Archive for Saturday, April 3, 2010

Coach K, Huggins to clash at Final Four

April 3, 2010

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— On one bench, there’s Bob Huggins, a coach who has dealt with an NCAA investigation, suffered a heart attack, been arrested for DUI, endured the stain of a zero-percent graduation rate and the tumult of two contentious job changes.

On the other, there’s Mike Krzyzewski, a coach making his 11th Final Four appearance who has more or less defined modern-day stability — and solid citizenship — in college sports.

So why is it Coach K who’s been taking all the heat lately?

Well, such is life when you’re the coach at Duke and your program — the program you built and recruited all the talent to — doesn’t make the Final Four for five straight seasons.

“People expect us to always be at this stage,” Blue Devils forward Lance Thomas said Friday, the last day of practice before the games begin.

Duke’s return to the Final Four, where the Blue Devils (33-5) will play West Virginia in today’s second semifinal, has quieted a growing cadre of skeptics.

Since 2004, when the Blue Devils lost to Connecticut in the national semifinals, Krzyzewski has kept the talent coming in and won four ACC tournament and two regular-season titles. But during that span, Duke hadn’t advanced past the NCAA regional semifinals until this year.

That, combined with the two national championships North Carolina has won in the same span, has certainly made it easier to criticize a program that already has its share of haters.

Naturally, job security is of no concern to Coach K, in his 30th year at Duke. He insists he’s listened to very little of the critiquing outside of what the people in his own circles tell him, and the only time he, or anyone, should feel pressure is when they’re in over their head.

“I think pressure is when you’re asked to do something you’re not capable of doing,” Krzyzewski said. “So you should train and be in a position where you’re capable of doing what people ask of you. And if you’re continually feeling pressure, you should probably try to do something you can do.”

Duke has done it this year with a very un-Duke-like combination — one that includes lots of height, starting with 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek, plenty of rebounding and defense and nary a superstar.

The program that gave us Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Christian Laettner, Jason Williams and dozens more NBA players has produced a 2010 team with pro talent, but no lottery picks — a team with players who can score and defend but nobody who dominates nightly.

The man who turned it into Final Four material: Krzyzewski, who insists he never let the criticism get to him.

“I think everyone feels pressure, but not the pressure from the outside,” he said. “It’s the pressure from within, to do as well as you think you can do.”

Facing Krzyzewski on the other bench will be Huggins, who has brought West Virginia (31-6) back to the Final Four for the first time since 1959 and is making his first appearance since 1992, when he was with Cincinnati.

An 18-year drought would gnaw at most coaches, a hyper-competitive bunch. But the 56-year-old Huggins insists he hasn’t spent much time — any time, really — during that span wondering if he would make it back or worrying about his shortcomings.

“Not really,” he said, when asked if there’s anything specific that eats at him. “I can’t say I worry about our guys, because our guys are really good guys. I want them to be successful and do well. But I’ve never lived my life worrying.”

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