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Billy Reed: No win mark for Krzyzewski, but Duke game still a signature moment

Everybody in these parts was hoping that Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski would be going for career victory 1,000 when his Blue Devils met Louisville at noon Saturday in the KFC Yum Center.

Alas, N.C. State and Miami ruined that party by handing the Blue Devils back-to-back losses that left fans everywhere wondering about what was supposedly the only team in the nation that could almost match Kentucky on a talent basis.

So heading into the U of L game, Coach K is stuck on 997 and holding. It is either the best or worst time for the Cards to be playing Duke, depending on your point of view. The Blue Devils need to get back on track and the Cards need a signature victory. And consider the dilemma for that segment of the UK fan base that hates Duke and Coach K about as much as it hates U of L and Coach Rick Pitino.

It will be a rare meeting between the two Hall of Fame coaches who were involved in what many consider to be the best college game of all time – Duke’s 104-103 overtime win over UK in the 1992 NCAA East Regional final. That was the game, of course, where Duke’s Christian Laettner hit a last-second, turn-around jumper from the top of the key to cruelly snatch victory out of UK’s grasp.

Even today, many UK fans hate Laettner for having the audacity to make that shot, and, earlier in the game, for gently putting a sneaker on the chest of Aminu Timberlake, who was lying on his back. But what these same fans have forgotten is that, in the crazy aftermath, Krzyzewski found his way to UK announcing icon Cawood Ledford, who was calling his last game, to thank him for his contributions to college basketball.

It was a typical display of class from the Polish-American coach who never has forgotten his humble roots.

Although he’s usually identified as being from Chicago, Mike spent his early years in Keisterville, Pa., near Pittsburgh. When his family moved to Chicago, he often returned to Keisterville for a few weeks in the summer. A Roman Catholic, he was educated at St. Helen Catholic School and Archbishop Weber High. On game days, even now, he still carries a rosary in his pocket that he received from his mother.

The myth and romance surrounding the 1992 UK-Duke game usually obscures the fact that Coach K suffered one of his most disappointing losses at the hands of the Commonwealth’s other elite program. In 1986, his top-ranked Blue Devils made it to the NCAA title game, only to be denied, 72-69, by a Cardinal team led by 6-foot-9 freshman Pervis “Never Nervous” Ellison. The Duke starters, by the way, were Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson, with freshman Danny Ferry coming off the bench.

Other than those two games, Coach K’s history with UK and U of L is surprisingly sparse. Here’s the timeline:

* As the senior captain for Coach Bob Knight’s Army team in 1968-’69, Krzyzewski played against the Wildcats for the championship of the UK Invitational Tournament in Memorial Coliseum. The Cadets suffered their first loss of the season, 80-65, because they couldn’t stop juniors Dan Issel (22 points) and Mike Pratt (20). Army was led by Krzyzewski’s running mate at guard, Jim Oxley, who had 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field. Mike added six points and four rebounds.

* After serving five years on active duty with the Army, Krzyzewski resigned his captain’s commission in 1974 and joined Knight’s staff at Indiana as a graduate assistant. The Hoosiers played UK twice that season, once in Bloomington (a 24-point IU win) and again in the Mideast Regional finals in Dayton (a historic 92-90 UK victory that ruined the Hoosiers’ unbeaten season). However, Indiana advanced to Dayton by winning early-round NCAA games against Texas-El Paso and Oregon State in UK’s Memorial Coliseum.

* After that one season in Bloomington, Krzyzewski got the job at Army, his alma mater, and coached there for five years before moving to Duke – after getting a strong recommendation from Knight – in 1981. He brought the Blue Devils to Freedom Hall on Jan. 2, 1982, and got bombed, 99-61, by a U of L team that was headed to the Final Four. The next season, they met again, this time in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the Cards rolled again, 91-76.

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* Both UK and U of L have denied Coach K a trip to the Final Four. In the 1998 South Regional final, Coach Tubby Smith’s team came from behind to eliminate the Blue Devils 86-84 in St. Petersburg. And on March 31, 2013, U of L stunned the Blue Devils 85-63 in Indianapolis. Both the ’98 Cats and the ’13 Cards went on to win the NCAA title.

* In 2002, Duke ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll. In NCAA play, they disposed of Winthrop and Notre Dame to earn a Sweet Sixteen spot against Indiana in the South Regional in Rupp Arena. However, in a riveting game, Jared Jeffries got 24 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Hoosiers to a 74-73 upset.

It will be interesting to see how the Yum Center crowd greets Krzyzewski. Although he’s 5-1 all-time against UK, he’s only 1-4 against the Cards. Besides that, he is, in a sense, America’s coach, having guided the U.S. to four Olympic gold medals. So the fans here have little reason to dislike him other than the fact that he’s the face of the nation’s best program over the last 35 years.

Whatever happens in the game, it will be a signature moment in the city’s basketball history. Welcome, Coach K, and as you told Cawood Ledford on that night in 1992, thanks for your contributions to college basketball.


Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.

To read more from Billy Reed, click here.

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