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Duke looks primed for national title: 'We want to hang another banner'

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 3/27/2022 Josh Peter, USA TODAY
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SAN FRANCISCO – Duke had secured a trip to the Final Four with a 78-69 victory Saturday night when the chant commenced.

“We want six! We want six! We want six!’’

It was the Blue Devils’ fans, and here’s what they want: A sixth national championship for legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski before his farewell tour ends.

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“I'll be shocked if Duke is not national champions,’’ Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said after watching the Blue Devils dismantle his team at the Chase Center in the Elite Eight at the West Regional.

Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils advanced to the Final Four and will play the winner of Sunday's North Carolina-Saint Peter's game. © Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils advanced to the Final Four and will play the winner of Sunday's North Carolina-Saint Peter's game.

And let’s be clear about something: The Blue Devils aren’t headed to the Final Four in New Orleans hoping for a good bowl of gumbo, a nice swamp tour and some Mardi Gras beads.

They’ll need something for Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke basketball’s vaunted home.

“We for sure want to hang another banner in there,’’ junior guard Wendell Moore Jr. said.

Suddenly, there’s no team playing better than the Blue Devils.

Skeptics might point to Duke’s possible semifinals matchup against North Carolina, which beat the Blue Devils, 94-81, in Krzyzewski’s last home game March 5. Another showdown between the archrivals would take place if eighth-seeded North Carolina beats 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s Sunday in an Elite Eight matchup.

But the young Duke team that once buckled under pressure looks far different than the one that unraveled against the Tar Heels and came undone in the ACC tournament championship game in a loss to Virginia Tech, 82-67. Just how different they are could not have been clearer Saturday night, when Duke outclassed Arkansas two days after the Razorbacks upset Gonzaga, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed.

“In this NCAA Tournament my team has just played such good basketball, and in pressure situations,’’ Krzyzewski said.

Pressure rose and the Blue Devils rose higher.

They rallied past Michigan State in the last five minutes in the round of 32, making their last five shots from the floor.

They held off Texas Tech in the final minutes of the Sweet 16, making their last eight shots from the floor.

Then there was Saturday night, when Arkansas whittled a 12-point deficit to five at 53-48 with just over 13 minutes left.

“We were getting ready to get knocked out,’’ Krzyzewski said.

His Blue Devils promptly went on a 10-0 run, then coasted to victory in part because of their raw talent.

No college team has more.

Freshman forwards Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin are projected as high lottery picks for this summer's NBA draft. Moore and sophomore center Mark Williams also are expected to be drafted in the first round.

Here’s what the mock drafts miss: Jeremy Roach, Duke’s sophomore point guard, has helped solidify a starting lineup with just one upperclassman. His assertive drives reflect the confidence of a young team growing up fast.

In part, it appears to be the result of Krzyzewski taking a gentler approach with his players.

“It’s unacceptable,’’ he told the Duke crowd after North Carolina whipped the Blue Devils in their last matchup. Now, in public, Coach K only gushes about his team that once looked ready to buckle under the expectations surrounding the farewell tour.

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After Duke’s victory over Arkansas, a reporter asked Banchero how confident he is of carrying out the plan of sending off Coach K as a national champion.

Krzyzewski intervened.

“Let's not talk about me,’’ he said, noting that his team already had won the ACC regular-season championship and the West Regional championship of the NCAA Tournament. “They did it for us, and enough about doing it for the old man here.

“We're not going to do it unless we all own it, and we all owned this. We all owned this moment together.’’

Time to own reality: The Blue Devils don’t chant for ACC championships and NCAA Tournament championships.

They want a sixth national championship for their beloved Coach K.

There’s good reason to believe they’ll get it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Duke looks primed for national title: 'We want to hang another banner'

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