By Peter Gleason
So who is the greatest men’s basketball coach in NCAA history?
A case has always been made that John Wooden’s miraculous 10 national championships from 1964 to 1975 — 12 years! — puts him at the top.
And then there are, in no particular order, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, Indiana’s Bobby Knight, North Carolina’s Dean Smith.
And Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
It might seem blasphemous to say that, given that Wooden won 10 titles at UCLA and dominated the game like no other coach, in any sport. But that was a different era, when talent was concentrated at a handful of schools, the game wasn’t as furious and the spotlight was nothing like what it is today.
What Krzyzewski has done, winning five national titles at a time when there is so much parity that seven different schools have won the last 10 titles and coaches start from scratch each season because college is little more than a rest stop on the way to the NBA, is unmatched.
Krzyzewski claimed his fifth NCAA championship Monday night, and it might have been the most hard-won yet. His starting lineup had three freshmen and only one senior, and his bench went only three players deep. He kicked Rasheed Sulaimon off the team in late January, not caring that it left his team with only eight scholarship players.
When Jahlil Okafor picked up his fourth foul with 9:18 still to play, Krzyzewski parked him on the bench, relying on Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen to pick up the slack. Yes, Grayson Allen, the least famous of Duke’s freshmen.
Allen responded with 10 points in a 17-6 run that erased what had been a 9-point deficit. Allen would finish with 16, while Tyus Jones had 23.
“In some respects, the foul trouble may have helped us a little bit, because I got some gritty guys in there in combinations that we didn’t have on the court very much this year,” Krzyzewski said.
And when Okafor re-entered the game, he was fresh. He scored two quick baskets on Frank Kaminsky and bottled the player of the year up so badly on the other end that Wisconsin committed a rare shot-clock violation.
Krzyzewski wasn’t above a little gamesmanship, either, letting the refs – and everyone else – know that Wisconsin had only had two fouls at halftime. That total was doubled less than three minutes into the second half, and Duke was into the bonus before the under-8 timeout.
But that is what good – no, great – coaches do. They make the most of whatever they have, and there can be no denying that Krzyzewski did that with this group. These Blue Devils barely resemble Krzyzewski’s other title teams, punishing opponents inside rather than from long range.
“The ability to adapt is key in everything. I think I’ve adapted well,” said Krzyzewski, who credits coaching USA Basketball for helping him do that. “What does this group need from you? Then you try to give that. As long as they’re giving back, then it’s a pretty cool thing.”
That was evident as the final buzzer sounded.
As his players wrestled on the floor, the smile on Krzyzewski’s face could have powered the Lucas Oil Stadium. He pointed at assistant Jeff Capel across the floor, holding his finger aloft until Capel reached him, swallowing him up in a bear hug.
He still was beaming 30 minutes later when he joined his team on the podium to watch One Shining Moment, the remains of the second net in one hand, the other embracing Cook.
“I haven’t loved a team any more than I’ve loved this team,” Krzyzewski said as his wife, Mickie, smiled and nodded her head. “We have eight guys, and four of them are freshmen. For them to win 35 games and win the national title is incredible.
“When it’s over … I’m the coach of that group that did this. You know, how good is that?” Krzyzewski said, searching for the right words and unable to stop smiling. “They’ve been a joy. They’ve been an incredible joy. When you’re already happy, and you get happier, it’s pretty damn good. It’s pretty good.”
So is their coach. Better than good, actually.
Maybe the best.