One year ago, coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke about evaluating every facet of the Duke program. One test he started to apply at the turn of the century is this: In a five-year period, how many chances did the Blue Devils have to win a national title?
This season started a new five-year period. And so far, Duke is 1-for-1.
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“Yeah, this team has a chance,” Krzyzewski said.
He isn’t breaking any news there, but his approach to this team does diverge from how he has handled successful teams in the past. For the Blue Devils’ last national title team, in 2010, Krzyzewski took pains to avoid calling it great until after the final Butler shot bounced off the rim.
“You know, I’ve said throughout the year they were good, then they were really good, then they were really good with great character,” Krzyzewski said in 2010 after Duke beat Butler for the national championship. “It’s because we always wanted to keep them chasing something.”
That 2010 team was full of upperclassmen – all five starters were juniors or seniors – and this current group is the second-least experienced team in the Sweet 16 (Kentucky ranks last). So, the motivational tactics are different.
As much as this is a one-year window for the Blue Devils – Quinn Cook will graduate, Krzyzewski reiterated Tuesday that Jahlil Okafor is here for one year and Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones could enter the NBA draft, too – it has been a multiple-year process to put this team together.
The Blue Devils’ staff recruited no other point guards besides Jones for three years, and Okafor was the other part of that package deal.
Jones and Okafor weren’t coming to Duke just for a nine-month vacation.
“Me, Justise, Tyus, Grayson (Allen), the freshmen who are coming in here, we had one big dream of winning the national title,” Okafor said. “That’s what led me to come to Duke was the opportunity to win a national title.”
Last weekend in Charlotte, the Blue Devils had their first brush with what Krzyzewski called tournament pressure – like game pressure, except more intense, with a season hanging in the balance.
In the round of 64, Robert Morris went on a 10-0 run to cut Duke’s lead to 10 in the second half, and the tension in the building was palpable. Then Winslow keyed an 8-0 run, and Duke rolled to victory.
Then San Diego State got within seven points in the second half, but Winslow and Okafor continued to use their superior talent to pace Duke to a blowout win.
“That’s the thing you can’t teach,” Krzyzewski said of responding under pressure. “You don’t know if they’re going to do it, and they did, and so I’m proud of them for doing that.”
In addition to an abundance of talent, the Blue Devils have been fortunate in the injury department, which is essential for any team’s national championship hopes.
The only hiccup was a sprained left ankle for Okafor during the first North Carolina win on Feb. 18, but the week between the end of the ACC tournament and beginning of the NCAA run gave him time to heal, Krzyzewski said.
He’s now close to full strength, which allows him to continue to get better instead of wasting energy compensating for a weak ankle.
“The guys aren’t ready for this to be – ,” Krzyzewski started after Duke defeated San Diego State. “In other words, they’re not mentally tired, they’re not physically tired. They’re together. We have talent, we’re getting older by experience, and so we just – like we got better here, these two games. Our defense was really good here. We shared the ball well.
“We’ve got to play Friday night (in Houston). Hopefully we get better then and get a chance to play Sunday. It’s a young group of kids that have really had a great season and they still want to get better. So we’ve got a chance.”