To paraphrase the great Pete Bell, disgraced head coach of the Western University Dolphins, this wasn’t Mike Krzyzewski’s greatest coaching job.
Kudos to Coach K for capturing his fifth national championship in Monday’s 66-61 win over Wisconsin, but something felt a little empty – cheap, or tawdry, if you will – about this year’s title.
With three, possibly four, hired guns masquerading as student athletes, Duke might as well have had Neon Boudeaux, Butch McRae and Ricky Roe in its starting lineup against the Badgers.
This is college basketball as we know it. This is a kid’s game dominated by fabulous freshmen and sophomores with no intention of staying in college beyond their 19th birthdays. It’d have been poetic justice if Wisconsin, led by senior center Frank Kaminsky and junior forward Sam Dekker, had shown the kids at Duke who’s boss, proving you still need veteran leadership to win at this level, but the truth is you don’t.
We’re in the era of the “one-and-done.” It’s now common for freshmen to defect to the NBA after one season in college, and now Duke University, once considered the standard of academic excellence, an institution of higher learning that would never lower its standards for the sake of victory, has joined the party, winning this year’s title with four freshmen in its starting lineup, including three who most likely played their final game Monday night.
We get it; it’s hard to win a championship in any sport, at any level, let alone with four inexperienced and – at times, disoriented – 18-year-olds, but when you’ve won as many titles as Duke has won under Krzyzewski’s tenure, you’re subject to criticism and inevitable comparisons to yesteryear.
It wasn’t always like this at Duke, or any other school, for that matter. There’s no doubt Krzyzewski had to manage personalities and massage egos this year given the credentials of his starting five, but if you want a real example of Coach K’s genius, think back to 2001, the year Krzyzewski won his third national title with only one player (Shane Battier) left from a highly-touted recruiting class that was supposed to win a bunch of championships.
The Blue Devils couldn’t win with Elton Brand, William Avery, Corey Maggette or Chris Carrawell, but they did it with Battier and a balanced team that also included sophomores Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer and freshman Chris Duhon. It wasn’t the best Duke team of the past three or four years on paper, but no Duke team of that era had better chemistry or responded to adversity the way that team did, particularly in the national championship game when it erased an 11-point halftime deficit to beat Maryland.
That is great coaching, not just drawing up plays on the chalkboard, but handling expectations and dealing with the possibility of an entire recruiting class leaving campus within winning a title, along with the inevitable backlash that would've ensued. There’s something to be said for coaching boys into men, helping them develop from wide-eyed freshmen to poised seniors, teaching them lessons both on and off the court that will stick with them long after they graduate (assuming they actually get a diploma). That part of coaching is missing in today’s game.
Not to diminish what Coach K accomplished this year, because not even the best recruiting class in America is a sure thing – ask Michigan – but this is more about recruiting than coaching. Signing the best players is more important than knowing what to do with them once they show up for their first practice. Basketball coaches have often been credited as father figures, but it’s impossible to leave much of an impact on a student who spends less than a full semester on campus, long gone by April, somewhere in Times Square being fitted for his draft-day suit and tie.
The thrill of victory and the once time-honored tradition of building a recruiting class and watching it develop over the course of time has been cheapened by the “one-and-done” era. Recruiting is no different than free agency. If the experiment fails, reload next season. Coach K will find himself in the same boat next year when Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and perhaps even Tyrus Gray leave for the NBA and chances are the Blue Devils will be just fine. They lost Jabari Parker last year, too, after one season and managed to survive.
They did it with a freshmen corps second to none in college basketball, a masterful recruiting job by Krzyzewski, but nowhere near the best coaching performance of his illustrious career.
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