It’s safe to say that Jeff Capel and Mike Krzyzewski have some history together. Capel has known Coach K since he was 16; he’s 43 now.
He came to Duke near the first apex of the program, playing his freshman year with Grant Hill and barely losing to Arkansas for the 1994 national championship. He was there for the nadir of the program as well, when Coach K’s back sidelined him for 1995 and Duke collapsed. Then, despite some personal on-court setbacks, he helped rebuild Duke again.
He came to Duke in 2011 after his time at Oklahoma and helped to turn Duke into a recruiting juggernaut.
And at Pitt, in a very short period of time, he has remade that program. It has become a dangerous program, still undermanned to be sure, but no one is taking that team for granted anymore.
After a disastrous two-year decline under former coach Kevin Stallings, Capel took the job on March 27th and hit the ground running. He brought in a solid freshman class, including outstanding guards, and a useful grad student transfer.
Duke will have a lot of advantages in this game but not depth: Capel goes about nine deep and there’s one immediate way that can work to his advantage: by getting Duke into foul trouble. And since his team has based much of its success on driving to the basket, that’s not a bad plan.
And actually it’s what Coach K did early in his career: he built his early teams on toughness and neutralized superior athleticism by getting to the line for unguarded shots and, concurrently, building foul trouble.
Like Duke, Capel’s best players are freshmen: guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens. Both are 6-3, both are athletic and sturdy.
Johnson is averaging 17.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 4.6 apg while McGowens is putting up 13.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.1 apg and 2.3 spg.
Pitt has three guys who are 6-5 or 6-6 and also athletic: fellow freshman Au’Diese Toney (6-6), St. John’s transfer Malik Ellison (6-5), a junior and Jared Wilson-Frame, a 6-5 senior who came from a JUCO.
New Mexico State grad transfer Sidy N’dir is 6-3 and gets reasonable minutes and is likely to be a steadying, mature influence, both in the huddle and in practice.
Pitt’s main weakness, aside from inexperience which Capel has dealt with very well, is inside.
Terrell Brown is 6-10 and Kene Chukwuka 6-9. Both are good defenders but neither has become a feared offensive presence inside.
As Capel has said, it’s an imperfect roster and not as talented as several in the ACC. What he didn't say, at least not explicitly, is that he’s beat some more talented teams with that roster: the Panthers beat Louisville, Florida State and gave NC State trouble.
You’ll remember last season Pitt was 0-18 in ACC play.
And Pitt has at least one break: Tre Jones won’t be dressing Tuesday night.
Pitt still has to deal with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, but in the Virginia game, those two were nearly all of Duke’s offense. Obviously they’re both brilliant talents, but Duke can’t expect to win consistently with only two offensive forces.
We should also point out that against Virginia, both Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden got into foul trouble, with DeLaurier fouling out in just seven minutes. Bolden picked up four fouls but did play 33 minutes - but he played the last 7:42 with four.
Disaster was avoided and while he’s not putting up huge numbers, he’s playing intelligently and hard.
Still, disaster was barely avoided.
And we should also point out that Duke got just 12 minutes, one shot attempt, one assist and five fouls from the bench.
It may be easier said than done, but Pitt will obviously try to limit Williamson and Barrett and if they can get one, or both, in foul trouble, things could change very quickly.
Duke will surely run Barrett at point guard again since Tre Jones is not ready to play after his shoulder injury.
No one on our side of 15-501 liked Dean Smith very much but no one could deny his knowledge of basketball and he had some real insights at times, including this one: teams can quite often be inspired and overcome an injury for a game or two but over time?
Not so much.
Duke got lucky with the timing: after UVA, Duke plays at Pitt, Georgia Tech in Cameron, at Notre Dame, St. John’s and BC at home before the rematch with Virginia.
With a bit of luck he’ll be back in time for at least the Charlottesville trip and maybe more.
In the meantime, Duke needs to share the ball and also take care of it, be smart about foul trouble and their teammates need to help Williamson and Barrett carry the load.
Look at what Duke’s Dynamic Duo has done in ACC competition. It’s brilliant, it’s astonishing, and it may be as good a stretch as any two player in ACC history over a stretch of games (remember Williamson was hurt early in the FSU game). For Duke, maybe Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins had a potent stretch. We’re pretty sure no freshmen have ever done this.
Even so, it’s bound to be exhausting. They could use some help and offensive imbalance is inherently a vulnerability.
|RJ Barrett's ACC Statistics|
|Zion Williamson's ACC Statistics|
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