell. Moore Jr. (#29).
North Carolina has no players on this list. They peaked 18th in the AP poll and lost their first six games to teams that ended up in the NCAA Tournament. They lost by 29 to a Kentucky team that Duke beat; by 22 to a Wake Forest team that Duke has beaten twice; by 28 in Miami; and of course, by 20 at Duke in February. They looked lost in their first year under head coach Hubert Davis, who took over after Williams’ surprise retirement about a year ago.
But UNC’s players have improved throughout the season, and they’ve outplayed a supposedly better Duke team twice – first at Cameron Indoor Stadium in early March, ruining the final home game of UNC. coach K at Durham, and now in the Final Four, ending his career. They went from a team that couldn’t beat a quality opponent to a team that could win the national championship. And they came to the title match as 8 seeds, just the fifth team to never do it.
We can see that growth in how the players fared against Duke in February compared to how they played at Durham and Saturday night. Take Armando Bacot, who has been a dominant inside threat in the tournament, averaging 15.4 points and 16.8 rebounds. Bacot had just five rebounds in the 20-point loss to Duke in February; he had 21 on Saturday night, the most by any Duke opponent since 2016, and he helped UNC finish with 17 offensive rebounds, tied for the most by any team this season. In the first half, Bacot had both Williams and his replacement, Theo John, in rough trouble, while grabbing rebounds on them and defending the rim:
Bacot is the first player with consecutive 20 rebound games in the NCAA Tournament since Tim Duncan, and his 21 boards on Saturday were the most by any player in a Final Four game since 2003. Bacot looked like he was made for the night with five minutes to go, as he fell to the ground writhing in pain after stepping on a teammate’s foot. But he came back less than a minute later and said only two words as he entered the game: ” whore “.
Or look at Leaky Black, the UNC senior who has learned over the course of his career that he’s not very good on offense – he’s averaging 7.0 shots per game as a sophomore and 3.8 this year . (He’s the guy who threw a fastball 100 miles an hour off the backboard in round two.) But he devoted his skills to ruining opposing players’ nights and unleashed it on Griffin in the final two. UNC clashes with Duke. Griffin had a career-high 27 points in UNC’s opener, and just 11 in the last two games combined. Saturday night he shot 1 for 7 from the field and missed all 3 he took. He was outscored 8-6 by Leaky, who knows he shouldn’t even be trying to score.
And then there was Brady Manek, who started his career as Trae Young’s clean-shaven teammate in Oklahoma and ended it as a fully bearded mountaineer in the national championship game. He played 122 games for the Sooners, but two of his seven best career performances came in recent weeks, when he dropped 28 points to Marquette in the first round and 26 to Baylor in the second. He drilled three hotly contested second-half 3s against Duke, including the eventual go-ahead bucket:
But no player peaks at the right time like second-year guard Caleb Love, who has become an absolute killer. Three of the four best performances of his career have come in this NCAA tournament – 23 points in the first round against Marquette, a career-high 30 in the Sweet 16 against UCLA and 28 against Duke. He drilled a Dagger 3 on Williams to seal the late game:
There are two possible explanations for a team where every player is playing the best basketball of their career at the most important time of the season: near-impossible luck or exceptional coaching. With UNC, I bet on the latter. We don’t have a lot of history with Hubert Davis as head coach, as this is his first go-around. Still, by any measure, it’s been brilliant: UNC went much further with Davis than they did last season with Roy Williams, despite a similar roster that needed a turnaround from mid-season to thrive.
We do, however, have a history with Mike Krzyzewski. Clearly, Krzyzewski is an all-time legend. He has more wins than any other college basketball coach, and it was his 13th Final Four, a men’s record. Krzyzewski hasn’t just been a coach for 40 years; he adapted to a changing world of college basketball around him. But we’ve seen his teams blow games before. We’ve seen it in the NCAA Tournament, with multiple losses to the 15 seeds, and we’ve seen it this season: while Duke went undefeated against ranked opponents, they lost seven games against undefeated teams. ranked while in the AP’s top 10. survey. It’s a new record.
Krzyzewski’s exit from college basketball is humbling for all the obvious reasons: The last game of his career was a one-off matchup on the sport’s biggest stage with Duke’s biggest rival. And he lost. But it’s mostly humiliating because, frankly, Duke shouldn’t have lost that game. Duke had a clear talent advantage and was supposed to have a big advantage as a coach as well – a living legend facing off against a literal rookie. But this rookie has led UNC to become the best version of itself over the season. Meanwhile, Coach K’s Blue Devils failed to play better than the sum of their parts.
Duke clearly had the players to be the best team in the country. Instead, his season ended in one of the biggest upsets in Final Four history. As UNC became a team built for one of the greatest moments in college basketball history, Duke swooned and lost Coach K’s last two matchups with its biggest rival. despite a roster clearly capable of beating them by 20.
Almost everyone’s career ends in defeat, which in itself is not memorable. But Coach K’s last game is one we’ll remember for decades.