DURHAM, N.C. – The Duke Basketball Museum sits on a perch, one flight of stairs above historic Cameron Indoor Stadium. Across the courtyard lies Krzyzewskiville, a makeshift campground where students live in tents covered by tarps for more than a month in anticipation of the enemy’s arrival: the North Carolina game.
Museum visitors find a trove of memorabilia befitting college hoops royalty. The room also has a distinctly Minnesota flavor.
Eight-foot glass cases showcase the five national championships won under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. Each case holds the championship crystal ball trophy, along with jerseys, photos and nets that were cut down in celebration.
The first case honors the 1991 championship team that started its tournament run in Minneapolis, at the Metrodome, in the first two rounds.
Next in line, the 1992 championship case, won at the Final Four held at the Metrodome. Then there is a case for the 2001 champions, who also claimed their title at the Dome.
A few steps away is the 2015 case, with a poster-sized photo of a familiar face. That’s Tyus Jones, former Apple Valley star, his eyes wide and mouth agape after draining a late three-pointer to punctuate a stirring performance that earned him Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
Five national titles. Four with Minnesota ties.
“Obviously we have won twice there, but it’s how the city kind of opened its arms to the game of basketball while we were celebrating college basketball at its highest level,” Krzyzewski said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “Minneapolis did a fabulous job of that. We love it there.”
The love affair might grow even deeper when the Final Four returns to Minneapolis at U.S. Bank Stadium in early April. The Blue Devils earned the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, and their point guard and floor leader is, you guessed it, a Minnesotan — freshman Tre Jones, Tyus’ younger brother.
Krzyzewski noted that all five championships have been won in two cities ending in “apolis” — two in Minneapolis and three in Indianapolis.
“We’re hoping there is some karma there,” he said. “Hopefully we can get back there.”
Their 1992 trip to the Twin Cities will be hard to top in historical legacy. The Blue Devils won one of the greatest games in college basketball history on a remarkable buzzer-beater in the regional final, then ousted Indiana coach Bobby Knight in the Final Four semifinals. In the title game, Duke ended the dream run of Michigan’s Fab Five.
“It’s almost like there’s a book on each of the games,” Krzyzewski said.
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“When you win a game like that where it could have easily gone the other way, something that dramatic, you feel like you should go and win another championship,” said point guard Bobby Hurley, now the coach at Arizona State. “Having survived the Kentucky game and the way that we won it, I think gave us even more confidence going to Minneapolis.”
Hurley played the role of hero in Minneapolis, starting in the semifinals against Indiana. Laettner was uncharacteristically quiet against Knight’s defensive scheme. The Hoosiers dared Hurley to shoot, and he made them pay with six three-pointers and a game-high 26 points.
“I had always shot well in domes,” Hurley noted.
Duke felt it was “the superior team,” Hurley said, two nights later against Michigan.
“Freshmen were not supposed to get that far,” he added.
The Blue Devils’ 71-51 victory made them the first team to claim back-to-back national titles since UCLA in the early 1970s. Duke finished 34-2. The weekend in Minneapolis was its coronation.
“We took every team’s best shot,” Hurley said.
Duke felt that same way when the Blue Devils returned in 2001. In the Final Four semifinal against ACC rival Maryland, the Blue Devils came out flat. Krzyzewski’s memories include a “critical timeout” when his team trailed 39-17 late in the first half.
“We just said, ‘Look, it’s Saturday afternoon, man,’ ” he recalled with a chuckle. “They really put a lot of pressure on themselves. It seems that in that timeout they started smiling again and started playing.”
Duke regrouped and won by 11, and a tense title game against Arizona finally swung Duke’s favor on a late flurry by Shane Battier, the National Player of the Year.
Those two national titles — 1992 and 2001 — came in the final game of illustrious careers of two seniors, Laettner and Battier.
“Christian is one of the top five college players of all time; Battier was special in every way,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s a special place there because we don’t get a chance to do that for four years now. That bond was there. Now of all of a sudden it’s over, but it’s over in the very best way.”
Krzyzewski’s time with Tyus Jones lasted only one season but ended in a similar way. Jones scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half to ignite a 68-63 comeback victory over Wisconsin in the 2015 championship game in Indianapolis.
Jones was brilliant offensively, his signature moment coming with 1½ minutes left. He used a ball screen to create space for a three-pointer from the top that gave Duke an insurmountable eight-point lead.
Krzyzewski called it “one of the really big shots for our program.”
“Tyus was built for that,” Krzyzewski said.
Jones punctuated his moment with an inedible image: Eyes and mouth opened wide, as he looked at his family in the stands.
“I’m glad the cameraman focused on him,” Krzyzewski said, “because my mouth was wide open too.”
A regular visitor
Krzyzewski makes Minnesota a regular recruiting stop. Apple Valley coach Zach Goring received a personalized letter from Krzyzewski after winning the Class 4A state championship in 2013. Goring keeps it on the desk in his home office.
Krzyzewski signed Apple Valley’s Gary Trent Jr. next, followed by Tre Jones. Duke is a finalist to sign Rochester John Marshall senior Matthew Hurt, a top-10 prospect. Krzyzewski took a private jet to Rochester twice in a span of several weeks recently to watch Hurt play.
“Minnesota produces outstanding players,” Krzyzewski said. “We believe the state has really good basketball.”
Krzyzewski has mastered recruiting in the one-and-done era. He assembled one the greatest recruiting classes ever to carry the torch this season.
R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish were considered the top three recruits last year. Tre Jones was a top-15 prospect. Those four maintained a group chat throughout their recruitment before joining forces.
“We talked all the time,” Jones said. “We got really close.”
The freshmen quartet made Duke the top story in college basketball this season, led by Williamson, a generational talent who is expected to be the National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft. Duke freshmen don’t have cable in their dorm rooms, but it’s impossible for them to miss “tanking for Zion” conversations on social media. Barrett and Reddish are projected top-five picks this spring, too.
Jones is one of the nation’s best defensive players and the glue that holds it all together. He drives the Blue Devils’ relentless style of play. They rank seventh nationally in scoring (84 points per game), first in blocks and fourth in steals.
“That is my role, to keep us together,” he said. “To keep us playing for one another. To set up guys in the right position and be a leader on the court. My job is to be the floor general and get guys in the right position.”
From NC to MN?
Duke students here pay homage to their favorite players by decorating their tents in Krzyzewskiville. More than 1,000 students moved into their temporary homes outside Cameron Indoor Stadium in early January. Rules stipulate 12 people per tent: two during the day, 10 at night. They stayed until Feb. 20. The payoff: Prime seats at home games.
One tent called itself “the White House” — a nod of admiration to junior forward Jack White. One labeled itself “Camp Reddish.”
Another tent went with an Oscar theme, complete with inflated golden trophies and remade posters. There was the “Zion King” and “Indiana Tre Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
On a warm Friday in February, students sat outside their tents in lawn chairs with their laptops open. Next door, the team practiced in preparation for the St. John’s game the next afternoon.
After practice, Jones relaxed in an office next to the locker room. He said it dawned on him that Minneapolis is playing host to the Final Four not long after he committed to Duke.
“It was like, ‘What are the odds that this is happening?’ ” he said. “It makes you even hungrier to get to the Final Four.”
Jones smiled as he reflected on the historical connection between his college program and his home state.
“As much as Minnesota isn’t seen as a basketball state [nationally], Duke has two national championships there, multiple players have come through now,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s another year for Minnesota.”