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Unnecessary Greatness

February 3, 2002 Columns No Comments

Unnecessary Greatness

by David Mosse

It’s been roughly one month since the apocalypse. An event so unthinkable it had fans in Durham rushing to nearby churches in search of an explanation from a higher power – the Duke Blue Devils lost a basketball game.

On January 6th, in Tallahassee, despite 26 points from Jason Williams, the Florida State Seminoles overcame a four point deficit in the final minute to hand Mike Krzyzewski’s squad their first defeat of the season. Following the loss, the usually stoic coach ripped into his players claiming Duke had “A lot of work to do” before it could consider itself a great basketball team.

Never mind the Blue Devils brought a 12-0 record into Tallahassee, including an 18-point victory at Iowa, 21-point romp at Michigan, and 25-point drubbing of Temple in Cameron. Incidentally, all three games could have been far greater blowouts had Duke not taken the pedal off the gas in the second half.

Lest we forget, the defending champions returned virtually the same roster that stormed past the competition last March to give Krzyzewski his third national title. One game, specifically, one poorly played minute afforded coach K the excuse to do something he hasn’t had to do much of with this team – coach.

A day after the loss to Florida State, Duke players arrived in the locker room only to find that everything from their name plates to their practice jerseys had disappeared. Krzyzewski later explained he felt his players had become too comfortable and were in need of a shake up. What ensued was what Duke players called the hardest practice of the season, leading up to the Blue Devils next game at home against Georgia Tech.

Coach K was far from finished. In the first half against the Yellow Jackets, with Duke comfortably ahead by 20 points, Krzyzewski exploded all over referee John Clogerty following an intentional foul called on Carlos Boozer.

The outburst, which lasted several minutes, landed the coach his first technical of the season. Krzyzewski later began waving his hands frantically urging the crowd to make noise (as if the Cameron Crazies ever need any encouragement). In the second half, he found time to yell at the Georgia Tech bench after what he considered a dirty foul committed by the opposition.

Duke cruised to a 104-79 victory over a hopelessly outmatched Georgia Tech squad that has yet to notch a conference win this season. Yet analysts throughout the country, most notably the insufferable Dick Vitale, tripped over themselves to find words to describe the brilliant motivational tactics of the coach, prior to and during the game.

Since that victory Duke has disposed of six more opponents by an average margin of 19 points, including Top 10 teams in Maryland and Virginia, who hung with the Blue Devils for a half before having their doors blown off after the intermission. Krzyzewski continues to be lauded for finally giving his team a swift kick in the butt, and waking them up from their malaise.

It all makes for a great story and adds yet another chapter to the legacy of the recently inducted hall of fame coach. Except for one small problem – it is nonsense.

Duke lost to Florida State not because their players were unfocused or too comfortable. Duke lost for the same reason no one has made it through a season undefeated since the Indiana Hoosiers 26 years ago. Every team has an off game. For one night, the shots Duke players typically make rolled off the rim. The bounces that usually go their way didn’t. The loss was nothing more than a fluke and did little to alter the conclusions most people had already drawn.

Duke is not only the best team in the nation, this edition may rank as the best to come along since the aforementioned Hoosiers of ’76. Certainly no school in a very long time has held such a monopoly of the talent in college basketball. The Blue Devils sport not only the two best players in the country (Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy), but five of the top 15.

How dominant are these Blue Devils? Last Sunday Virginia came into Cameron with a 14-2 record and a number 7 ranking, yet pitted as 18-point underdogs. If Duke plays even remotely close to their potential from now through the end of March, they will undoubtedly be crowned the first back to back champions since – you guessed it – the Blue Devils won two in a row in ’91 and ’92.

Mike Krzyzewski is a great coach. He proved this much a decade ago by leading overachieving players Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner to victory against far more physically gifted teams like UNLV and Michigan’s Fab Five. But this is not the season for him to showcase his greatness. All he needs to do is sit back and enjoy like everyone else, the individual talents of players like Williams and Dunleavy, destined to be superstars at the next level.

The championship Duke is headed for was won long before any emptied out locker rooms or fiery sideline displays. It was won when coach K returned from his sabbatical in the mid 90’s and realized coaching alone would not win him any more championships. He needed to recruit blue-chip players. The result in recent years has been a pipeline of McDonald’s All Americans to Durham. From Elton Brand to Corey Maggette. From Shane Battier to Jason Williams.

Krzyzewski deserves credit for recognizing the changing climate in the sport. Bob Knight’s refusal to adapt condemned him to several first round exits and no final fours in his last nine seasons at Indiana. However, Krzyzewski has done so well in attracting top-notch players and perhaps more incredibly holding on to them, it has taken away from his importance as a tactician. After all, what quality coach wouldn’t win with these players?

The fact that this particular Duke team has exorbitantly more talent than any of its competitors doesn’t take away from anything Coach K has accomplished in his illustrious career. It also doesn’t make him any worse of an X’s and O’s coach. Yet, it must somewhat curtail the praise bestowed upon him this season.

When UNLV throttled Duke by 30 points to capture the national title in 1990, nobody suggested Jerry Tarkanian had out-coached Mike Krzyzewski. He simply had the horses. The same standard must apply this season. Although Krzyzewski has forgotten more about basketball than Tarkanian will ever know, his knowledge is as insignificant this season as was Tarkanian’s. After all, he now has the horses.

Coach K is too smart a man not to realize this fact. Perhaps he was merely a little bored and invented a crisis so he could get his hands dirty again. While Krzyzewski loves to win and likely wouldn’t trade his job for any other in the country, a small part of him must miss having to deal with the trials and tribulations of a typical coach, a coach who doesn’t have a starting line-up consisting of five NBA first-round picks. He must miss dealing with substitution patterns, foul trouble, or clock management.

Realistically, this nostalgia should last until next year for all Krzyzewski needs to do this season is roll out his stars and watch them steamroll the competition. His job is merely that of a caretaker. The recent outburst notwithstanding, a coach as secure as Krzyzewski should have no problem accepting and adapting to this new role.

As for Dick Vitale and the many others who worship the ground Krzyzewski walks on, that may be a different story.


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