March Madness and Mike Krzyzewski have run as a virtual entry since the former Army coach took over the Duke Blue Devils in 1980. But another alumnus of the Black Knights’ list of basketball coaches has joined the party this year. It’s been a rather unlikely route.
When Jim Crews was fired at Army following the 2008-09 season after a seven-year record of 60-139, he began coaching an eighth-grade girls’ team while working as an analyst for Big Ten games. Prior to the 2011-12 season, Saint Louis coach and long-time friend Rick Majerus offered him a position on his staff. When Majerus took a medical leave last August, Crews took over the team in what figured to be on an interim basis. But three months later, Majerus announced he would not be returning; he died of heart failure Dec. 1.
Since Crews took over, the Billikens, ranked 15th in the nation, have won the regular-season Atlantic 10 title; they won the tournament title Sunday when they defeated Virginia Commonwealth in the conference championship game. They’re the No. 4 seed in the Midwest bracket, and will play New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Duke is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, and will play Albany.
“We’re not a big stat team," Crews said to espn.com. “These guys have tremendous wisdom, and that doesn’t show up in the stats. We like that."
Ironically, Crews played for another ex-Army coach, Bob Knight, on the Hoosiers’ undefeated 1976 national-championship team. He was named the coach of the year by The Sporting News last week after guiding Saint Louis to its first league title since 1971.
Prior to taking over at Arny prior to the 2002-03 season, Crews served as the coach at Evansville for 17 years, where he led the Purple Aces to four trips to the tournament. The irony is that his label as interim coach at Saint Louis remains; he’s been given no indication as to whether he’ll be invited back. As to his team’s style of play, he offered a somewhat-skewed response.
“Sometimes if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t turn it over and you don’t take bad shots, they don’t know what you’re doing either," he said.
Duke getting to the Final Four – it would be the team’s 12th such appearance since Krzyzewski took over – would catch no one by surprise. The odds figure to be a bit higher for Saint Louis, which made its furthest run in the tournament in 1952 when it got to the Elite Eight. Twenty-five to 1, to be specific, according to Vegas oddsmakers. Duke is 8-1.
If both teams make it all away to the Midwest finals, they would not meet until March 31. The odds likely would have been a lot higher for the chance to have two former Army coaches get that far in the same season. But that’s part of the fascination of the one-loss-and-you’re-out tournament. Duke vs. Saint Louis, huh? Stranger things have happened in March. That’s the beauty of it.