The last TV timeout in Duke’s 68-49 victory over San Diego State Sunday came at the 3:34 mark. The Blue Devils were leading 63-41 at the time, so there really wasn’t much Coach Mike Krzyzewski needed to tell his players.
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"We had a 20-point [lead] … we had the game," Krzyzewski said. "And I knew we weren’t going to be jumping around on the court after a 20-point win. I just looked at them and said, ‘We’re going to Houston! We’re going to Houston!"
"And all of a sudden, you could see them smiling and put their arms around one another. That was really good."
Krzyzewski told the media of that incident to illustrate a point. He pointed out that he didn’t say:
"You’re expected to go to Houston. You’re expected to go to the Final Four. What about Mercer?"
The Hall of Fame coach was venting some of his frustration about the burdens laid on this Duke team – both from within and without.
"People get caught up in what happened before that was negative and what should happen because we’re Duke, instead of enjoying. That’s what I’ve tried to do with our team. Let’s enjoy."
Krzyzewski promised that as this season plays out, he’s not going to think about the past – good or bad – and he’s not going to worry about the future. This isn’t the team that won back-to-back national titles in the early 1990s. And it isn’t the team that lost its first NCAA game to Mercer a year ago.
The only connection between those teams and this one is the head coach. And he’s going to resist any linkages.
"I’m going to live in their moment," Krzyzewski said. "It’s a cool moment to be in. Play for this year."
That’s good advice. I have to admit that one of the things I do as a writer is to try and provide historical context to any moment. I arrived at Tuesday’s press conference intending to ask Coach K about his struggles in the Sweet 16 round. In truth, it’s been his biggest NCAA hurdle, even for his No. 1 seeded teams.
Duke has never lost short of the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed. And his top teams never had problems in the early rounds in the 1980s and 1990s. That started to change in 2000, when No. 1 seed Duke lost to Florida in the Sweet 16. Two years later, No. 1 seed Duke lost to Indiana in the Sweet 16. And three years after that, Duke lost back-to-back Sweet 16s as the No. 1 seed – to Michigan State in 2005 and to LSU in 2006.
Since the turn of the century, Duke is 4-7 in Sweet 16 games – 3-5 as a No. 1 seed.
So is that a concern headed into Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Utah?
I never asked the question.
After listening to Krzyzewski wax eloquent about how this Duke team exists independent of the past, I decided not to waste my time. I knew that he would not talk about what happened to his 2000 team in Syracuse or his 2006 team in Atlanta. Neither game had anything to do with how Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and company will perform in Houston.
It’s all about them and not about the ghosts of Duke basketball past.
CELEBRATING THE 2015 BLUE DEVILS
For Mike Krzyzewski, the 2015 Duke basketball started to come together during a recruiting dinner at his home in the fall of 2013.
He and his staff hosted prospects Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and their families. K especially cited Chuck and Emeka Okafor, Jahlil’s father and uncle, as a fun pair to be around. He suggested that the two deserved their own reality show.
"The best recruiting meal we’ve ever had was at their visit at our house," he said. "We had all three of those kids – Justise, Jah, Tyus and their families. It was hysterical. We were cracking up. And to see their interaction – since they already knew one another – was terrific. That’s the build-up of this year.
"To have those type of relationships with each other and with us – before they even get here – that’s uncommon."
Krzyzewski had been recruiting Okafor and Jones for a long time. The two Midwestern stars had grown close on the AAU circuit and had declared their intention to attend the same college. Over the years, the majority of recruiting "package deals" fizzle, but this one played out – the Chicago center and the Minnesota point guard each announced their intention to sign with Duke during simultaneous press conferences.
But Okafor and Jones were so close, there was danger that it could scare off Winslow, who was K’s third target that fall (guard Grayson Allen was already in the house).
"That was a concern," Krzyzewski said. "The two guys helped. For Tyus and Jah, that’s the guy they wanted to be with them. We already wanted him. We talked to them a lot … like ‘Am I going to run the entire offense through those two guys.’ I think Tyus and Jah helped with that."
Krzyzewski knew when he signed them that Okafor, the No. 1 prospect in the nation, was most likely a one-and-done player. And he knew that Winslow and Jones could be short-timers too.
Dealing with one-and-done players has caused him to change his approach to a season.
"One of the things that you try to do in recruiting -- when we knew [Jabari] Parker is going to go and Okafor is going to go -- you try to get to know them at a higher and deeper level before you get them," Krzyzewski told ESPN’s Andy Katz last fall. "The summer is huge. You have to set the tone right away -- the level of work they have to do and how hard they have to work. You’re trying to cram in four years in nine months."
The 2015 Duke team came together during the summer of 2014.
Probably the key development was integrating Quinn Cook into his new role.
Cook could have been a problem – a senior who had started at point guard on two successful Duke teams. He could have resented the freshmen – especially Jones, who was slated to take his job – and been a cancer within the team. It’s happened with veteran players in the past.
Instead, Cook embraced the kids and his new role as a shooting guard.
"Quinn has been great to me," Jones told reporters last fall. "He’s been like a big brother to me. He’s taken me under his wing and helped me a lot."
Duke started off in impressive fashion, blasting outmatched Presbyterian 113-44. The Devils reeled off neutral count wins over Michigan State (now in the Sweet 16), Temple and Stanford (both in the NIT Final Four). But it was a Dec. 3 win at No. 2 ranked Wisconsin (now in the Sweet 16) that cemented this Duke team as a powerhouse.
"I think we’ve been pretty good all year," Krzyzewski said. "I saw something early. They had great camaraderie.
Six more wins in a row followed and the team was 14-0 and No. 2 in the nation when everything blew up. Duke went to N.C. State and lost to the Wolfpack (another Sweet 16 team). Two days later, Duke lost at home to Miami (another NIT Final Four team).
Krzyzewski saw the slump coming.
"I thought for about two weeks, we could not put the ball in the basket," the Duke coach said. "We weren’t defined yet defensively. We didn’t have another strength yet. We just weren’t playing well for a couple of weeks, even though we won."
N.C. State and Miami exposed Duke’s problems.
And at that point, Duke faced a trip to No. 6 Louisville.
"I thought the Louisville game was huge for us," Krzyzewski said. "After Louisville, we started playing better. At Notre Dame, I thought we played a little bit better than they did. We missed some layups and free throws and [Jerian] Grant was great at the end. And then to win at Virginia – our confidence was there."
Krzyzewski’s summation of the season leaves out two very pertinent facts.
(1) Starting with the Louisville game, he began using a zone defense – actually a variety of zone defenses – as an integral part of his team.
(2) After the close loss at Notre Dame, he dismissed junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon from the team.
Is it a coincidence that Duke won 14 straight games (and 16 of 17 overall) since Sulaimon’s dismissal?
It’s a touchy subject and Krzyzewski – bound by FERPA rules – has been forbidden to talk about the circumstances surrounding Sulaimon’s dismissal. But in view of all the talk about the chemistry and camaraderie of this team, was the talented Sulaimon the one guy who didn’t buy in?
Would Duke have made its late-season surge if he had stayed?
Who knows? I don’t.
At any event, Duke has finished the season as a much better team than the one that blistered Presbyterian in November and defeated Wisconsin in December.
"This team has evolved," Krzyzewski said. "It’s playing its best basketball now. We got better in Charlotte."
Duke is better now in a number of ways:
-- "We’ve actually become a very good defensive team," Krzyzewski said.
This is a more diverse defensive team than any Krzyzewski has ever had. The pressure man-to-man is still the team’s primary defense, but the Duke coach no longer hesitates to use the zone when necessary. He wrecked N.C. State in the ACC Tournament with a three-quarter court zone press.
In the last month, Cook has emerged as a superior on the ball defender. And Winslow has realized his potential as a defensive demon – so much so that CBS commentator Grant Hill suggested the freshman was a better defender than Shane Battier. That might have been going a bit too far, but Winslow did terrorize both Robert Morris and San Diego State with his defense.
-- "Offensively, that’s our main strength," Coach K said. "We’ve gotten accustomed to the small lineup with Justise at the four."
The balance between Okafor in the low post and the bevy of 3-point shooters on the perimeter has been a strength since Day One. But moving Winslow from the small forward spot to the "power" forward and replacing Amile Jefferson with guard Matt Jones has added another 3-point shooter to the lineup.
And even though the 6-6, 225-pound Winslow is a bit small for the traditional power forward spot, it’s a move that Krzyzewski has contemplated all season.
"In AAU primarily, Justise guarded everybody" Coach K said. "If they were playing the Chicago team with Cliff Alexander, he could guard [6-8, 240-pomd] Cliff Alexander. I’ve always thought that was a possibility – we started all that 20-something years ago – the stretch four. We’ve done that more than two decades. Obviously, if I got a guy like that, I’m thinking, Grant Hill was pretty good [as the four]. And Battier and those guys.
"We tried it at State and Justise wasn’t ready. And also, that was a time when he had some injuries, so he wasn’t fluid."
But Winslow has gotten healthier and more comfortable at the four as the season has gone on. While Okafor was the big scoring threat in Charlotte, it’s possible that Winslow was the team’s most dynamic player. He took over the Robert Morris game when the Colonials made a brief rally in the second half and he dazzled San Diego State with the breath of his skills – 13 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, four steals, three blocks and a shutdown defensive job on SDSU’s best player, J.J. O’Brien (8 points on 3-of-10 shooting).
It was beautiful to watch. And nobody is enjoying it more than Krzyzewski.
"They’re a great group," he said. "We have four freshmen who have now played 35 games. They’re older now – and look who they are now. Pretty good. They’re great kids. I just want them to be in their moment."
And should that moment include a trip to the Final Four and a chance to test Kentucky in the title game?
"They shouldn’t be expected … they should be enjoyed," Krzyzewski said, refusing to set expectations for this team. "They should be followed."
Duke fans have at least one more chance – and perhaps as many as four more chances – to follow this team. Krzyzewski faces a massive rebuilding job next season.
But he’ll worry about that after this team is finished. So should Duke fans. Forget the past and the future for just a little while and enjoy this moment.