Not long after Duke’s improbable four-wins-in-four-days run to the ACC tournament championship a week ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mike Krzyzewski gathered his team in the Barclays Center locker room.
The Blue Devils were in a celebratory mood after capturing the title as the tournament’s fifth seed. Once the jubilation subsided, Krzyzewski addressed his team.
“We’ve got another one to win,” Krzyzewski said, according to junior guard Grayson Allen.
By immediately shifting his team’s attention to the NCAA tournament, Krzyzewski was again practicing a “next play” philosophy that has been a hallmark of his illustrious 37-season Duke career.
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“That’s a big basis of that ‘next play’ philosophy is that after you win something, or after you think you’ve won something, you have a tendency to take a deep breath and relax,” Allen said during the Greenville Regional. “I think that’s where we see coach get ramped up the most is once you think you’ve done something he tends to get ramped up and say the next thing is the most important.”
It is a mindset Krzyzewski instills in each of his teams whether dealing with on-court performance or off-court issues, whether the previous result was beneficial or detrimental to the team.
“The expression of not having a rear-view mirror: I think anyone who’s had success or wants it, can’t have a rear-view mirror in their car,” Krzyzewski said. “They can’t look back, they’ve got to look ahead.”
Krzyzewski has the resume of success to support his thinking. He says his “next play” mantra has permeated his teachings while becoming the NCAA’s all-time leader in wins through five national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, 26 ACC regular-season and tournament titles and three Olympic gold-medal winning performances.
Krzyzewski writes more extensively about “next play” thinking in his book “Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success.”
“In basketball and in life, I have always maintained the philosophy of ‘next play,’ ” Krzyzewski writes. “Essentially, what it means is that what you have just done is not nearly as important as what you are doing right now. The ‘next play’ philosophy emphasizes the fact that the most important play of the game or life moment on which you should always focus is the next one. It is not about the turnover I committed last time down the court, it’s not even about the three-pointer I hit to tie the game, it is about what’s next.
“To waste time lamenting a mistake or celebrating success is distracting and can leave you and your team unprepared for what you are about to face. It robs you of the ability to do your best at that moment and to give your full concentration. It’s why I love basketball. Plays happen with rapidity and there may be no stop-action. Basketball is a game that favors the quick thinker and the person who can go on to the next play the fastest.”
The mindset was rooted during Krzyzewski’s undergraduate days at the U.S. Military Academy.
“It’s more like a West Point thing, like what’s your next mission?” Krzyzewski said. “One of the key lessons I learned at West Point as a cadet was that failure is not your destination.
“So, whenever you got knocked back individually and collectively – and that’s what they taught you – OK, next play. What am I going to do next?”
Amile Jefferson, the 6-9, fifth-year post player, says “next play” is now engrained in his thought process. It is imperative, he says, to make certain first-year Duke players learn to live by the credo as well.
“As a young guy, when you make mistakes it can linger on,” Jefferson said. “You can be thinking about it five, six, seven plays later and it can affect your performance. ... It happens all the time. If one of our young guys makes a turnover, and the next play down (court) he’s hesitant to make a play, coach will stop and will tell him, ‘That play is over. The wrong play to make is to let that play bother you into doing other things.’ ”
Still, Krzyzewski warns it is not about completely forgetting the past.
“You don’t want to forget the experiences or knowledge you gained the plays before,” he said. “You want to ... stay hungry, stay positive. If you’re coming from a negative, you want to remember that you’re pretty damned good and you can do this. If you’re coming from a positive, you want to say, ‘You’re not that damned good, you’ve got to do it again.’
“It’s like staying in the moment.”
Off the court, Krzyzewski said, the proliferation of social media has made that task increasingly more difficult. Why, he asks his players, should you care what “George from Des Moines” has to say about you and the Duke program? Why, he asks, does it matter how many “likes” you have on Facebook?
What is most important, according to Krzyzewski, is the task at hand and directing one’s attention to the “next play.”
Krzyzewski has demonstrated his “next play” philosophy to his team many teams over the years, perhaps no more illustrative than following the 2006 regular season that concluded with No. 1-ranked Duke losing games at unranked Florida State and at home against 13th-ranked UNC.
Prior to the ACC tournament, Krzyzewski gathered his team and conducted a ceremony whereby he placed the Preseason NIT championship trophy, all-tournament team plaques and videotapes from the games in one cardboard box, and all awards and videotapes from the regular-season in another cardboard box.
His team did not need to read his lips to know that all of the regular season was behind Duke, and it was time to focus entirely on the next season – the postseason – where the Blue Devils charged to the ACC tournament championship and into the NCAA tournament.
Similarly, this entire season has been a testament to “next play” thinking as Duke fought through a suspension to Allen and a spate of injuries that even kept Krzyzewski away from the team at one point.
“This season has given us the opportunity to use it more because of all the incredible amount of interruptions,” Krzyzewski said.
Thus, Krzyzewski stood among his players a week ago and shifted its attention from the accomplishment of winning one championship while beginning a quest for another.