Jeff Capel loves his job at Pittsburgh, relishing the challenge of returning the Panthers basketball program to national relevance.
That job, though, put him in a position coach after coach has failed in this season.
Along with the rest of the Duke coaching staff, Capel helped recruit RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson to the Blue Devils last year.
On Tuesday night, Capel did his best to instruct the Panthers on how to slow those two freshmen.
Truthfully, Capel figured his chances were slim and that proved correct as Barrett scored 26 and Williamson 25 in No. 2 Duke’s 79-64 win at Pittsburgh.
He revisited an old Mike Tyson quote.
“Everybody has a game plan until you get hit,” Capel said with a laugh.
“We tried to gap up. We tried to take up space,” Capel said. “We tried to play the percentages on some other guys.”
It wasn’t enough and for the 10th time in Duke’s 18 games this season, Williamson and Barrett each topped 20 points in the same game.
“Zion is a very difficult guy to defend,” Capel said. “No one has done it yet. RJ Barrett is a very difficult guy to defend, especially with the freedom that they have.”
Coach K, recruiter
Yes, it was easier to recruit them than to coach against them.
Mike Krzyzewski gets to mentor the talented duo. Oh, and just in case anyone thinks Duke’s recruiting will suffer with Capel no longer with the program, Krzyzewski used a post-game question about Capel’s recruiting prowess to send a message.
“You know, we don’t have a point man,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m the point man in recruiting. All of us are good recruiters. There wasn’t one guy that was responsible for anybody.”
Just a few weeks shy of his 72nd birthday, Krzyzewski is as fired up as ever about the Duke program and this year’s team in particular.
The Blue Devils (16-2, 5-1 ACC) won for the second consecutive game without starting point guard Tre Jones, who is recovering from a right shoulder separation.
In both games, Williamson and Barrett have taken over the offense.
In Saturday’s 72-70 win over previously unbeaten Virginia, they scored 57 of Duke’s 72 points. The Pittsburgh game brought more of the same as they took 37 of Duke’s 65 shots.
Duke’s defensive approach was different Tuesday than it was Saturday against Virginia.
The Blue Devils played mostly man-to-man, save for a few possessions of zone in the second half to throw the Cavaliers off their game.
Against Pitt, Duke played zone the majority of the time.
“They had those small lineups out there where they just picked us apart I think and got us into foul trouble,” Krzyzewski said. “With Tre out we’re a different team, so I thought the zone was good.”
No timetable for Tre Jones
Pittsburgh shot 41.5 percent and made only three of 15 3-pointers. With Jones, Duke uses man-to-man and pressures the ball all the way up the court. That’s why Duke is among the nation’s leaders in steals.
Without Jones, the Blue Devils use their height and length at all five positions to stifle teams in a different way.
“Their zone bothered us,” Capel said. “The size of it, the length of it, how they anticipated. It really broke our rhythm offensively.”
No one at Duke is offering up a public timetable for when Jones will return. Krzyzewski said Jones is making “really good progress” returning from the injury. He was on the trip to Pittsburgh with the team but wasn’t in uniform.
Jones isn’t using a sling on his right arm as the shoulder heals, suggesting his return could only be a few games off.
Duke’s next three ACC games are against teams in the lower half of the standings. Georgia Tech (11-8, 3-3) comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, followed by a game at Notre Dame (11-8, 1-5) on Monday.
Duke plays its final nonconference game, at home on Feb. 2 against St. John’s (15-4), before a home game with Boston College (10-7, 1-4 ACC) on Feb. 5.
Tough road ahead
Things get tougher after that with road games at Virginia and Louisville, home games with N.C. State and North Carolina and road games at Syracuse and Virginia Tech.
Having Jones for that six-game stretch beginning with Virginia on Feb. 9 would be ideal for Duke.
Until then, the Blue Devils are proving to be just fine riding scoring from Williamson and Barrett -- likely the top two picks in this summer’s NBA Draft -- and mixing and matching on defense.
On Tuesday night at Pittsburgh, it was enough to show an old friend how far he has to go in building his program.
“They have two guys that are very different,” Capel said, “and that’s why I think it’s the premier program in the country.”