DURHAM — An upbeat, engaging Mike Krzyzewski met with the media for an hour on Wednesday, wishing his grandson Michael a happy 13th birthday and looking for all the world like he’d rather be there than anywhere else.
The truth was, he admitted, he’d rather be in Indianapolis, where Duke was headed in the NCAA tournament before the shocking opening-game loss to Mercer. The early loss, Duke’s second in three years, raised questions about whether Duke’s program is capable of succeeding while built around one-and-done players like Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker.
Krzyzewski acknowledged he has asked himself many of the same questions he was asked Wednesday, and talked about changing the way he teaches defense, the team’s conditioning program, his motivational tactics and the emphasis placed on developing leadership and maturity, among other areas for examination and adjustment.
One thing he won’t change? The players he recruits.
“If you’re placed in that position, where one or two of the best players in the United States, who are great kids and great players, want to come to your school, you’d have to be an idiot to say no,” Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski is an Army guy, but a naval term fits: Full steam ahead. If it isn’t possible to reconcile the issues surrounding one-year talent with the foundation the program has been built upon, he’ll change the foundation instead.
Krzyzewski has built three teams around freshmen presumed to be one-and-done. (All three turned out to be.) The first, with Kyrie Irving joining the core of a team that won a national title a year earlier, was different. That was a turnkey operation, Irving replacing Jon Scheyer at point guard. And had Irving stayed healthy, Duke may well have repeated as champion.
The other two have been less successful, in part because the freshman became the focus of the team, as opposed to a complimentary part. Both crashed out of the NCAA tournament at the first hurdle, Rivers in 2012 and Parker in 2014. Both teams suffered from crippling, fundamental leadership issues among the veteran players that reflected in toxic chemistry (2012) and flaccid defense (2014).
Some coaches, faced with such setbacks, have sworn off NBA-bound high-school talent. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo – who unsuccessfully earmarked his only available scholarship last winter for Parker – has said he’ll build his teams going forward around three- and four-year players. Izzo’s team this season, which faces Virginia in a regional semifinal Friday, is that way.
Duke’s two most successful teams in recent years were both senior-heavy, the 2010 national champions and last year’s regional finalist. Rarely has a coach so accomplished, held in such esteem, left himself this open to second-guessing. Yet Krzyzewski remains undeterred, almost defiantly so.
“We have a great opportunity to bring in great kids who are really good players,” Krzyzewski said. “We have to keep trying to figure it out.”
To a certain extent, he doesn’t have a choice. The die is already cast. Power forward Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones arrive next fall for what are certain to be brief stays on campus, with Okafor already identified as the focal point of the team. Krzyzewski has to find a way to make his program mesh with players like them, or he’ll find himself in the same spot this time next year.
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