Mike Krzyzewski on Tuesday was talking about how Duke is “continually trying to adapt to this interesting and ever-changing” college basketball world – one with constant roster turnover and hello-and-goodbye freshmen – when he stopped to think about a simple question:
Does he actually embrace such a world? Does he still enjoy working in such an environment?
Krzyzewski is the ACC’s elder basketball statesman, if not in age – “Boeheim’s with us, too, you know,” he said – then in experience. Indeed, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, at 72, is nearly three years older than Krzyzewski. But nobody has been in this conference longer, and seen more, than Krzyzewski has.
He’s been around long enough to know what it was like to develop a rivalry with Dean Smith. And he’s adapted well enough to transform Duke, once a haven for four-year players who all but shunned their inevitable passage into the NBA, into one of the preferred destinations for the best of the best high school players, those who can’t turn professional fast enough.
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Krzyzewski turned 70 in February. While he has grown older, college basketball has become more and more of a young man’s game, both in the literal and figurative sense. On the court, freshmen now play more of a starring role than ever before. And off of it, recruiting and roster management has become more fatiguing than ever, in an age of one-and-done players and constant transfers.
Krzyzewski has adapted, and thrived, amid the changes like few have. The first two of his five national championships at Duke, in 1991 and 1992, came in an era in which players usually remained in school for four years. His most recent national championship, in 2015, included three freshmen who played leading roles before departing for the NBA.
“You know, if you’re constantly talking about, ‘Boy, I wish it was the way it was,’ I think you should be smoking a pipe and … you should be out of this,” Krzyzewski said, speaking to a small group of reporters on Tuesday. “The fact that this is changing and all that, keeps you young, to keep adapting to the different cultures. So overall it’s great. And we shouldn’t complain about it.”
And yet the complaints come. From fans. From media members. Sometimes, from coaches.
College basketball, to many, has become unrecognizable. It has become unrecognizable in part because the players themselves are so often unrecognizable, gone off to the pros, or to a different school, before establishing any sort of identity that will endure beyond a single season.
Duke is but one example. Only one of the Blue Devils’ top eight scorers from last season will return next season. The one is Grayson Allen, the rising senior guard. Among the other eight players, two were seniors, three were freshmen who entered the NBA draft, one was a sophomore who entered the draft and the other one transferred.
In another time, years ago, Krzyzewski might have arrived at the ACC’s spring meetings in a panic about the state of his roster next season. On Tuesday, he looked and acted like a man about to take a relaxing stroll on the beach. Perhaps he did after his meetings ended. He appeared relaxed enough, anyway, and at peace with another rebuilding job that is becoming an annual project.
“I love being at Duke, I love being in college basketball, and being in the ACC, and OK, what does that mean right now?” Krzyzewski said, turning philosophical. “And then it’s up to me to have my program succeed in that environment.
“Competition is not just on the court. It’s off the court, in how you adapt. So I like that, and I think that’s what a CEO should do. Otherwise they should ask you for – right now it wouldn’t be early retirement for me, it would late retirement.”
Krzyzewski said he was happy that it had been a while since anyone had asked him about retiring.
“Please don’t ask that,” he said with a laugh.
Each season brings him closer to that inevitable end point. For now, he continues to attempt to adapt to what he aptly described as “this interesting and ever-changing” college basketball environment.