Appointment with Coach K awaits UA

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Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman took his team on a streetcar ride in San Francisco on Wednesday, the city near which Bay Area singer Tony Bennett figuratively left his heart.

Thursday night in the NCAA West Region Semifinals, as the song goes, the Razorbacks “climbed halfway to the stars.”

Go ahead and say it, go for it: Arkansas 74, Gonzaga 68 ranks among the defining moments in Razorback sports history. For basketball in particular, it goes up there with the 1978 West Region semi-final against UCLA, the 1984 regular season victory at Pine Bluff against No. win over Kentucky in program history.

Only the 1994 NCAA championship game – Arkansas 76, Duke 72 – is more elated. The setting for a Monday night in April with the nation’s president, Bill Clinton, cheering on the school he attended and was a law professor likely won’t be matched. When Scotty Thurman arced a shot just over the fingertips of Duke’s Antonio Lang in the closing seconds, Razorback Nation collectively lost their minds.

The Past is the prologue to the first Arkansas-Duke game in 28 years. If not for the highest stakes, it gives these Razorbacks a shot at making history.

They can send Duke’s Mike Kryzyzewski, after 1,128 wins in 42 seasons at Duke (1,201 wins in 47 seasons overall), into retirement.

Coach K’s farewell tour has been a talking point of the college basketball season, even though Arkansas fans, in particular, are sick of hearing about a man whose last name is not easy to spell. A Chicago native who played at West Point for the legendary Bob Knight, Coach K simply transcends college sports.

Whether it’s tonight or at the Final Four next week, Coach K’s farewell will be the most publicized by a non-player in sports history. Think of the challengers. Bear Bryant walked softly into the night after a sleepy Liberty Bowl victory (Alabama vs. Illinois) in 1982, only to die weeks later. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson hadn’t invented college basketball when John Wooden called it after UCLA beat Kentucky for their 10th NCAA title in 12 years in 1975. Dean Smith and Pat Summitt’s final games disappeared into the ether of sports history.

Presenting the highest profile in a made-for-TV sport about to enter its peak period, Mike Krzyzewski became America’s coach at Duke. Although seven years have passed since his last NCAA title, he dominates his sport in a way that Alabama’s Nick Saban can only dream of. We knew the Duke trainer had truly gone national when he appeared in AT&T commercials during March Madness TV coverage.

As Saban calls former multisport great Deion Sanders in these Aflac insurance spots, it really is Coach Prime.

Duke, a longtime member of the North Carolina Atlantic Coast Conference and national shadows, challenged the Tar Heels in every way once K arrived. Although they reached the NCAA Finals in 1978, losing to Kentucky in a field that included Arkansas, it wasn’t until 1991 and a jaw-dropping upset from UNLV, reversing the beating of 30 pounds they suffered in the previous year’s title game, which the Blue Devils reached the top. This was followed a year later by another title after perhaps the best game in tournament history – Duke 104, Kentucky 103 in double overtime; Christian Laettner has still not missed a shot.

Something Cawood Ledford, the legendary Kentucky caller announcer, said on that show is still remembered 30 years later. The character Duke displayed in the win, he said, didn’t surprise him because “that’s why they’re No. 1.”

Duke hasn’t won every title in the meantime – North Carolina won three under Roy Williams, Connecticut three under Jim Calhoun, Jay Wright two at Villanova, Billy Donovan two at Florida – but quite often (2001, 2010 and 2015) to remain in the debate.

The sweetest sight of this tournament came on Thursday night when Coach K and his wife Mickie, married for 53 years, left the field arm in arm after the Blue Devils beat Texas Tech in the semifinals of the Premier League. ‘Where is. It was reported that she threatened to leave Coach K if he did not take time off to treat a back injury during the 1994–95 season.

“In 1995, he didn’t know he was vulnerable,” she said. “So it was a big shock for him. And that was one of the shocks he had to overcome: ‘Oh my God! I’m actually a human being.”

When Duke actively began recruiting the “one-and-done” athlete, Boston basketball maven Bob Ryan said “college basketball as we know it is over.” Coach K’s greatest such team, the one with Zion Williamson, won no titles.

Those Blue Devils, after double-digit losses to North Carolina and Virginia Tech on back-to-back March Saturdays, didn’t look like title contenders. They do now, after shooting 71% in the second half against Texas Tech and smothering the Red Raiders with zone defense.

“He expects 110% from us every day,” star Jayson Blair said, “so we know we have a job to do.”

Even Razorback fans have license to cheer on the Blue Devils tonight. If my late mother, a longtime Coach K fan, was watching, I have no doubt which way she would lean.

Still, Eric Musselman’s players, as Eddie Sutton said of some of his beloved Arkansas teams, have big valentines. If they find their hearts where Tony Bennett lost his, a golden sun could shine for them.

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