So many times Mike Krzyzewski had climbed that ladder, what was left of the net awaiting him at the summit, but never this slowly, this gingerly, this unexpectedly. He didn’t cut the net. He just swiped at it and tore it away as it dangled.
This should be routine for him, after all these years, after all these titles, and yet he still found himself speechless. Befuddled. Amazed. Literally amazed. No one had ever won four games in four days to win an ACC title. That’s doing it the hard way, and Duke made it even harder, coming back from second-half deficits in three straight games to do it, the last a 75-69 win over Notre Dame.
It had been six years since Duke won an ACC title. Two senior classes had graduated without one, although they did have a banner to show for their time, the 2015 national title. But there was a time, not long ago, when Duke won the tournament in 10 out of 13 years, when the top of the ladder was like a second home for Krzyzewski and his players.
To get back to that point, to do it like this, left even a 70-year-old Hall of Fame coach who had done this 13 other times, not to mention five times at the Final Four, at a loss for words.
“I’m a little wacky right now,” Krzyzewski said, searching for words on the floor, overwhelmed by the moment.
It’s off to Greenville, S.C., now. North Carolina remains a No. 1 seed, and Duke is a No. 2. That Duke was even in the debate is a measure of how far the Blue Devils have come.
The Blue Devils lost three of four to finish the regular season, but that was a blip. They had turned a corner in January, regrouping after the (increasingly shocking) loss to N.C. State.
All week in Brooklyn, Krzyzewski kept saying it, his team was getting better, getting better. The pieces kept falling into place. Grayson Allen seemed to recapture not only his confidence but his feistiness. Harry Giles, a phantom of his pre-injury self for most of the season, summoned some sort of inner strength and regained his unnatural elasticity. Frank Jackson has taken a step forward in March, Luke Kennard continued to be a rock and Jayson Tatum emerged as an unstoppable force.
And Matt Jones hit a patented dagger 3, his only basket of the game.
“We’ve gotten so much better these past few days,” Kennard said. “We’re continuing to chase our dream. We’re looking forward to it. We’ve gotten better each day. We’re not done yet.”
This has not been an easy run for Duke. Krzyzewski missed time because of back surgery. Injuries have been a constant issue throughout the roster. And there was a time, in January, when it looked like Duke had a Tatum problem, unable to figure out how to fit his undeniable talent into the offense. Over the past month, the ACC had a Tatum problem. Over the next month, the rest of the country is going to find out just how big a problem that can be.
So in the end, the Blue Devils made history. Somehow, the team that has won more ACC titles than any other found a new way to do it.
“This team was very different,” said assistant coach Nolan Smith, who won three ACC titles as a Duke player. “This was way more special than any of my teams, to win four straight to do it, just everything this team went through all year.”
Not all of this is new. Some of it is old. As a Duke videographer walked across the floor with the scissors used to cut the first net, Amile Jefferson intercepted him and held out his hand. “Hey,” Jefferson said, “we keep those.”
Jefferson and Jones now have an ACC title to go with their national title. Krzyzewski, after all these years, all these titles, found a new way to get one. And the Blue Devils go into the NCAA tournament at their absolute best, wondering what unexpected twist might surprise them next.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock