Mike Krzyzewski Keeps Up With the Times (and Titles)

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 10th, 2015

With Monday night’s fifth career NCAA Championship, Mike Krzyzewski’s legacy took another long stride into the history books of the college game. In what he has called the most enjoyable season of his 40-year coaching career, Kryzyzewski showed his versatility as a head coach by leading Duke to the greatest of heights by utilizing a makeup unlike any of his previous champions. The 68-year old deserves all the credit he has received for his prolonged success, winning in three completely different eras of the sport by adapting to the standards of the times. His first two title teams (1991 & 1992) were won when programs could be built around long-term stars like Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. When his 2001 team, led by Shane Battier, Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy, Jr., won Krzyzewski’s third championship, the lure of the NBA had gutted much of the young talent from the college game. The last decade has brought the one-and-done rule to college basketball, and at least initially, Duke did not seem to be an interested party — Krzyzewski’s 2010 national champs featured five upperclassmen starters.

It was a year of milestones for Coach K - 1000th win and fifth national title. (AP Photo)

It was a year of milestones for Coach K — his 1,000th win and fifth national title.
(AP Photo)

Since that fourth national title, the Blue Devils had crashed and burned with their last two high-profile freshmen — Austin Rivers (2012) and Jabari Parker (2014) were unwilling participants in huge NCAA Tournament upsets of Duke by Lehigh and Mercer, respectively. Theirs were the reference points going into a campaign when Coach K welcomed the nation’s top recruiting class of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen by signaling that he was all-in with the modern recruiting strategy focusing on one-and-dones. Krzyzewski masterfully molded the young Blue Devils around an elite offense and a gradually improving defense all the way to another championship run.

We attended a private scrimmage session in Cameron Indoor Stadium back in October and shared our observations on what we witnessed here. While the freshmen’s raw talent was obvious, we came away from the practice session concerned with how the two Blue Devils’ veterans would handle the robust attention and acclaim that the newcomers were already getting. Quinn Cook was one of the players who didn’t play well that day, but he soon morphed into exactly what the Duke coaching staff wanted him to be — a big brother, supporter and go-to teammate for the four rookies. As a result of Cook’s deference, Krzyzewski called the senior “as good a leader as I’ve had in my 35 years at Duke.” Think about what that means from a guy who has coached the likes of Laettner, Ferry, Hurley, Battier and Dawkins. Rasheed Sulaimon, the other veteran who struggled in that October scrimmage, was ultimately kicked off the team, an event that seemed to bring the eight remaining players together down the stretch of the season.

With only eight available players, Krzyzewsi knew he needed to develop the confidence of his four role players to complement Cook and the three star freshmen. A turning point in that development may have occurred in the regular season finale at rival North Carolina. Six minutes into the second half, the Tar Heels held a seven-point lead and all the momentum. Winslow was on the bench with four fouls and Okafor and Jones were winded, forcing Krzyzewski to go to a lineup without any of his young stars on the floor. Over the next few minutes, Duke made a run and headed into the next media timeout with a two-point lead. Everyone expected to see Okafor and Jones return to action when the whistle blew to resume play, but out walked the same group of mostly reserves to play together for a couple of more minutes while maintaining the lead. Duke never trailed again to complete the rare sweep of its archrival from Chapel Hill.

CoachesAfterward, Krzyzewski explained his rationale by saying that he was thinking ahead. He wanted those reserves to know that their coach has confidence in them, something that he said can only be proven with extended minutes in a crucial part of an important game. Fast forward to Monday night’s turning point of the game against Wisconsin, and look at Duke’s lineup on the floor. With Okafor and Winslow on the bench with fouls, it was the likes of Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee who started Duke’s second half run. Allen got most of the acclaim (and deservedly so for his offensive outburst of 10 second half points), but Jefferson’s defense on Frank Kaminsky may have been just as important. In fact, the junior forward led all players with a +15 plus/minus for the game and he was by far the most effective post defender on the National Player of the Year.

From a historical perspective, Krzyzewski has now solidified his place as the second-most accomplished NCAA Tournament coach ever. While some say his greatness over an extended period (24 years between his first and last titles) is more impressive than John Wooden’s incredible 10 national titles in 12 years, even Coach K acknowledges that Wooden is his own category above all others. A look at the table above shows how the NCAA Tournament’s four most successful long-term coaches compare in four key categories. While Krzyzewski will never approach Wooden’s sheer number of titles or overall winning percentage, it may be a long time before anyone else approaches Coach K’s impressive NCAA Tournament results. Another Final Four run is unlikely next season given the high probability that Duke will lose its four best players; but after that, in this new climate and with Krzyzewski’s evolved approach to recruiting, who knows. In the prep Class of 2016, Duke is actively pursuing five of the top 10-to-12 players, many of whom have mentioned the desire to play together as a package deal in college. Sound familiar?

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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One response to “Mike Krzyzewski Keeps Up With the Times (and Titles)”

  1. Sammy Bass says:

    Hey Brad! Good article. Dad sends them to me

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