When N.C. State defeated Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium a few weeks back, game coverage invariably linked two bits of information as closely as participants and score. Besides the outcome, we were constantly reminded a similar result had eluded every Wolfpack squad since 1995.
But while the win itself, and the interval between victories, were notable, equally telling but largely untold was what Duke was missing on each of those occasions 22 seasons apart. The absent element was Mike Krzyzewski, sidelined each time by back problems.
For 37 years spectators’ eyes at Cameron have inevitably gravitated to the Duke bench, from which Krzyzewski attempts to impose his formidable will on all he surveys. His body language compels attention as he leans far back and grabs his knee, sometimes in piston-like synchrony with his assistants, after a particularly misguided play; waves his arms to exhort the crowd to yell louder; vigorously chastises or embraces players the second they reach the mild privacy of a team huddle; occasionally signals plays or chirps contentiously at officials.
During Krzyzewski’s two absences from contests with N.C. State you could sense a power vacuum inside Cameron. No matter how commanding Jeff Capel or, 22 years earlier, Pete Gaudet, were in directing the Blue Devils, there was something missing without Krzyzewski’s guidance, intensity and passion. He returned Saturday to lead his team in a 72-64 win against Pitt, after sitting out seven games, and the difference on the sidelines was palpable.
Capel leapt onto the horse’s back in early January while it was in full stride, inheriting a team projected to compete for the national championship but disrupted by more injuries than any squad in the ACC. Once everyone was more or less healthy, Capel had to to blend eight McDonald’s All-Americans plus Harry Giles, whom some considered the best prospect in this year’s freshman class.
Life didn’t get easier after Duke beat Boston College in Capel’s first game on Jan. 7, then lost three of four, culminating in that defeat by N.C. State on Jan. 23. Some saw shades of ’95, when the Devils, with Capel a sophomore guard, spiraled to the bottom of the ACC. This time, though, the Cameron loss to the Wolfpack was followed by a course correction – consecutive road wins at Wake Forest and Notre Dame. (Unlike 1995, Capel’s 4-3 record as a stand-in was credited to Krzyzewski, who was involved in game planning.)
“You put the weight of the world on yourself,” Mike Brey, head coach at Notre Dame, recalls of being an assistant on the Duke staff that stood in for Krzyzewski in 1995. “One of the things I told Jeff before the game (at South Bend), I said, ‘Look, man, you’re doing a hell of a job and this situation is a lot harder than ’95.’ I think it’s much more difficult because you had the unbelievable expectations early in the season and you’ve got one-and-done guys that you’re trying to manage along with putting the group together without the head coach.”
Krzyzewski’s last game before going home for the ’95 season was a loss to Clemson and first-year coach Rick Barnes. (The Tigers haven’t won in Durham since.) Despite the best efforts of Gaudet, Brey and fellow assistant Tommy Amaker, Duke followed the 1995 Clemson defeat with five more in a row and 14 of 17 losses to conclude the regular season. The sole road win during that stretch was at South Bend, where Duke hadn’t won again until last week.
This year Krzyzewski got a 53-point blowout as a going-away present, the victim Georgia Tech and its new coach, Josh Pastner. The eternally optimistic Pastner was in high school when he coached his first AAU summer team, and won doing it. Since arriving at Atlanta from Memphis, he’s embraced the usual coaching protocol of minimizing the prospects for the Yellow Jackets, who on paper were admittedly grim entering the season. Picked to finish 14th by the media and absent from the NCAA tournament since 2010, the program had to replace its top four scorers and top three players in rebound average, steals and assists without benefit of a prominent holdover or celebrated recruit.
Pastner, 39, claimed as he traveled the ACC that, as he said after an uncharacteristic 3-point barrage secured a win at N.C. State, “We’re the most inexperienced team in all of college basketball. And that’s a fact – we’re the most inexperienced team.”
Well, not exactly.
Every ACC roster except league leader North Carolina’s has at least as many underclassmen as Georgia Tech. No team except Virginia Tech, on the verge of its first NCAA appearance in a decade, has more upperclassmen. Miami, for one, returned fewer 500-minute players from 2016.
Still, tamping expectations is a time-honored strategem. At Wake Forest early in Tim Duncan’s career, Dave Odom downplayed his Demon Deacons to a humorous but apparently effective degree. The media picked his 1994 squad seventh in the ACC, when it finished third, and fifth in 1995 when it finished first. The latter team, led by Randolph Childress and Duncan, won the ACC tournament, putting Duke out of its misery in the quarterfinals.
Pastner apparently did inherit serviceable ACC players, and possesses the ability to forge them into an effective unit. Three of the Yellow Jackets’ top four point-producers are holdover upperclassmen. Guard Josh Okogie, a three-star recruit, is tied with big man Ben Lammers for team scoring leadership and should get consideration for ACC Freshman of the Year.
With five wins through the mid-point of the ACC season, the hustling Jackets are the conference’s happiest surprise. Their victims include a trio of the league’s best: top offensive units North Carolina and Florida State, and Notre Dame, which entered this past weekend as the top free-throw shooting squad in ACC history.
Pastner’s postgame patter at Raleigh also offered the assertion even his bosses told him the Yellow Jackets were unlikely to win any ACC games in 2017.
“When they interviewed me for the job, they told me, they said, ‘We need a coach in here right now, he’s not going to win a game his first year in the ACC,’ ” Pastner recalled. Then, giving a boost to a lobbying campaign that may not be necessary, he went on, “ ‘And if you do win one game, you should get Coach of the Year.’ That’s what my bosses told me.” Pastner also said he was warned he wouldn’t win 20 games combined over his first two seasons.
Well, not exactly.
Mike Bobinski was the athletic director who hired Pastner at Georgia Tech. Told of the young coach’s remarks, he laughed with amusement during a phone interview the other day.
“As many coaches do, I think he’s taking a little poetic license there, to say the least,” says Bobinski, now AD at Purdue. He concedes he was frank about the hurdles and the potential for low achievement, knowing Pastner was accustomed to success for most of his career as a player and coach. “But I never put numbers to it, I just would never do that,” Bobinski insists.
Of course applying measures and making forecasts are hard to resist. So here’s a nod for Krzyzewski amplifying the momentum Capel conjured, and for the ACC to remain unpredictable within very predictable parameters.
“Let’s just get 10 (NCAA) bids, and everybody will have a good off-season,” Brey says.