The way college basketball works is that almost every team is going to lose its final game. There are 358 teams across men’s and women’s Division I, and over 350 of them will end their seasons with a loss. One team wins the NCAA tournament; another wins the NIT; there are a handful of other knockoff tournaments like the Basketball Classic and the CBI. It’s also hypothetically possible to have a record so bad that you miss your conference tournament, but win your final regular season game—but we’re splitting hairs. Almost everybody who plays or coaches college basketball will end their seasons, and careers, with a loss.
So on its face, it’s not particularly embarrassing that Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career concluded with a loss in the Final Four. So did Dean Smith’s—and most coaching legends aren’t even lucky enough to make it that far. Roy Williams’s last game came in the first round of last year’s tournament; Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun also finished with unceremonious losses in the first round. Others, like Jerry Tarkanian or Eddie Sutton, weren’t even close to getting into the NCAA tournament in their final seasons.
But nobody has ever had a final game like Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils lost an all-timer Saturday night to North Carolina. This was a college basketball cataclysm: the first-ever NCAA tournament matchup between the two biggest rivals in the sport, in the Final Four, at the tail end of Krzyzewski’s year-long retirement tour. These two teams might play all the time, but they’d never done anything like this.
And somehow, the 81-77 battle more than lived up to the billing.
You’d 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 got 1-seeds in the NCAA tournament. Krzyzewski ended 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 were never ranked lower than ninth in the AP Poll. And they have four players listed on Kevin O’Connor’s draft Big Board, including Paolo Banchero, now the top prospect in the class, freshman wing AJ Griffin (no. 8), sophomore big Mark Williams (no. 16), and junior wing Wendell Moore Jr. (no. 29).
North Carolina has no players on that list. They peaked at 18th in the AP Poll and lost their first six games against teams which wound up making the NCAA tournament. They lost by 29 to a Kentucky team that Duke beat; by 22 to a Wake Forest team that Duke beat twice; by 28 to Miami; and of course, by 20 to Duke in February. They seemed lost in their first year under head coach Hubert Davis, who took over after Williams’s surprise retirement roughly a year ago.
But UNC’s players improved throughout the season, and they outplayed a supposedly better Duke team twice—first in Cameron Indoor Stadium at the beginning of March, ruining Coach K’s final home game in Durham, and now in the Final Four, ending his career. They have grown from a team that couldn’t beat a quality opponent into a team that might win the national championship. And they’ve gotten to the title game as an 8-seed, just the fifth team to ever do so.
We can see that growth in the way players performed against Duke back in February compared with the way they played in Durham and on Saturday night. Take Armando Bacot, who has been a dominant interior 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 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 against Duke this season. Within the first half, Bacot had both Williams and his backup, Theo John, in foul trouble, all while snagging rebounds over them and defending the rim:
Bacot is the first player with back-to-back 20-rebound games in the NCAA tournament since Tim Duncan, and his 21 boards Saturday were the most by any player in a Final Four game since 2003. Bacot appeared to be done 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 had just two words upon reentering the game: “fuck it.”
Or look at Leaky Black, the UNC senior who has learned over the course of his career that he isn’t very good at offense—he averaged 7.0 shots per game as a sophomore and 3.9 this year. (He’s the guy who threw a 100 mile per hour fastball off the backboard in Round 2.) But he dedicated his skill set to ruining the nights of opposing players, and unleashed that on Griffin in UNC’s final two matchups with Duke. Griffin had a career-high 27 points in the first UNC game, and just 11 in the last two games combined. Saturday night, he shot 1-for-7 from the field and missed every 3 he took. He was outscored 8-6 by Leaky, who knows he shouldn’t even try scoring.
And then there was Brady Manek, who began his career as Trae Young’s clean-shaven teammate in Oklahoma and is ending it as a fully bearded mountain man in the national championship game. He played 122 games for the Sooners, but two of his top seven career scoring performances have come in the last few weeks, as he dropped 28 points against Marquette in the first round and 26 against Baylor in the second. He drilled three tightly contested second-half 3s against Duke, including the eventual go-ahead bucket:
But no player is peaking at the right time like sophomore guard Caleb Love, who has turned into an absolute killer. Three of the top four scoring 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 over Williams to seal the game late:
There are two possible explanations for a team in which 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’m betting on the latter. We don’t have much history with Hubert Davis as a head coach, because this is his first go-around. Yet by all accounts, it’s been brilliant: UNC has gone significantly farther with Davis than they did in the final season with Roy Williams, despite having a similar roster which needed a midseason turnaround to thrive.
We do, however, have history with Mike Krzyzewski. Obviously, Krzyzewski is an all-time legend. He has more wins than any other college basketball coach ever, and this was his 13th Final Four, a men’s record. Krzyzewski didn’t just coach for 40 years; he adapted to a college basketball world that was changing around him. But we have seen his teams blow games before. We’ve seen it in the NCAA tournament, with multiple losses to high seeds, including a 15-seed, and we’ve seen it this season: While Duke went undefeated against ranked opponents, they lost seven games to unranked teams while in the top 10 of the AP poll. That’s a new record.
Krzyzewski’s exit from college basketball is humiliating for all the obvious reasons: The final game of his career was a once-in-a-lifetime matchup on the sport’s biggest stage with Duke’s biggest rival. And he lost. But it’s especially humiliating because, frankly, Duke should not have lost this game. Duke had an obvious talent advantage and was supposed to have a big coaching advantage too—a living legend going up against a literal rookie. But that rookie got UNC to become the best version of itself over the course of 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 squad in the country. Instead, its season ended in one of the biggest upsets in Final Four history. While UNC grew into a team built for one of the biggest moments in college basketball history, Duke faded, and lost Coach K’s final two matchups with their biggest rival despite a roster clearly capable of beating them by 20.
Almost everybody’s career ends with a loss—that in itself isn’t memorable. But Coach K’s final game is one we’ll remember for decades.