Coach K Wants 1 More Trip To Mecca, But Arkansas’ Eric Musselman Has His Lucky Buckeye

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This could be the last time, but that has been the mantra since soon-to-be retiring Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski lost his last home game at Cameron Indoor to hated North Carolina, 94-81, on March 5.

Then he suffered his worst defeat of the season – 82-67 in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tourament title game on March 12 to Virginia Tech, which finished sixth in the league at 11-9 after Duke won the ACC regular season at 16-4.

“In the last 10 days of the regular season and the ACC tournament, we experienced a very deep level of adversity. If our season ended after Virginia Tech, even though we won the league, it would have been a downer,” Krzyzewsk said Friday in San Francisco.

His No. 2-seeded Blue Devils (31-6) play No. 4 seed and lone SEC survivor Arkansas (28-8) Saturday night (8:49 p.m. eastern, TBS) at the Chase Center. Krzyzewski, 75, announced his retirement before this season – his 42nd at Duke – effective at the end of this season.

“The NCAA Tournament gave us an opportunity to have a good runway into the time of the year that if you do win, you’re going to remember it forever,” said Krzyzewski, whose team regrouped to beat Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State and Texas Tech to reach his 17th Elite Eight.

Coach K is going to have a lot of memories for a long time.

The Duke-Arkansas winner advances to the Final Four in New Orleans to play next Saturday against the winner of No. 15 seed St. Peter’s (22-11 and No. 8 seed North Carolina (27-9), which play Sunday.

Yes, Coach K’s last time coaching could be against rival North Carolina. If he reaches the Final Four, it will be his 13th and break his tie with the late UCLA coach John Wooden, who went 12 times from 1962-75 and won a record 10 NCAA titles. Krzyzewski has won five.

“I don’t remember records as much as how we ended, and so I hope this doesn’t end (Saturday),” Krzyzewski said. “The Final Four is Mecca for a player and a coach. It’s just – there’s nothing like it. For me, I call it crossing the bridge, and very few people cross that bridge.”

In 1994, it ended for Krzyzewski in the national championship game, 76-72, to Arkansas in Charlotte, N.C.

“I do remember that,” Krzyzewski said.

So does Arkansas. It was its first and last national title. That was also the last time Duke and Arkansas played.

“So, I think this is going to be really fun and special for a lot of older guys who used to play here,” sophomore guard Davonte Davis of Jacksonville, Arkansas, said.

“Yeah, I was nowhere near born then,” said forward Jaylin Williams, who was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 2002. “But you hear, growing up in Arkanas. Everybody knows about that team, and what they did for the state, and just being able to get close to the same position is great.”

Coach Nolan Richardson and Arkansas returned to the Final Four in 1995, but lost the national championship game to UCLA. The Razorbacks never got as far as the Elite Eight until Eric Musselman, the fourth coach since Richardson left in 2002, put Arkansas there last season in his second season and this season. Baylor eliminated Arkansas in 2021 on its way to the national title.

“The bottom is us getting to the Elite Eight,” said Williams, who averages 10.7 points and 9.8 rebounds. “That’s what we’re working towards. We set the standard for ourselves to keep going up, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

Arkansas, which has played probably the best defense in the tournament, must stop the nation’s No. 8 scoring offense at 80 points a game. It just held the nation’s No. 1 offense to 20 points below its average in a 74-68 win over No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga on Thursday.

“I mean, they took them (Gonzaga) out of transition,” said Duke guard Jeremy Roach, who averages 8.6 points and 3.1 assists a game. “They were real physical with them all game. We’ve just got to match that intensity and even have more intensity than them coming out the gates because you don’t want to give them a rhythm early because it can get scary.”

Arkansas will have to contain 6-foot-10 freshman forward Paolo Branchero, who is averaging 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game, and 6-5 junior forward Wendell Moore Jr., who is averaging 13.5 points and 5.3 rebounds a game while hitting 41 percent from 3-point range.

“I think it bears out number-wise in the last five, six weeks, they’ve been probably the best defensive team in the country,” said Krzyzewski, who was familiar with Musselman’s dad Bill Musselman, a former coach at the University of Minnesota, South Alabama and in the CBA and NBA.

“Obviously, their family is one of the great names in the history of basketball in our country. His dad was just an amazing coach and defensive coach,” Krzyzewski said.

Before Arkansas beat Gonzaga, the late Bill Musselman’s wife, Kris Musselman, presented her son Eric his dad’s good luck charm – a buckeye that is a dark brown nut with a light tan patch (the eye) that comes from buckeye trees, Ohio’s official state tree. Bill Musselman grew up in Wooster, Ohio.

“She gave me a buckeye from Ohio that my dad used to hold,” Musselman said. “She gave it to me pregame, so I’m sure she’s going to give the credit to herself for that lucky buckeye she’s held for 60 years or whatever.”

Kris Musselman, who lives in San Diego, attended her son’s first game as Arkansas’ coach on Thursday and will be at Saturday’s game. Musselman plans on keeping the lucky buckeye close.

“I’ll bring it to the arena. I think that brings good luck,” he said. “When I went away to college, I talked to him every single day. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t pick up the phone and call.”

Should Arkansas advance to the Final Four, look for the buckeye and Kris Musselman to both make the trip.

And if Duke wins, Coach K will pack his memory bank – and that won’t be a carry-on.

“I’ve been able to cross that bridge with my teams 12 times,” he said. “And to cross with this team would be an amazing thing for me, and I know what’s on the other side of the bridge. They don’t. They can only look at it. So, it makes me want it more for them.”

Written by Glenn Guilbeau


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