Duke vs. Kentucky starts Coach K’s farewell tour and possibly a road to redemption for the Blue Devils

NEW YORK — Late Tuesday night, here inside Madison Square Garden, Mike Krzyzewski will emerge from a tunnel and step onto a court equipped with a top-10 team led by one of the world’s best NBA prospects. So in a lot of ways, this will be very normal; he’s been consistently coaching top-10 teams with incredible NBA prospects for decades. But the scene and feeling is obviously expected to be different because of Coach K’s announcement this past summer that his 47th season on a college sideline will be his last.

This is the beginning of the end of an era.

It’s the highlight of college basketball’s Opening Day.

Predictions, picks

Duke vs. Kentucky is big anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances, because it’s always a showdown between two of the four winningest programs in NCAA history — and arguably its two biggest brands. But what’s on deck is undeniably bigger than usual and a reminder that Krzyzewski announcing his retirement in advance of his final season was actually a cool thing even if it’s been oddly criticized by some. If not for that announcement, we wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate this moment or every other moment that’ll follow this season. If not for that announcement, we wouldn’t know, as we’re watching Tuesday night, that we’re watching college basketball’s all-time winningest coach, and widely recognized GOAT, work for the final time inside the World’s Most Famous Arena, a place where Krzyzewski actually played five times while at Army more than five decades ago. This is the building where he passed his former coach, Bob Knight, on the all-time wins list. This is the building where Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game as a Division I coach.

‘It’s a magical place,” Krzyzewski, 74, recently told ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who doubles as a former Blue Devil. “Anytime I’m there, I consider it like one of the ultimate honors. The ball bounces differently. The sound. Outside of Cameron, it’s my favorite place.”

Will it be the place where he starts his final year 1-0?

That, of course remains to be seen.

Duke is ahead of Kentucky in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the Coaches Poll, the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1, KenPom and Torvik — but still only listed as a 1-point favorite over the Wildcats. So this is a total toss-up game that’ll feature two Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coaches and perhaps as many as five future first-round NBA Draft picks — among them Paulo Banchero, the 6-foot-10 forward most believe will be the No. 1 overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft. If you’re trying to identify the main reason Duke will almost certainly have a strong bounce-back season after missing the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Banchero’s direction is the place to point. He had 21 points and nine rebounds in just 20 minutes in Duke’s lone exhibition against Winston-Salem State.

“He’s got size and girth, said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who pursued Banchero before the Seattle native publicly committed to Duke. “He’s 250 pounds. … He will be a challenge — but he’s gonna be a challenge for everybody all year.”

Because of Krzyzewski’s announcement this past June, we’re now able to spend this season well aware that Banchero will go down as the last great player to ever play for the man who has coached more great players than anybody else in history — everybody from college icons like Christian Laettner, JJ Redick and Shane Battier, to NBA superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. It’s a career that includes 12 Final Four appearances in four different decades, five national titles in three different decades, and three Olympic Gold Medals in two different decades. It’s possible, if not probable, we’ll never again see anything like it, which is among the reasons it’ll be fun to appreciate Krzyzewski’s final act in real time.

Not everyone is a fan of a so-called “Farewell Tour.”

And that’s fine. To each his own.

But I’ve often thought about how differently we all would’ve paid attention last season if we would’ve known in advance that Roy Williams was coaching his final year at North Carolina. Nobody got to fully take it in because none of us knew what we were watching. In the grand scheme of things, I acknowledge it’s not the biggest deal in the world. If Williams was comfortable exiting that way, I’m glad he exited that way.

But me?

I personally prefer this kind of exit.

On Tuesday night, a capacity crowd will be very aware it’s watching a legend coach inside The Garden for the final time, then we’ll all spend the next five months watching Krzyzewski coach his final game in lots of places — among them Cameron Indoor. Exactly where this career will come to a close will ultimately be determined by how good the Blue Devils are this season. But based on the talent in the program that is now just hours away from showing itself to the world, it’s possible Krzyzewski could indeed coach his final two games at the Final Four in New Orleans, and wouldn’t that be some kind of amazing ending?


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