DURHAM — At 66 years old, Mike Krzyzewski, the four-time NCAA champion, is rubbing elbows with Jay Z and Beyonce, getting bear hugs from LeBron James and having Kevin Durant fly to Las Vegas to say in person that he wants to play for him in the Olympics again. Life is pretty good for the grandpa nine times over who is about to lead the Blue Devils for the 34th consecutive year.
So the question at the ACC’s basketball media day wasn’t completely out of left field: Do you feel cool?
“Your level of expectation for cool is not high,” he responded in a deadpan.
“I just want to be current enough with my guys to bridge the age barrier gap, whether it be with the U.S. or college because I will always coach the same age group, 18-to-22, as I get older,” he said. “I’m 48 years older than my freshmen. And you have to do different things to try to get into their world as you ask them to get into the new world that I’m responsible for.”
It’s Krzyzewski’s ability to adapt that has kept his Duke teams consistently among the NCAA’s elite. The Blue Devils have been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll for 114 consecutive weeks, dating to Nov. 26, 2007 (UCLA holds the record at 155). This year’s preseason No. 4 ranking is the highest Duke has debuted since opening at No. 1 before the 2010-11 season.
But this year’s Duke team will be different from any the Blue Devils have rolled onto the floor in the past decade. The athleticism will remind spectators of two of Krzyzewski’s best Duke teams: the 1998-99 squad that went 37-2 and the 2000-01 national champions.
“This year’s team, this reminds me of our team,” said ESPN’s Jay Williams, a member of the ’01 squad. “You have a guy like Jabari Parker who is multi-talented and multi-skilled and can play multiple positions. Rodney Hood, who is a great slasher who can rebound and post people up. You have guards who are able to, I mean, I can’t remember the last time a Duke team has been able to pick a team up full court and actually try to turn them over. You haven’t seen that for a while.
“That allows him to get back to what teams were in the late ’90s. That’s how we played. We would try to turn you over 18, 19, 20 times per game. You hear Quinn Cook talk about the way they train and the style of pace they want to play at. That’s more typical Duke pace, in my mind, than what they’ve been doing in the last couple of years.”
Still, there’s a noteworthy difference between the ’01 and the 2013-14 Blue Devils (besides the fact that one has a banner in Cameron and the other has yet to play a game). That team had an unquestioned senior leader, Shane Battier, who went on be the consensus national player of the year. This year’s team will be led on the court by two players who have played zero minutes in their Duke careers: freshman Parker and redshirt sophomore Hood, a tri-captain who sat out last season after transferring from Mississippi State.
It’s all part of adapting to college basketball’s one-and-done era.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning,” said Rasheed Sulaimon, whose offensive role will be smaller as a sophomore. “Coach is a Hall of Famer. He obviously knows what he’s talking about.”
Built to blend like Olympic teams
The model for coaching this year’s Duke team will be taken from Krzyzewski’s experiences leading the United States Men’s Basketball team to Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012.
“A lot of the really special players don’t have a position,” Krzyzewski said. “In other words, in the pros, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmello, Kevin Durant, Kobe, those guys don’t have a position. They’re great players. And they need the ball. So, if you would make them a 2 or a 3 or whatever, you limit them.”
Parker and Hood are the primary position-less players for Duke. Both have been instructed to bring the ball up the floor if they grab a defensive rebound, acting as a guard to start the fast break. Both are capable of making 3-point shots and posting up defenders. Defensively, Krzyzewski expects Parker to guard everyone expect the point guard and Hood everyone except a traditional center, of which there are few.
“This year we have six guys that could be interchangeable at any guard position,” said senior co-captain Tyler Thornton, adding that eight guys are interchangeable on the perimeter, too. “Rodney could end up playing point guard, Jabari can handle that position as well. It’s just exciting, especially with the team that we have. We’re all excited to show what we can do as a team.”
The primary focus in practice has been to push the tempo, using what the Blue Devils feel should be a conditioning edge to their advantage. Cook, whose role has changed due to Duke not needing a traditional point guard to bring the ball up the floor, is in the best shape of his life, Krzyzewski said. Several players have echoed the phrase “make other teams uncomfortable,” indicating that it’s a mantra that has been handed down from the coaching staff.
In addition to using speed to force opponents from their comfort zone, the Blue Devils want to use their length to disrupt passing lanes. The goal will be to do so without fouling, and, on the offensive end, still take high-percentage shots and avoid turnovers despite the breakneck pace.
“Our offense isn’t going to be the normal ball screen offense you’ve seen,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re going to run motion. We’re still trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing offensively. We know more about what we’re doing defensively than what we’re doing offensively right now.”
Learning to complement Big 2
There are a few points that must be addressed if the Blue Devils are going to sprint and fly high all the way to the Final Four in Arlington’s Cowboys Stadium. Admittedly, it would be easier if there was a veteran like Battier (or Mason Plumlee) to teach Parker, and, to a lesser extent, Hood, the ropes. But that’s not an option, given the makeup of Duke’s team.
Parker is a special talent, but he’s still a work in progress, as he hasn’t played facing the basket in more than a year. He was more of a traditional, post-up center during his injury-riddled senior season for Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, winner of four consecutive state championships.
“I just don’t want him to feel the pressure of trying to be a completed product right away, because that’s not going to happen,” Krzyzewski said. “Right now he’s faster with the ball than without the ball. When he gets the ball or he’s on the ball defensively, he’s instinctive. When he’s off the ball, he’s learning about how to be that player off the ball. That’s really how you become really good. When he gets that, then he’ll position himself better when he gets the ball. And he’ll play better defense because he’ll anticipate movement.”
And with everything on the floor revolving around Hood and Parker, egos will need to be managed effectively. The two returning starters, Cook and Sulaimon, will have less of the spotlight on them than they did last year. And the three recruited scholarship seniors – Thornton, Josh Hairston and Andre Dawkins – will have to accept their role-player positions. The name of the game is complementing Duke’s dynamic duo, not trying to upstage them.
Fortunately for Duke, Thornton, co-captain with Hood, should be able to keep his teammates in line if the need arises. Ever since coming to Duke in the same class as Kyrie Irving, Thornton has understood that it’s his job to make his teammates better, a role he has embraced.
“When I see guys taking plays off, I don’t like that,” Thornton said. “And they know I don’t like it. They know I’m going to get into them, and that’s one of the things the coaching staff looks to me to do.”
Ask him about the “challenges” he faces with this team, and Krzyzewski will cut off the question. He doesn’t like the word challenge — instead, he prefers to call them opportunities. And with the 2013-14 squad, he and the rest of the Blue Devils have a legitimate opportunity to bring home the program’s fifth national championship banner.
“You have to adapt to the people you are fortunate enough to recruit,” Krzyzewski said. “And we try to recruit really good kids and players regardless of position. Then we see what we have, and then we try to put a style in, a system in that can best use their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.”
“It’s going to be exciting,” Hood said. “That’s the only word I can think of, just exciting basketball.”