Paolo Banchero
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

History dictates either grand success or crushing defeat for Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

The Duke Blue Devils are practically a lock to make the NCAA Tournament every year, but 2022 is different. It’s the end of an era, as this March Madness is Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last.

1,198 wins compared to 367 losses. Five national championships to go with 12 total Final Four appearances. Three Olympic gold medals coaching Team USA, fueling speculation on how Coach K would have fared on the NBA level.

It’s all over now and if the Cameron Crazies had it their way, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils would ride off into the sunset with one more ring. Future Most Outstanding Player Paolo Banchero would then become so big an NBA star that Michael Jordan himself retires from public life and becomes basketball’s Howard Hughes.

All this to say Duke has a lot riding on this year’s tourney not only for basketball reasons, but also emotionally. How do we cap the career of college basketball’s winningest coach with anything other than a deep run?

Well, knowing the Blue Devils’ history, fears of an early bounce aren’t exactly unfounded.


 

A history of stumbles

Don’t get me wrong. Mike Krzyzewski’s successes far outweigh his failures and No. 2 Duke easily outmatches No. 15 Cal State-Fullerton on paper. The team ranked 10th in the nation in scoring this season, putting up over 80 points per game and allowing just 67.1.

Duke also runs about three players deep behind Banchero, namely winger and deadeye shooter Wendell Moore. Fullerton, meanwhile, leans heavily on senior transfer E.J. Anosike.

Except for as much as we talk about Duke doing well in the tournament, their early exits are just as big a talking point. Duke even has a history of losing as a higher seed, and fairly recently at that:

  • 2012 — Lost in Round of 64 to No. 15 Lehigh, a loss so shocking that a viral rap was born out of it. Lehigh has not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since this signature win.
  • 2014 — Lost in Round of 64 to No. 14 Mercer, who have yet to return to the tournament since.
  • 2017 — Lost in Round of 32, as No. 2 seed, to No. 7 South Carolina, then playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2004. The Gamecocks made the Final Four, but have yet to return to a tournament since.

It’d be different if these were regular mid-major contenders that got hot at the right time and were otherwise known for occasional March Madness surprises. Virginia Commonwealth, for example.

In these cases, Duke just got plain sloppy and wasted some deeply talented teams.

 

But this isn’t one of those years

Thankfully, this year’s Duke team isn’t one that will fall victim to old habits. Two regular season wins against fellow championship contenders Kentucky and Gonzaga show that. John Calipari’s Wildcats are often loaded with top recruits, while the Bulldogs have only blossomed under Mark Few’s watch.

Duke’s combination of speed, physicality, and discipline outmatched them both.

Look at it this way. In the three NCAA Tournament seasons listed earlier, Duke didn’t really have any majorly significant non-conference wins. Even against Power 5 appointments, they were expected to win.

This season, they defeated two teams with just as strong a shot at the trophy.

Put bluntly, Mike Krzyzewski wants to go out on top, and damn anyone who gets in his way.

 

Final thoughts

Duke winning the NCAA Tournament in Mike Krzyzewski’s last season is the story that writes itself. The perfect ending to a Hall of Fame career, the Breaking Bad finale of college basketball.

And even if Duke does fall short of winning it all, they’ll almost certainly make a deep run. For what it’s worth, I have them losing to Gonzaga in the Elite Eight as the Bulldogs avenge the regular season loss.

But if the Blue Devils are the last team standing and Coach K cuts down one last net, will anyone really complain about it?

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.