An old friend stands in Duke’s way, and his son, too

Many times, Aubrey Dawkins took the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium after the Duke Blue Devils finished practices.

Johnny Dawkins drilled basketball lessons into his son’s head the same way he did with Duke’s players a few minutes earlier, the same way Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski drilled them into the elder Dawkins’ head a generation earlier when he played for the Blue Devils.

Sunday at Colonial Life Arena, the Dawkins’ jobs are to take that basketball knowledge and turn it against Duke.

It’s not something the Dawkins nor Krzyzewski would choose. The NCAA tournament committee set this up, pairing top-seeded Duke with No. 9 seed Central Florida in the East Region.

“I can’t believe it,” said Aubrey Dawkins, a 6-foot-6 redshirt junior guard for Central Florida. “I never thought it would happen. But it’s here. We’ve just got to play basketball and not make the game bigger than it is.”

Good luck with that.

Johnny Dawkins played for Duke from 1982-86, helping Krzyzewski win his first ACC title and advance to his first Final Four in 1986. Aubrey Dawkins was born in Durham in 1995, spending the first 13 years of his life in the city.

Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, second from right, jokes with, from left, assistant Coach Steve Wojciechowski, associate head coach Johnny Dawkins, and assistant coach Chris Collins during practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Friday, Oct. 26, 2007. News & Observer file photo

When Johnny Dawkins joined Krzyzewski’s Duke staff as an assistant coach from 1998-2008, Aubrey and his siblings became regulars around Duke’s basketball offices and practices.

“With Aubrey, though, he had that love for the game,” former Duke player and current assistant coach Nate James said. “He was just this goofy little kid who was always bouncing the ball, doing tricks with the ball, doing things to get under Johnny’s skin. It’s pretty cool now to see him as a player.”

The Dawkins family left Durham in 2008 when Stanford hired Johnny Dawkins as its head coach. In March 2016, after Stanford fired him, Johnny Dawkins became Central Florida’s head coach.

Even that move has a Duke connection.

Central Florida athletic director Danny White hired Dawkins. His father, Kevin White, is Duke’s athletic director -- and Kevin White is part of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee that now pairs the Dawkins against Duke.

“We’d rather not play each other, of course,” Johnny Dawkins said of facing Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils. “We’re friends. I played for him. I’ve worked for him for over a decade. It’s not something you look forward to doing. We know in this type of setting -- and we’re all competitors. We do what we have to do, but it’s not something we would pick, let’s play each other. That wouldn’t happen under any other circumstance other than a tournament.”

Krzyzewski and Dawkins faced off as head coaches once before, in November 2014. Stanford and Duke met in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament championship game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Blue Devils, on their way to a national title, beat the Cardinal 70-59.

This time, far more is on the line.

Central Florida (24-8) gained the first NCAA tournament win in program history with Friday night’s 73-58 triumph over Virginia Commonwealth.

Duke, of course, lives at the other end of the college basketball world. The No.1-ranked Blue Devils (30-5) are the tournament’s betting favorites as they seek their sixth national championship.

It’s a game with high stakes.

In any situation, Krzyzewski prefers not to coach against one of his former players or assistant coaches.

“Why would you want to?” Krzyzewski said. “They’re family. If you don’t have to play against him, I’m not going to do it. But this presents an opportunity for both of us in a great setting. So both teams are winners.”

Cincinnati guard Justin Jenifer (3) and Central Florida guard Aubrey Dawkins (15) scramble for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Cincinnati. John Minchillo AP

No coach in college basketball history has won more than Krzyzewski. Johnny Dawkins was part of the recruiting class that got his Duke teams going 37 years ago after his first three seasons included just one that ended above .500. Dawkins was an assistant coach in 2001 when the Blue Devils won the program’s third NCAA title.

“He’s the master of adapting to change and times,” Johnny Dawkins said. “I was there over a decade ago. This game has changed so much since then. Coach has adapted to that. How they play now and the schemes they use aren’t the same schemes they used when I was coaching there and definitely not the same schemes when I played for him.”

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.