Don’t look now. But it’s that time of year again.
Yes, here comes Duke. Men’s basketball, with fans in Cameron, fully vaccinated and masked, hoping to cheer Duke back to the NCAA Tournament.
First day of practice.
But the season’s most compelling storyline doesn’t involve Covid, the return of the Cameron Crazies or even March Madness.
No, it’s Mike Krzyzewski’s final season as a head coach.
College basketball has never really seen anything like this. John Wooden retired right after his final game, Dean Smith right before fall practice, Roy Williams in the summer. Bobby Knight’s tenure at Texas Tech was so unremarkable that hardly anyone noticed when he hung it up in mid-season. Adolph Rupp had to be dragged kicking and screaming into retirement.
No, this is pretty close to a unicorn year for Duke.
And Mike Krzyzewski wants nothing to do with it, not with the hoopla, not with the fond farewells at every ACC road stop.
Duke had its media day Tuesday, Krzyzewski behind a podium, everyone else not behind a podium, the assistant coaches, the players, everyone masked, everyone vaccinated or covid-negative, a six-foot barrier separating the shouting media from seated players and coaches straining to hear over the din.
As Jim Morrison sang, Strange Days.
I don’t have the time to give you everything I heard, not today, anyway. And you probably don’t have the time to read it all.
Well, maybe you do. It is Duke basketball, after all.
So, some highlights, with more to come.
I’ll start with Krzyzewski’s farewell tour.
“I told my staff and everyone around me not to use the word ‘last.’ This is my 47th year, my 42nd year at Duke. I’m going after it the way I go after every year. As soon as you start saying ‘savor,’ ‘let’s remember this thing” or whatever, you open up the door for rationalization, not putting it all out. In other words, it might be okay not to do it to this level or whatever. I know that can take place. So, we’re not having any of it. I’ll savor it in May or whatever. But right now, I want to live, not savor. Being in the moment is what I’ve tried to do my entire career. To have the continuity of success we’ve had, you can’t savor much of anything. You’d better be in the moment. For the last four decades we’ve made a mark on college basketball and I’d like to make another mark before I leave.”
So, best hold off that going-away bouquet for another time.
Several other themes emerged.
Krzyzewski said this year’s team was more athletic than last year’s squad. No attempt was made to define the term. Certainly the addition of uber-athlete A.J. Griffin upgraded the team’s athleticism.
But it’s more than that. According to the coaches holdovers like Wendell Moore, Joey Baker and Jeremy Roach are more athletic.
How does that happen for a college athlete who’s been playing basketball since elementary school?
I asked assistant coach Chris Carrawell that question.
He focused on Moore.
“Breaking down film and talking to him in the post-season interviews, we told him ‘you’ve got to be more explosive,’ you’ve got to become quicker.’ And so, while he was here on and off over the summer time, our strength and conditioning guys, they worked on those things, ladder drills, lane agility, shuffles, sprinting, you can work on those things.”
Baker adds a player’s perspective.
“I think that’s just the individual players we have here, as well as the work we put in this summer. We had a great July. Coach Will [Stephens], our strength and conditioning coach here, we locked in with him, lifting and running and everything. Everyone’s bought in and we come to work every day. It’s going to help us everywhere. It can’t hurt to be more athletic. We’ll be good defensively but offensively as well, we’ll be good all around.”
Another word tossed around was “dog.” You may recall how often Krzyzewski reacted to a loss last season with some variation of “we got knocked back,” or “we got pushed back.”
Duke was determined to keep that from happening this season.
Bringing in Theo John as a grad-student transfer from Marquette should help. John is listed at 6-9. 242 and clearly knows his way around a weight room.
“We have a lot on the line,” John said, “and we realize the uniqueness of the opportunity.”
But Griffin says “dog” is an attitude.
“Every day in practice . . . . we’re not going through the motions. We go at each other because we know that other teams are going to go at us. No one’s backing down. I would say that ‘dog’ is just a mentality not to get pushed around.”
Because of injuries and covid, Griffin hasn’t played much basketball lately. He says there’s still some rust but he’s shaking it off and his ankle is 100 percent okay.
Griffin’s father Adrian played nine seasons in the NBA and currently coaches for Toronto. Some of Mike Krzyzewski’s best players have had fathers who played and/or coached in the NBA. Think Danny Ferry, Chris Collins, Mike Dunleavy, Gerald Henderson or Nolan Smith.
Griffin says he learned the basic X and O parts of the game early but the big message he got from his father is how hard he would need to work to maximize his gifts.
“Having a father who knows the inside and out is definitely an advantage. But my dad’s [message] is you can’t be nonchalant. That’s all he tells me. You’ve got to work hard. There’s no shortcut, no easy way to get to the NBA or where you want to go.”
Griffin is considered a top-10 pick in the 2022 NBA draft by some observers. But classmate Paulo Banchero might be number one. Krzyzewski gave some insights into how he and Banchero are working to best utilize Banchero’s enormous talents.
“He’s still learning how to use his skill set and size. The fact is that his versatility is tremendous and we’ve had a lot of success in the past with using a very versatile big in different parts of the court. He can do that. He’s smart and easy to play with. But he still has things to do. He’s a great kid to coach.”
One of those things to do is learn the difference between dribbling and passing, learning that it’s a lot easier to defend a team that dribbles a lot over a team that passes a lot.
Banchero and Mark Williams should team together in a twin towers lineup that should prove formidable on both ends of the court. Krzyzewski said Williams should feast on lobs from pretty much everyone else on the team.
Krzyzewski also said that Williams had extended his range out to the 3-point line.
When asked about that, Williams grinned and answered “we’ll see.”
But he also addressed his ability to work with Banchero.
“I think we complement each other really well. He does a lot of things on the floor. I think playing alongside him will make my life a lot easier. He’s going to draw a lot of attention, I’m going to draw a lot of attention, whenever one of us gets the ball.”
Assistant coach Chris Carrawell said that Duke wants Williams to be one of the nation’s leaders in blocked shots, a goal that Williams says is “definitely attainable, definitely one of my goals for sure.”
It’s hard to believe that it’s still September and Duke basketball is starting another go-around. The Final Four is more than six months off. A season is a lifetime.
This lifetime began today for the fans but not for the players who have been working for months to refine their skills and their bodies and their teamwork prepping for what they all expect to be a memorable run.
Just don’t savor it too soon.