Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
From the moment news broke in early June of Mike Krzyzewski’s intention to return for one final season at Duke, some part of you knew his farewell tour had to end this way.
One last trip to the Final Four—the 13th of his career, putting him now one ahead of John Wooden for first place on the all-time list.
One more shot at what would be the sixth national championship of his illustrious career.
And one more week at the center of attention in a sport that he has more or less dominated for the past four decades.
It will all go down in New Orleans, a city famed for (among a litany of other things) its elaborate funeral processions.
Seems fitting, since whether you’re celebrating Coach K’s legacy or celebrating the fact that the Wicked Witch of the ACC is finally gone, we’ll all be ready for a parade down Bourbon Street next weekend.
Two days after surprisingly knocking off Gonzaga, the No. 4 seed Arkansas Razorbacks had a chance to stop that parade from happening.
However, the fourth game in Duke’s trip to the 2022 Final Four ended up being one of the easiest thus far.
The Blue Devils had to rally from a 70-65 deficit in the final five minutes in the second round against Michigan State. They were in a similar predicament late against Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 before also finishing that game with red-hot shooting.
Against Arkansas, though, Duke never trailed in the final 34 minutes.
Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams had yet another impressive outing with 19 points, 10 rebounds and several drawn charges. JD Notae and Stanley Umede each hit a few big shots, as well.
But that trio was no match for Duke’s six-headed monster.
Mark Williams set the tone early with his unguardable size and strength, ending up with a double-double. AJ Griffin made a major impact inside the arc for a change and led Duke with 18 points. All three guards (Wendell Moore Jr., Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels) had several impressive scoring drives. And Paolo Banchero overcame a slow start to do his usual “potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft” thing, carrying the team through the second half.
Add it all up and, despite 15 turnovers, Duke pretty much cruised to a 78-69 victory.
If there were any demons still lingering from when Arkansas defeated Duke in the 1994 national championship game played in Charlotte, North Carolina, perhaps they were exorcised with this Blue Devils victory.
And now we are headed for one of the biggest Final Four games of all-time.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
If North Carolina defeats Saint Peter’s on Sunday in Philadelphia, it will be Duke vs. North Carolina in the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.
It hardly seems possible that these arch-rival programs with a combined 333 games played in the NCAA tournament, 36 Final Fours and 11 national championships have never managed to run into each other in the dance, but it’s true. (They did meet once in the 1971 NIT semifinals, though never in this tournament.)
You could write an entire book on the iconic moments in the history of this Tobacco Road rivalry, one of which happened just a few weeks ago when the Tar Heels ruined Coach K’s final home game.
But a Final Four showdown?
Even if it’s a blowout, that would immediately jump to No. 1 on the list of most incredible moments in this rivalry, and the hype surrounding it would make the Villanova vs. Kansas/Miami Final Four game feel like a consolidation game. (Until the winners meet on Monday, of course.)
Yet, the other option is arguably even more attractive.
Move over, Duke-Butler 2010 national championship game, because a Duke-Saint Peter’s Final Four game could be the greatest David vs. Goliath moment in sports history.
If it happens, we’ll let the sports historians debate how it stacks up against Super Bowl III and the Miracle on Ice. But no. 15 seed Saint Peter’s beating Duke in the Final Four would undeniably supplant NC State over Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983 and Villanova over Georgetown in 1985 as the most improbable thing to ever happen in the NCAA tournament.
Ten days ago, the Peacocks had never won an NCAA tournament game. They hadn’t even played in the tournament in over a decade. And in program history dating back to 1964, they don’t even have a winning record, sitting at 826-827 overall.
But if they can knock off the Tar Heels, they would get a shot at a coach who has won 1,202 games since 1976.
And, call me crazy, but I think Duke-Saint Peter’s would generate even higher ratings than Duke-UNC would. Because while the vast majority of college basketball fans would love Duke-UNC, any sports fan could get behind Duke-Saint Peter’s.
Regardless of what happens between the Tar Heels and the Peacocks, though, Coach K and one of his most star-studded rosters of all-time will be waiting for the winner.
Hoping to avoid what would be an embarrassing final loss of his career.
Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames†