Back in June, Mike Krzyzewski was looking forward to a pain-free Duke season after going through operations to replace his left knee, repair a hernia and clean up issues with his left ankle (twice) in the space of less than three months.
“I’ll go into next season not having all this,” Krzyzewski said in June. “So that’s a big thing.”
Krzyzewski’s unscheduled back surgery and corresponding indefinite absence is yet another reminder that as much as titans like Krzyzewski would like to coach forever, or at least until a moment of their own choosing, it’s not always up to them to pick the moment.
Friday’s procedure to remove part of a herniated disc will be the fifth time Krzyzewski has gone under the knife since April and it wasn’t like he spent the summer resting, either. Krzyzewski has earned the right to call his own shot, but after 69 years and a lot of hard miles, his body may have more to say about when he’s done at Duke than Krzyzewski does.
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So while Wednesday’s game against Georgia Tech is likely Krzyzewski’s last appearance in Cameron for about four weeks, there exists the possibility it could be Krzyzewski’s last appearance in Cameron, period. Back surgery is no joke, although neither is a knee replacement, and Krzyzewski still went straight from the NCAA tournament to the operating room to the Olympics last summer.
For all the jokes about 1995 and Pete Gaudet, this situation is certainly different. Despite Grayson Allen’s heel turn as a serial tripper and the weak performance at Virginia Tech, Duke still has as good a chance to win a national title as anyone else does. The season is far from a lost cause just one game into ACC play.
There’s no way Krzyzewski would rather let someone else find a solution to Allen’s loose-limbed recidivism and an offense that has suddenly gone sour – over the past three games, Duke is averaging 1.03 points per possession, down from 1.20 to that point; a 12-point difference, roughly speaking – but that job now falls, temporarily at least, to Jeff Capel, 1-0 as Duke’s interim head coach after a win at Georgia Tech last February when Krzyzewski couldn’t travel to Atlanta because of illness.
It was an interesting experiment that offered real insight into Capel’s independence: In that very competitive game he chose to use Antonio Vrankovic extensively when Krzyzewski did not, before or after that game. Perhaps even more significant was Capel’s decision to stay at Duke rather than pursue openings at Arizona State (2015) and Georgia Tech (2016), as clear a sign as any that the Duke alum and former Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma coach is waiting for his turn, and not merely on an interim basis.
In the interim, starting Saturday, Capel will inherit a team with some real structural weaknesses and what Luke Kennard identified a few weeks ago as a lack of unselfishness. At the time, coming after the Elon game in Greensboro when Allen tripped Steven Santa Ana, it seemed like a commentary on Allen’s inability to stop lashing out with his feet. After the way the Blue Devils played in Blacksburg, it felt like there’s more to it. This wouldn’t be the first time Duke was tripped up by friction between title-winning veterans and one-and-done freshmen.
Capel has been the driving force behind Duke’s successful recruitment of these one-and-done stars. It’s up to him to figure out a solution for Duke’s current issues, in the short term for now and presumably in the long term in a post-Krzyzewski era, whenever that is. It may not be when Krzyzewski has always thought it will be.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock