Of course Duke’s January schedule was going to be tougher than the slate it faced in November and December.
The Blue Devils, who started the season ranked No. 1, played two nonconference games against teams ranked in the top 25 at the time of the games. They lost to Kansas and beat Florida.
But after Christmas, Duke’s schedule featured nothing but ACC games. January games included three against top 25 teams -- Florida State, Louisville and Notre Dame -- all on the road.
So with or without coach Mike Krzyzewski, things were going to get tougher for the Blue Devils.
The Blue Devils faced a tough schedule and played seven games without their head coach, who took a leave of absence after having back surgery on Jan. 6. Associate head coach Jeff Capel took Krzyzewski’s place.
After losing three of four games during the month, Duke played well last weekend with road wins at Wake Forest and Notre Dame to finish 4-3 under Capel.
“Jeff Capel is my associate head coach,” Krzyzewski said. “Even when I’m there he does a lot of stuff. He talks to the team he gives the scouting report before every game. Guys are accustomed to hearing his voice. When he took over as the interim head coach it wasn’t shocking. Players were accustomed to it. He was accustomed to it. It still wasn’t the ideal situation. He handled that just so well.”
Krzyzewski returns to Duke Saturday as the Blue Devils face struggling Pittsburgh at Cameron Indoor Stadium
The losses nearly dropped Duke out of the top 25 but the Blue Devils (17-5, 5-4 in ACC) have hung on at No. 21.
But now, things are again falling into place for the Blue Devils. Against Pitt, they will have their head coach back and will play their fifth game in a row with all of its top players healthy and available.
Freshmen Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden missed November games and parts of December with leg injuries. Junior guard Grayson Allen served a one-game suspension for his third incident tripping an opposing player.
Once those players were back, Duke lost senior forward Amile Jefferson with a bone bruise for the Florida State and Louisville games.
Now all are healthy, including Krzyzewski. After months of interruptions and distractions, perhaps it’s time for Duke to find it’s stride now that February is here.
“That’s the thing that has hurt our program this year is our lack of continuity,” Krzyzewski said. “The same group playing together. Our lack of preparation. It has nothing to do with attitudes or anything like that. The bottom line is in order to be good you have to prepare.
“The preparation to win is more important than the will to win. If you have the same guys playing all the time they get accustomed to playing together. These guys haven’t had that and then their coach is gone for seven games. The month before that he’s walking around with a pain in his leg and his butt and the pain in his butt is not because the way they are playing it’s because of your back.”
Wins the last two games and Krzyzewski’s return have Duke full of momentum going into three consecutive home games against Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Clemson.
“Hopefully we are through the storm and we can start seeing daylight and continue to improve,” Capel said. “We’ve really gotten better. Even when we lost those two games to Florida State and Louisville I thought we figured some things out. This league is not forgiving and you have to be tough in order to win every game. That’s something we learned to do.”
Pitt at Duke
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham