The Blueprint: Krzyzewski defying critics by going against the grain

Too close for comfort

I owe Mike Krzyzewski an apology, as I had months ago written Duke’s methods off as archaic, and not viable for building a championship contender.

It turns out that Coach K was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers.

As a Duke alumni who’s followed Krzyzewski for years, I really shouldn’t have doubted him, but it didn’t look promising for him in November, when he lost No. 1 senior Harrison Barnes, who Duke had recruited longer than any other program, to North Carolina.

At the time, Duke hadn’t made it out of the Sweet 16 since 2004. They had endured several other high-profile recruiting misses, including a guy named John Wall – in addition to Patrick Patterson, Brandan Wright and Greg Monroe. Their last tournament team looked as if it was moving in slow motion against Villanova.

And worst of all, there just wasn’t much excitement around the program. The style of play and type of players they employed seemed stodgy compared to their neighbors down the road – not to mention the halcyon Duke teams of a decade prior. It seemed like the current era of NCAA basketball had passed Krzyzewski by while he was busy coaching LeBron and Kobe. And at 62 years old, he certainly wasn’t getting any younger.

But a funny thing happened while other programs were collecting one-and-done NBA-caliber talent: Krzyzewski stayed the course. And under the radar, his team actually became very good, especially when compared to an NCAA Tournament field reduced to parity by a slew of one-year players.

Duke was in no way as sexy this season as, say, Kentucky. But it’s obvious at this point that John Calipari’s grand scheme simply didn’t work. To take the best hotshot freshmen, throw them together and expect them to emerge as a championship team is a fool’s gambit.

Calipari will never again have the opportunity to jump from Memphis and assemble three freshmen with the level of immediate NCAA talent of Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe – not to mention having a junior Patterson. In terms of sheer athletic ability, I’m not sure I’ve seen a team like Kentucky since Michigan’s Fab 5. (Of course, Webber and Co. didn’t win it all either, even as sophomores)

But didn’t we all suspect in the back of our minds that at some point, Kentucky would run into a team with the wherewithal to take advantage of their inexperience?

Against a tough West Virginia team that played a 1-3-1 zone, Kentucky suddenly couldn’t shoot, missing their first 20 three-pointers. Bledsoe couldn’t hit a free throw if a lottery pick depended on it. They couldn’t defend the three, trailing at halftime to a team that hadn’t connected on a two-point basket. Wall’s inability to run a team in the halfcourt was magnified, as was UK’s utter lack of chemistry. Even before the game, people had started to suggest the players had tuned out Calipari, their focus already straying toward the NBA Draft.

Meanwhile, the common thinking on Krzyzewski was that he could still win his 30 games in the regular season, but critics would surmise – myself included – that Duke would always be athletically inferior in the NCAA’s, cracking under the pressure of a full-court press or an aggressive fast-break offense. People scoffed when Krzyzewski correctly assessed before the season that his group would have a definitive size advantage. Doug Gottlieb infamously called them “alarmingly unathletic” – translation: too white – on ESPN during a Preseason NIT that Duke would end up winning.

In actuality, Krzyzewski had stumbled across an NCAA version of Moneyball, in that he’s exploiting different ways to win. While everyone else goes for the quick hit, Duke by nature has guys who aren’t NBA-caliber right away, but who develop into well-rounded and battle-hardened players as time goes on. Krzyzewski’s “Big Three” of Singler, Scheyer and Smith were all high-level recruits who didn’t make immediate, Carmelo Anthony-esque impacts, but rather blossomed into solid players who fit the system as time went on.

I think the best example of why Duke’s in the position they’re in is Brian Zoubek, the 7-foot-1 center from New Jersey who would have fit in better with other schools but dreamed of going to Duke. Zoubek struggled through injuries and subsequently lost his conditioning, couldn’t keep up with Duke’s uptempo style, drew the ire of impatient fans, and as recently as February looked as if he was an abject failure.

Murderer's row -- of sorts Against Maryland on Valentine’s Day Weekend, something clicked after 3 1/2 years. He went for 16 and 17 in 22 minutes, and suddenly a more conditioned, more athletic Zoubek was comfortable in his own skin. He emerged as a pivotal part of the team’s new modus operandi – three guys shoot, everyone else crashes the boards – and has won over the most skeptical of fans.

And that’s what we forget sometimes with college basketball: Staying a few years and developing as a player is not a crime. We see Wall and Cousins and think that’s the be-all and end-all, but as much as the climate has changed, Duke is winning with upperclassmen, toughness, and players that have grown into a team together.

Duke’s region may not have been the hardest one out there, but Kansas lost to Northern Iowa. You have to beat whatever team is in front of you.

The best part for Duke is that it’s difficult to imitate what they’ve done. Teams can bring in blue-chippers as quick fixes, but to develop a team the way Krzyzewski has takes patience. Most programs are satisfied simply to chase windmills, the way Georgia Tech did with Derrick Favors. They made the NCAA Tournament, but Favors will leave for the Draft any minute now, leaving them right back where they were before.

There’s no question Kentucky’s in better shape than they were a year ago, but while they attempt to restock with the next set of 1-and-dones, Duke’s Final Four berth seems to validate that they are on the upswing for what may be Coach K’s last golden age. Elite point guard Kyrie Irving comes in next season, ubertalented 2011 combo guard Austin Rivers (Doc’s son) is intrigued, and recruiting will only pick up if they cut the nets down. In addition, they should continue to have a solid base of upperclassmen to build on.

No matter what happens this weekend, one thing is for sure: As he enters the twilight of his career, Krzyzewski has found a way to rise to the top of the sport yet again – and on his own terms.

Esoteric

6 Comments

  1. Starter,

    I agree. Sort of. Kinda.

    First, I think you need some one and dones. KY's strategy was a fail this year, but Cal had to get some media burn to ret KY to the pantheon of heros in College hoops. He did that. Now, I don't think he thought they would all go pro. Im sure he thought that Bledsoe and Orton would be back to form a nucleus going forward. This year's group of recruits (forthcoming) will be mostly 2+ year players (barring Leslie) that will keep UK behind only Tenn in the SEC next year. With Gilcrest and Players to be named later, the 11-12 season could be Beastly for UK. Unless the NCAA comes calling.

    Also, I hesitate to give K tooooooo much credit for this. He deserves a lot of credit, but step back a little. Lance and Zoubs were complete wastelands for the first 3.5 years of their careers. Suddenly, they are freaking gangbusters. I can't explain it, and I bet K can't either. I will admit that K is utilizing his bigs better. But he had to play multiple bigs cause of depth and Dre Dawkings inconsistency. When he is up against it, and forced to make changes, he is fantastic (see Boozer Injury/2001).

    Also, I feel that not enough is made of addition by substraction. Not EWill or Hendo. Paulus. He was a disaster. An epic Disaster. He may well have been the worst starting PG in the K era. And I am including Dan Ewing, who was way out of position at the PG. Paulus was the reason WVU hammered Duke in 2008. He couldn't stay in front of anyone and Mizzwhatever killed us. NDotSmitty was a horse of a differet color entirely.

    Going forward, I do think you need some elite talent. I just don't think it is One and Done talent necessarily. There have only been a few one and dones in my mind. Durant, Carmello, Wall, and Maybe, Maybe, Rose. Those are the only guys who weren't going to significanly improve vs College talent. Every other 1-and-done wasn't really ready to contribute at a high level in the pros.

    Para exemplo, Kyrie could probably leave after next year. J-Will could have left after his frosh year. But he wasn't ready too play at a high level in the NBA until after his Soph year.

    I think the correct mix will be upperclassmen, one and doners, and some quality underclassmen who will turn into solid upperclassmen. I don't thing K was a genius in HOW he put this team together. Cause, again, we would have seen the Current Lance and Zoubs (RELEASE THE KRAKKEN!!!!) earlier. But he has adapted like never before. His adjustments this year outpace 2001, when he had far superiour pieces to work with.

    Patrick Yates.
    6 lifetime bannings by the DBR and counting.

    • Yates, obviously you will never be banned here at SportsAngle. (6 lifetime bans? Incredible!)

      You make good points. Kaiser brought up to me on Twitter that it's not as if K thought the talent he was bringing in was good enough for him not to go after Wall (and Patterson, and Monroe, and Boynton). You are correct that ideally, you have a solid mix of upperclassmen, one-and-dones and developing underclassmen. But I'll give him some benefit of the doubt that just maybe, this is what he saw in Thomas and Zoubek way back in the day. (Note that I saw Thomas play as a high school sophomore and have been wondering ever since how in the world he was never as good as he was then)

      And the thing is, even if he starts getting immediate talent — Irving will be a two-year player, Rivers is probably one-and-done if he comes — it'll be a function of the buzz created by this season, which is powered mostly by the solid but unspectacular players who have developed into stellar assets. With the rest of the college game sapped by early entries and parity, Krzyzewski's developed the same crew that got blitzed by West Virginia two years ago into a smart, tough, cohesive unit that shockingly really does seem like it was the best team in the country this season.

      I disagree on one point — I think he had to adjust more in 2001, when he lost a key piece and somehow used that to streamline the whole team and make it run faster. As you said, he had far better talent that year, but he was still on another level strategically, using Reggie Love to great effect on Brendan Haywood, for example. His only real midseason adjustment here was starting Zoubek over Miles Plumlee, which was probably a no-brainer based on how Big Z was playing (and probably practicing) at the time. Other than that, he mostly just went with what he said he would at the outset of the year, when he pointed out how big this team skewed.

      That doesn't take away from the brilliant coaching he's done, however. I've never seen a Duke team this efficient on the offensive and defensive ends, and that includes 2001. He still has a game to win, but all things considered, Krzyzewski has a legit chance to add greatly to his legend. It's hands-down his best coaching job that I've seen.

      Stop back, I'll be writing more about this.

    • By the way, you're right about Paulus. Terrific guy. I can't stress that enough. But probably the most frustrating Duke player in recent memory to watch.

  2. Starter,

    I agree. Sort of. Kinda.

    First, I think you need some one and dones. KY's strategy was a fail this year, but Cal had to get some media burn to ret KY to the pantheon of heros in College hoops. He did that. Now, I don't think he thought they would all go pro. Im sure he thought that Bledsoe and Orton would be back to form a nucleus going forward. This year's group of recruits (forthcoming) will be mostly 2+ year players (barring Leslie) that will keep UK behind only Tenn in the SEC next year. With Gilcrest and Players to be named later, the 11-12 season could be Beastly for UK. Unless the NCAA comes calling.

    Also, I hesitate to give K tooooooo much credit for this. He deserves a lot of credit, but step back a little. Lance and Zoubs were complete wastelands for the first 3.5 years of their careers. Suddenly, they are freaking gangbusters. I can't explain it, and I bet K can't either. I will admit that K is utilizing his bigs better. But he had to play multiple bigs cause of depth and Dre Dawkings inconsistency. When he is up against it, and forced to make changes, he is fantastic (see Boozer Injury/2001).

    Also, I feel that not enough is made of addition by substraction. Not EWill or Hendo. Paulus. He was a disaster. An epic Disaster. He may well have been the worst starting PG in the K era. And I am including Dan Ewing, who was way out of position at the PG. Paulus was the reason WVU hammered Duke in 2008. He couldn't stay in front of anyone and Mizzwhatever killed us. NDotSmitty was a horse of a differet color entirely.

    Going forward, I do think you need some elite talent. I just don't think it is One and Done talent necessarily. There have only been a few one and dones in my mind. Durant, Carmello, Wall, and Maybe, Maybe, Rose. Those are the only guys who weren't going to significanly improve vs College talent. Every other 1-and-done wasn't really ready to contribute at a high level in the pros.

    Para exemplo, Kyrie could probably leave after next year. J-Will could have left after his frosh year. But he wasn't ready too play at a high level in the NBA until after his Soph year.

    I think the correct mix will be upperclassmen, one and doners, and some quality underclassmen who will turn into solid upperclassmen. I don't thing K was a genius in HOW he put this team together. Cause, again, we would have seen the Current Lance and Zoubs (RELEASE THE KRAKKEN!!!!) earlier. But he has adapted like never before. His adjustments this year outpace 2001, when he had far superiour pieces to work with.

    Patrick Yates.
    6 lifetime bannings by the DBR and counting.

  3. Yates, obviously you will never be banned here at SportsAngle. (6 lifetime bans? Incredible!)

    You make good points. Kaiser brought up to me on Twitter that it's not as if K thought the talent he was bringing in was good enough for him not to go after Wall (and Patterson, and Monroe, and Boynton). You are correct that ideally, you have a solid mix of upperclassmen, one-and-dones and developing underclassmen. But I'll give him some benefit of the doubt that just maybe, this is what he saw in Thomas and Zoubek way back in the day. (Note that I saw Thomas play as a high school sophomore and have been wondering ever since how in the world he was never as good as he was then)

    And the thing is, even if he starts getting immediate talent — Irving will be a two-year player, Rivers is probably one-and-done if he comes — it'll be a function of the buzz created by this season, which is powered mostly by the solid but unspectacular players who have developed into stellar assets. With the rest of the college game sapped by early entries and parity, Krzyzewski's developed the same crew that got blitzed by West Virginia two years ago into a smart, tough, cohesive unit that shockingly really does seem like it was the best team in the country this season.

    I disagree on one point — I think he had to adjust more in 2001, when he lost a key piece and somehow used that to streamline the whole team and make it run faster. As you said, he had far better talent that year, but he was still on another level strategically, using Reggie Love to great effect on Brendan Haywood, for example. His only real midseason adjustment here was starting Zoubek over Miles Plumlee, which was probably a no-brainer based on how Big Z was playing (and probably practicing) at the time. Other than that, he mostly just went with what he said he would at the outset of the year, when he pointed out how big this team skewed.

    That doesn't take away from the brilliant coaching he's done, however. I've never seen a Duke team this efficient on the offensive and defensive ends, and that includes 2001. He still has a game to win, but all things considered, Krzyzewski has a legit chance to add greatly to his legend. It's hands-down his best coaching job that I've seen.

    Stop back, I'll be writing more about this.

  4. By the way, you're right about Paulus. Terrific guy. I can't stress that enough. But probably the most frustrating Duke player in recent memory to watch.

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