North Carolina faces Mike Krzyzewski and Duke in Final Four

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski applauds while being recognized prior to the team's NCAA college bas ...

NEW ORLEANS — The team standing in the way of Mike Krzyzewski’s journey to a fairy tale ending lost consecutive road games to Wake Forest and Miami by a combined 50 points this college basketball season.

It lost to Kentucky by 29 and was 3-8 against Quad 1 opponents.

But isn’t that the beauty of this month?

Just qualify for the bracket and magical things occur.

North Carolina is proving just that this NCAA Tournament, next set to face Krzyzewski and his Duke side in a second national semifinal on Saturday at the Caesars Superdome.

It’s the 258th meeting between rival schools located eight miles apart along the Research Triangle of the Piedmont region of North Carolina. It’s also the first time they will have met in the NCAAs.

Kansas challenges Villanova in the first Final Four game.

Pictures in lockers

“I really don’t know or care about the significance of (playing Duke),” first-year Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis said. “Our focus needs to be on what allows us to prepare the best, practice the best and play the best. Taking time on anything else — Duke-Carolina, Coach K’s last season — even though they’re stories and relevant, it doesn’t help us on the floor.”

One of the many tales about North Carolina’s program dates to the late Dean Smith’s tenure, when the then-head coach before the first practice in 1993 put a picture of the New Orleans Superdome — site of the Final Four that season — in the locker of each player.

Smith’s message: You’re good enough to advance and win it all. The Tar Heels did.

Davis copied that source of motivation of so many years ago, placing pictures of the same venue in each player’s locker this year. But when the mid-season portion of a schedule arrived and North Carolina was 12-6 and a fringe NCAA team, thoughts of a Final Four seemed more far-fetched than a Duke loyalist not wanting Krzyzewski to be cutting down a net come Monday evening.

“(Coach Davis) saw the potential of our team,” said North Carolina guard RJ Davis. “He saw the grit. He saw the talent we had. It was just about putting it all together, brick-by-brick, day-by-day. It wasn’t going to happen instantly. But once we developed the chemistry on and off the court — that’s where we are right now. The Final Four.”

And now, incredibly, they get Duke.

There have been few coronations of late larger than the one Krzyzewski has received since announcing this would be his final season. Not that he needs another crown, no matter how big his head might swell at times.

This is his record 13th Final Four. He has 101 career NCAA Tournament wins. He’s going for a sixth national title, the first coming in 1991 against UNLV.

(Enter all the scorn and hatred for Krzyzewski from Rebels fans here.)

Saturday will be highly emotional. It’s obviously historic. Both teams are playing their best basketball as they descend upon the grandest of stages.

They split regular-season meetings, but no game received more attention nationally this season than North Carolina’s 94-81 drubbing of Duke in Krzyzewski’s final home game.

I mean, the Tar Heels took the Blue Devils to the shed.

Stars have aligned

“What Hubert has done in his first year is magnificent,” Krzyzewski said. “I haven’t looked at it as us against Carolina. I’ve looked at as … We’re playing in the Final Four, so the history of (the rivalry) isn’t what I have paid any attention to.

“It’s the most amazing day in college basketball to bring four (regional) champions together and to play for another championship.”

Maybe. But you can’t escape the leading storyline. You can’t ignore the significance. Too much blood spilled over the decades, good and bad but mostly bad.

Amazing it has come to this. The stars of college basketball have aligned, all right.

It’s crazy. Look who’s standing in the way of Coach K.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.