COACH K REMAINS DUKE’S BIG EDGE

He has become college basketball’s sensei, the master in “Kung Fu,” Yoda in “Star Wars,” the unlikely mentor, not very big or tough himself – heck, Mike Krzyzewski fainted on the sidelines this season – but nonetheless, you fear him, you figure he knows something you don’t. If Michigan State fans are worried about one thing tonight, it isn’t a Duke player or a Duke play, it’s that Krzyzewski, who has won more games than any other coach in NCAA tournament history, will somehow, once again, lure the game his way.

What is his magic? Why are the Blue Devils there every year at tournament time, like the troll under the bridge, already waiting when others arrive? Even in supposedly down seasons such as this one, when Duke wasn’t even projected as best in its conference, here it is again, a No. 1 seed.

I spoke to Krzyzewski this week and asked him, point-blank: “What do you do that is so much better than anyone else?”

“I don’t know if it’s better than anyone else,” he said, “but when I go out there, I’m not in pursuit of another national title. I’m just in pursuit of our next win. …

“I don’t care for accolades. They can make you soft. They get you out of the moment. …

“And, without question, it’s the kids we recruit.”

Ah. Well, that you can accept. Year after year, Duke does seem to be led by “the Duke kid,” some rare mix of brains and brawn and courage and courtesy, a Superman who holds the door for old ladies, a lab tech with a jump shot.

Don’t get me wrong. Other schools have their own versions of this player. But Duke seems to find them year after year. It is more than coincidence that connects Danny Ferry to Christian Laettner to Bobby Hurley to Grant Hill to Shane Battier to Jason Williams.

It’s character.

The signs of a winning player

“When we recruit a kid, we look for certain things,” Krzyzewski said. “I watch him when his mother asks a question. Is he respectful, does he listen, or does he roll his eyes or scratch his leg?

“I watch a kid in a huddle. Does he pay attention? Does he make eye contact with his coach?

“I watch him in practice. He’s always the best player on his high school team. But how is he with his teammates, with his friends? Is he still a guy, or is he a prima donna?

“Usually, the kids we want have already shown they have character. They don’t fight you. They’re believers. They believe in being part of something bigger than themselves.”

“And if they don’t have that?” I ask.

“We usually don’t recruit them.”

Now, admittedly, that’s a luxury. Few schools are so special they can turn their backs on the cocky or the sullen and still have enough to pick from. Then again, Duke has to get them into school and keep them there. Bending the grades – or the rules – is not part of the manifesto in Durham, N.C., nor is sending out an early red carpet. Krzyzewski will not extend offers to ninth-grade phenoms.

“We’ve had some young kids tell us, ‘You’re the only school that hasn’t offered me a scholarship yet.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, I’ve never met you face-to-face. Why would I offer you a scholarship?’ “

Just say no to the Lakers

Being that selective is like taking a shortcut down a mountain. When it works, great. When it doesn’t, you’re short on options. “We don’t recruit many kids,” Krzyzewski admitted, “because we couldn’t get to know them the way we wanted to.”

In years past, Duke could survive that because its players all seemed to stay there forever. Laettner, Ferry, Hill, Hurley and Battier all played four years.

But that tradition is gone. Elton Brand left Duke after two seasons. Corey Maggette left after one. So did Luol Deng. Last year, top recruit Shaun Livingston bypassed Duke altogether and went straight to the NBA.

So Krzyzewski faces the same thinning landscape as the rest of college basketball, and last summer, for a few nervous days, he wondered if his time was up, if maybe a five-year, $40-million offer to coach the L.A. Lakers was the answer. He did a once-around-the-dance-floor with the sexy lady in the NBA sequins. He wound up back at the punch bowl, wearing his college beanie.

“There were questions I needed to have answered,” he said. “And the answer was loud and clear. The pros were just going to be about winning and losing. That made the decision easy. I should stay here; do what I love to do.

“And for as long as I coach, I’m gonna coach Duke.”

So he needn’t get caught up in the moment. He isn’t Bruce Pearl at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, using the Sweet 16 to market himself, or Bruce Weber at Illinois, seizing the tournament to prove his program is for real.

He is 58 years old. Ten Final Fours, seven championship games, three championship banners. Maybe Mike Krzyzewski’s only real secret is being very good at one thing and being relaxed enough to enjoy it. You know what that makes him? Someone to worry about if you’re playing his team, that’s what.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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