This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.
Can Mike Krzyzewski lead another freshmen-heavy team to the Final Four?
Talk about a tough act to follow. After a season that saw Mike Krzyzewski win his 1,000th career game and capture his fifth NCAA title at Duke, it’s hard to imagine a coach ever having a better year. More than that, after spending years and years as the most hated program in the sport, it seems that Duke has achieved a measure of “coolness” lately, especially in the recruiting world. Perhaps it’s a result of Coach K’s decade-long tenure as coach of the USA senior national team and the success of coaching NBA stars to gold medals. Maybe it’s the perception (and reality) that Krzyzewski has embraced the one-and-done era of college basketball. Either way, it’s interesting to see the Duke coach get praise for adapting to the new way of winning in college hoops, yet the inventor of the model, Kentucky’s John Calipari, has been regarded in a much more negative light (as a system manipulator) over the last six years. Each coach has now won a national championship with a starting lineup of mostly freshmen. There were productive veterans around to guide the young stars in both programs’ title runs, and the three main freshmen on both squads were unusually mature — mentally and physically. That’s why it would be unfair to expect Duke’s latest highly acclaimed group of newcomers to match the success of their predecessors. It’s just not ‘normal’ to do what Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow accomplished in their first year, just as it wasn’t for the 2012 Wildcats’ super-frosh — Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for last year’s Blue Devils, especially on the defensive end. The low point of the year came when Duke suffered back-to-back double digit losses to unranked teams, N.C. State and Miami. They were so bad defensively at that point that Krzyzewski, in a desperate and out-of-character decision, implemented a zone defense that Duke would go on to use more often than ever before in the Coach K era. Eventually, the freshmen learned to execute the man-to-man principles that the great Blue Devils of the past were known for, and the result was one of the best defensive performances we’ve seen in recent NCAA tournaments — Duke’s six opponents only managed to score .93 points per possession, and four of those teams boasted top-21 offenses according to Ken Pomeroy. The experience of last year’s team reminds us of a couple of things when considering the future defensive prowess of this year’s squad. For one, don’t expect the Blue Devils’ freshmen to immediately grasp Duke’s man-to-man principles, which may result in another year of a decent diet of zone mixed in;. Secondly, the possible early struggles of the freshmen on the defensive end don’t mean that dramatic improvement over the course of the year can’t happen again.