What was this strange scene we were witnessing Wednesday night? It was hard to get a proper sense of the appropriate emotion. Every moment and movement seemed imbued with significance, whether it actually was or not, because no one knows what happens next. These are unusual times for Duke, even if the program has been through a variation of this before, many years ago.
There was a palpable sense of mystery and uncertainty and foreboding that had nothing to do with the game on the floor or the potential final result. This was as strange a night in Cameron Indoor Stadium as there had been in a long time, Duke’s 110-57 victory over Georgia Tech almost a sideshow to the sideshow, a secondary matter after the Blue Devils surgically removed all drama after the initial few minutes on their way to a jaw-dropping offensive performance.
There was Mike Krzyzewski, coaching his last game before undergoing back surgery, expected to be out four weeks but without any guarantee, having already gone through four surgeries in three months last summer at age 69 before jumping straight into the Olympics. Jeff Capel sat next to him, preparing for his second, longer interim stint as Duke’s coach in Krzyzewski’s absence, a potential preview of the post-K future for Duke basketball.
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Krzyzewski walked gingerly, moved slowly, sat carefully, even stumbled a few times, leaving no doubt now just how badly his back is hurting him. Maybe it was easy to see before, if you knew to look for it – and also easy to dismiss, given all the work he had done on his left leg over the summer – but it’s all too easy for anyone to see now.
“The biggest thing for me, over the last month, is how tired you get, from all the pain,” Krzyzewski said. “Even tonight, just in pain, all the time.”
“We knew this time would come,” Duke guard Matt Jones said. “You want him on the sideline, but getting outside of myself and stepping away from basketball, we want coach to be healthy. We want him to be his best when the time comes. We know he'll be back.”
There was Grayson Allen, stripped of his captaincy but back in the lineup after serving a one-game suspension – Duke’s loss Saturday at Virginia Tech – for the third tripping incident of his career. There was considerable consternation over “indefinite” turning out to be “one game,” but the important thing was that Allen was suspended, period. If that doesn’t change his behavior, the tenor of the next discussion will be quite different.
It would be hard to point to Allen as the critical factor – especially as he seemed hesitant to shoot at times – but his return coincided with an offensive explosion unprecedented for Duke this season. With their entire rotation healthy for the first time, the Blue Devils scored 61 points in the first half. They had 65 in the entire game against Tennessee State.
“We finally got our whole team back and we're starting to become the team we would have been if we hadn't had all the distractions at the beginning of the year, injuries, all those things,” Jefferson said. “Tonight we played beautiful basketball. Now the question is, can we do it again?”
“I don't know who would have beaten them tonight,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said.
There was star freshman Harry Giles in the starting lineup for the first time, which on any other night might have been headline news but on this evening barely registered as significant, even with his two big dunks to open the second half. Poor Bob Harris, the Duke radio broadcaster retiring at the end of the season, was honored by the school at halftime. Wrong night for that.
And there were no students, or at least very few of them, since this happened to be one of those winter-break games when the bleachers are filled with a considerably calmer crowd, always an odd environment for those conditioned to frenzy.
So an unexpectedly crazy Duke season somehow got crazier, and everyone was caught off guard. Even ESPN, which had planned to broadcast the game with announcers watching in a remote location – a new trend in television, although not frequently seen in ACC conference games – scrambled Tuesday morning to get Karl Ravech and Jay Bilas to Durham.
Krzyzewski, who famously missed the final 19 games of the dismal 1994-95 season after rushing back from back surgery, joked that he can't remember that long ago. But he clearly does. He clearly does.
“I won't be in a hurry to come back until I'm ready,” Krzyzewski said. “Because I made that mistake in my younger days and I'm too old to renew that mistake.”
Regime change is not here yet. Capel called a few plays, which is not unusual, but Krzyzewski was clearly still in charge. Late in the first half, he was up and yelling “Let’s go!” at his team at the other end of the court before stalking referee Tony Chiazza after a charging call on Jayson Tatum. The next play was a 50-50 block/charge call that went against Amile Jefferson, and Krzyzewski sprinted to the end of the bench, swiping a hand through the air before turning to glare at Chiazza (again), hands on his hips.
But moments later, at the ensuing TV timeout, the players, assistants and managers all popped up from their chairs and onto the court at the whistle. Krzyzewski was still in his, immobile, in that moment suddenly looking very fragile and alone.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock