It’s always fun to watch Mike Krzyzewski construct a team.
Championship teams don’t appear overnight.
Go back to Coach K’s first national title team in 1990-91. He started with three core players – Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and freshman Grant Hill. But Krzyzewski struggled most of the season to find the other two starters – and the rest of the rotation. Six other players started at least eight games. Coach K tried big lineups that included Crawford Palmer in the post with Laettner. He tried three-guard lineups with Thomas Hill and Billy McCaffrey joining Hurley in the backcourt. Antonio Lang, Brian Davis and senior Greg Koubek all got long looks.
Duke won a key game at Oklahoma in December with Palmer starting alongside Laettner and with Thomas Hill in the backcourt. A little less than a month later, Duke beat UNC in Cameron as Lang started alongside Laettner with a three-guard lineup that included Hurley, McCaffrey and Davis. Grant Hill, recovering from a broken nose, came off the bench. When Duke closed the regular season with a win at UNC, K went with Laettner and Grant Hill up front with Hurley Thomas Hill and Davis in the backcourt. That same lineup started a week later when UNC routed Duke in the ACC Tournament finals.
Going into the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski settled on a lineup that added Thomas Hill and Koubek to his big three. Davis and McCaffrey were the first players off the bench.
A year later, the lineup and rotation were more set with four starters back and Davis sliding into Koubek’s vacant job. But even the 1991-92 team required considerable tinkering as injuries eliminated four of five starters for various lengths of time.
Sometimes the evolution of a team is dictated by the difficulty in working freshmen – even great freshmen – into the lineup. Often, team-building is disrupted by injuries.
Go back just two years to 2014-15.
Krzyzewski had three dynamite freshmen that were going to play. He had a two-year starter at point guard returning in Quinn Cook. That team took shape early with Cook sliding to wing guard to make room for Tyus Jones at the point. Freshman Justise Winslow was at small forward with sophomore Amile Jefferson at power forward. Freshman center Jahlil Okafor was the focal point of the offense at center.
Veteran guards Rasheed Sulaimon and Matt Jones were the first two players off the bench. Center Marshall Plumlee, a fourth-year junior who had done little to that point, was the eighth man .
That lineup started the season in impressive fashion, beating Michigan State (which would be a Final Four team) in New York, then knocking off No. 2 Wisconsin (the eventual NCAA finalist) in the Kohl Center in Madison.
It seems like a perfect team as Duke rolled to 14 straight wins.
But a funny thing happened in game 15 – Duke went to Raleigh and was beaten pretty handily by N.C State (which would end up a Sweet 16 team). The next time out, the Devils would be shredded at home by Miami (an NIT team).
K’s prized man-to-man defense, which had been pretty effective early in the season, effectively collapsed. His response was to do something he hadn’t done in almost 30 years – he junked the man-to-man and went to a zone.
That helped Duke recover to win 14 of 15 games to close out the regular season. There was some drama along the way as the veteran Sulaimon was dismissed from the team. But Duke kept winning – although Coach K kept tinkering with his lineup and rotation.
After an overtime victory over North Carolina in Cameron on Feb. 18, Krzyzewski changed his starting lineup, replacing Jefferson with Jones and moving Winslow from small forward to power forward. Little-used freshman Grayson Allen also emerged, getting many of the minutes that had been going to Sulaimon.
It was actually a very subtle change as Jefferson and Jones remained significant players. But the change signaled Coach K’s determination to re-install his man-to-man defense. Down the stretch – in the six NCAA games, Duke played mostly man-to-man – it was the classic Krzyzewski man-to-man.
The evolution of that championship team was fascinating to watch.
BUILDING THE 2016-17 BLUE DEVILS
I was hoping – and expecting – to see a similar team-building evolution this season.
It was a dynamic setup – four proven veterans and four blue chip freshmen. How would they fit together? How to fit the post trio of fifth-year senior Amile Jefferson and freshmen Harry Giles and Marque Bolden? How would Frank Jackson fit with veterans Grayson Allen, Matt Jones and Luke Kennard on the perimeter? Where would freshmen Jayson Tatum fit – as a small, quick power forward or a tall, deadly small forward?
Unfortunately, the team-building exercise has been put on hold by physical issues that have sidelined Giles, Tatum and Bolden.
Instead of a deep, varied roster with a million possibilities, Krzyzewski has been reduced to the six-man rotation that he used in the victory over Michigan State.
And keep in mind that is could be worse.
Allen has been battling a toe injury that’s so bad that he can’t practice. Kennard was in a boot for a month leading up to the season. Jefferson has been banged up. Chase Jeter, who has done a surprisingly good job after being thrust into a major role this season, had to leave the Penn State game with an injury.
In that context, Duke’s 7-1 start – the only loss coming on a last-second shot in the Kansas game – is pretty impressive.
But I strongly doubt that the Blue Devil team that beat Michigan State Tuesday night is good enough to win the national title. And that’s got to be the goal this season.
Let’s add Giles, Tatum and Bolden, then see where we are.
It’s going to happen … and it’s going to happen soon.
I know there are paranoid fans out there who argue that none of the three will return to risk their draft stock. They point to last year when Jefferson’s foot injury – originally forecast for 4-6 weeks -- lasted all season. He never returned.
But that’s the exception, not the rule. Duke has dealt with a lot of injuries over the years and players DO almost always return. I would be willing to bet any skeptics serious money that Giles, Tatum and Bolden WILL return, almost certainly sometime in December.
“We’re getting closer,” Krzyzewski told the press after the Michigan State win. “Jayson had a good workout today. He’s close. You see Harry’s warming up better. He just needs some contact. And Marques is moving along. We’re getting there.”
Krzyzewski is as disappointed and as frustrated as any fan with the delays caused by the injuries.
“We had visions of, ‘Damn, our practices are going to be hellacious – five on five’” Krzyzewski said. “We haven’t had that at all. It’s crazy. And it’s frustrating. And it’s most frustrating to the kids who are hurt. They desperately want to play.”
The absence of the big three freshmen has helped some of the players who have been able to play. Jeter, who was projected to play a very small role, has developed into a solid contributor as he’s gotten minutes that would have gone to Giles and/or Bolden. He’s not an all-star or anything, but Jeter is light years ahead of the befuddled, nearly useless big man that he was a year ago.
Kennard has elevated his game. The injury to Allen and the absence of Tatum has turned him into a go-to player on the wing. And the absence of three big men has revealed a surprising talent on the boards (at 6.7 rebounds a game, he’s the top rebuilding guard in the ACC).
Jefferson and Jones have asserted their team leadership, especially at the defensive end. Jones offers an interesting test of basketball knowledge – he had a horrid shooting night against Michigan State and many fans were trashing him. Yet, in postgame, both coaches cited him as perhaps the key player in the Duke win.
“Matt Jones is a stud,” Krzyzewski said. “That kid’s defense and heart were magnificent. He’s one of the best defenders in the country. We put him on every outstanding player that we play against. Nobody ever notices that, I guess.
“He had a spectacular two-point performance tonight.”
So the veteran core is even stronger now than it looked preseason. Now all K needs is to get healthy – a healthy Allen, a healthy Tatum, a healthy Giles, a healthy Bolden – and Duke will be the prohibitive national favorite that it was last fall.
In all his years, Krzyzewski has never had to go through anything like this. Oh, he’s started the season without a key play – both Elton Brand in 1997-98 and Carlos Boozer in 1999-00 each broke a foot in preseason practice; Chris Collins in 1994-95 and Greg Paulus in 2006-07 were hurt in preseason, robbing K of his projected point guard – but he’s never had three key players sidelined to start the season.
“Every team’s season is a little different,” he acknowledged. “We just have to run our race. We’re running it.”
December offers a chance for K to resume team-building before ACC play starts (on New Year’s Eve, at Virginia Tech). After playing eight games in 18 days to start the season, the Devils will play just five games in 31 days (between Michigan State and VPI). That gives Krzyzewski a lot of practice time to start working the big three into the rotation and several soft games to play with his new rotation.
It’s going to happen – soon. Let the team building begin.