Monday, December 4, 2017
Coach K and the Brilliance of Adaptability
In the spring of 1980, a 33-year-old West Point grad and Army vet with a long, funny Polish name, was appointed head coach at Duke. His credentials for an ACC job at that point were pretty strong, after several strong seasons and an NIT bid at his alma mater, plus time as an assistant for arguably the greatest single-season team in history that failed to qualify for the Final Four.
When Mike Krzyzewski took over Duke, it's worth remembering that the program had no championships, but had previously been to four Final Fours, and was just coming off three straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1978 to 1980 under Bill Foster during an era when it was much tougher to make the NCAAs from the strongest conferences.
Yet, Coach K's first three years in Durham were at best middling, and at worst disappointing, with a combined record of 38-47, and 13-29 in ACC play.
However, by the 1982-83 season, a program-changing recruiting class led by Johnny Dawkins had arrived, NCAA berths became commonplace again, and by 1986, Coach K's Duke had hit full-stride, winning the ACC tournament and regular season titles en route to a national championship game appearance.
Now, if you've watched college basketball regularly in the last 30 years, you obviously know at least something about what Coach K has accomplished, regardless of whether you think he's the anti-christ (or worse). But those accolades bear repeating.
Five national championships. The winningest coach in history, including 1,000 wins at a single school. Twelve Final Fours, 14 ACC Tournament titles and 12 ACC regular-season titles. And if you want to step outside of college, there's three Olympic gold medals and two World Championships with USA Basketball.
When the now 70-year-old Krzyzewski retires, which may still be a few years away, many of those things will be in the first few paragraphs of the story. But to me, what will always be the most impressive thing about Coach K is his unmatched adaptability through the years.
Consider this: Coach K's first Final Four team at Duke in 1986 came in the first season that a shot clock was in use throughout NCAA basketball. It was the last year before a three-point shot was implemented.
This is the 1986 championship game Coach K led Duke to, which came after Krzyzewski had already been a head coach for about a decade. It's the same "sport" as today, of course, but barely. The players, court and officiating all look completely different from the present day, and the game's general strategy then was to get the best, closest shot, where today's basketball is more about spacing, versatility, and perimeter shooting.
Duke was the No. 1 team in the polls in March 1986 when Coach K was in that first Final Four, just as it was this past week. To be on top of your sport 31 years apart and in four separate decades is an unprecedented and unreal record of longevity.
And while what happens when the actual games are going on has changed immensely in the past 30-plus years, the mechanics and personnel of elite college basketball have changed even more.
Quick trivia question: who was the first incoming transfer to play for Coach K at Duke?
Incredibly, it was Roshown McLeod, who came to Durham in 1996, after Coach K had already won two national titles, been to seven Final Fours and coached Duke for 16 seasons.
In today's college basketball today, only Kentucky is more synonymous with one-and-done players than Duke. The opposites don't get much more polar than that.
In the name of full disclosure, I've been watching Duke basketball all my life, as my father is an alum of the school, and passed the fandom down to me.
In my formative years, and into my early 20s, I grew up with Duke as more of a guard and swingman-dominant team who were going to shoot — and make — a healthy number of three-pointers and would always play man-to-man defense. They'd also usually play more uptempo on offense, and players would rarely leave for the draft after fewer than two seasons (players like Corey Maggette being exceptions to the rule).
While Coach K has changed these principles, that era was unbelievably successful, producing two national titles, four Final Fours and 10 No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament from the time I was 10 until I was 23. But was it sustainable as elite college basketball moves further from an era of top players even staying to be sophomores? No.
Now, I look at this year's Duke team that's favored to win the national championship, and it's best two pro prospects are likely 6-10 Marvin Bagley and 6-11 Wendell Carter. They're a dominant team on the offensive glass that doesn't look like they'll shoot threes that well or especially often. And they play zone quite a bit, including basically the whole game against then-No. 2 ranked Michigan State in Chicago.
It is far, far from a sure thing that Duke wins the title this year or even makes the Final Four. The Blue Devils have loved to make things interesting and play from behind in recent games against Portland State, Texas, Florida, and Indiana, despite remaining undefeated. In ACC play, coming back from down 10 won't happen every night, and Duke will lose a few games on off nights. In the tournament, there might be a game where 19-year-olds show their youth and play poorly early. It happens in college sports and single-elimination competition.
But what is for certain is that Duke has as much talent and playmaking ability on its roster as any team in the country. That's an incredible testament to the way Coach K has continued to adapt to a rapidly changing sport, even as most people his age collect Social Security.