NEW YORK – It’s very rare for Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to experience something new.
But in Saturday night’s 75-69 win in the ACC championship game against Notre Dame, his Duke team did something no other team has ever done in the history of the conference: Win four games in four days to take home the conference title. Not only that, Duke also became the first No. 5 seed to win the conference title.
“My team has taken me on this journey this week that you could not plan,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s a journey that’s kind of hard to describe.”
The journey began way back in the preseason with a No. 1 ranking in the AP poll, but teetered on the brink of collapse throughout a regular season filled with injuries, controversy and an identity crisis, until Duke limped into the tournament losers of three of its last four games.
But that all changed when the Blue Devils arrived in Brooklyn, New York.
“Let’s just win one game,” Krzyzewski told his team before beating Clemson on March 8. And he continued to repeat that line every day until the Blue Devils hoisted up that conference trophy at center court in the Barclays Center three days later.
“It’s been a different year for me than any year I’ve coached.” Krzyzewski said. “A remarkable year.”
Winning the ACC championship isn’t new to the Blue Devils; they’ve done it 24 times already. But this one felt a little different because of the regular season that preceded it. A season filled with adversity and uncertainty. Injuries and and questions. But through it all, Duke prevailed.
Krzyzewski doesn’t like to dwell on the past, but he said everything that happened this season, happened for a reason. Without it, who would this Duke team be?
“All that stuff brought us together,” he said. “Maybe, if it didn’t happen, maybe we wouldn’t have been as together. That’s how I look at it.”
So instead of dealing in maybes, Krzyzewski said the team took a look at itself and did what they needed to do to change their fate for the better. If that meant doing what no ACC team has ever done before, so be it.
“We haven’t paid any attention to standings or seeds for this tournament or rankings. We just haven’t – we haven’t talked at all about that because so much has happened,” he said. “We just said, ‘Let’s talk about us and let’s get better.’ ”
The team stopped being about Grayson Allen or Jayson Tatum or Luke Kennard or even Mike Krzyzewski. Instead, they just became the Duke Blue Devils.
And the four games in four days? That was nothing compared to what Duke faced during the season.
“I told them they need to do what they need to do to win a championship,” Krzyzewski said. “And they figured out a way to do it for four straight days.”
The players knew what was at stake as well. Seniors Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones wanted a conference tournament title more than anyone else on the team, and they continued to tell their teammates they weren’t going back to Durham, N.C., without that trophy.
“We just made that message known to all the other guys that, ‘Hey, like they’re not going to accept us back there if we don’t get it, and we’re not going to accept ourselves back there if we don’t get it as well,’ ” Jones said. “So that was kind of the motivation throughout that ball game.”
It took every player to propel Duke to victory, as seven different Blue Devils put up points. Kennard continued his excellent season with a 16-point showing, Grayson Allen chipped in with 10 and even Amile Jefferson poured on the points in the second half to finish with 14.
But it was the electrifying freshman Jayson Tatum who stole the show once again. Tatum scored eight of Duke’s final 12 points, including a huge coast-to-coast score and a breakaway and-one dunk to seal the victory for the Blue Devils.
“We just wanted to be special,” Tatum said. “We wanted to overcome everything. We just wanted to show the world we are a special team.”
And now, Duke looks towards its next leg of the season: The NCAA tournament. Just like this season, Krzyzewski doesn’t have a single clue what will happen, who Duke will play or where they’ll play. He said he didn’t even know his team had won 13 games against the RPI top 25, two more than any team in the country.
“We haven’t paid any attention to that stuff.” Krzyzewski said. “We’re OK with whatever seed.”
“I’d like if it was Friday-Sunday,” he added with a smirk. “But they [the selection committee] aren’t going to listen to me.”