It’s the last thing Duke needed.
A basketball team favored to compete for a national championship started the season missing a significant chunk of its top-ranked freshman class. Harry Giles was coming off knee surgery, and Jayson Tatum sprained his foot in an October preseason practice, the pair widely considered two of the best rookies in the nation.
Since then, both have debuted for Duke.
But as the Blue Devils started to recover from a myriad of unexpected injuries, they were hit with another roadblock when junior star Grayson Allen was suspended indefinitely. The returning starter intentionally tripped an Elon player in Duke’s nonconference finale, right in time for a Blue Devils’ ACC opener that wasn’t pretty.
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Duke lacked chemistry and struggled to find offense without Allen — stripped of his captaincy as a result of his third tripping incident — in the loss to Virginia Tech on Dec. 31.
Just days later, the drama has continued.
Duke could be without Mike Krzyzewski, its Hall of Fame head coach, for up to four weeks, the school announced Monday. He will undergo lower-back surgery to remove a fragment of a herniated disc on Friday, adding another layer of turmoil for a team that has yet to find its true identity. Associate head coach Jeff Capel will lead the team in Krzyzewski’s absence.
“We’ve had a lot of interruptions,” Krzyzewski said after his team played the Hokies in Blacksburg, Va. “It’s unfortunate for any team to have interruptions, and sometimes you have no control over them like an injury, sickness,” he said.
The coach’s latest surgery follows a double knee replacement on April 3 and a hernia repair on May 9.
Capel, a former Duke guard, coached the Blue Devils to a victory over Georgia Tech last season when Krzyzewski missed the game due to illness.
Krzyzewski, who turns 70 next month, has had a number of health issues during his 37 years at Duke. The one with the biggest impact on his team came during the 1994-95 season when he had a prior back surgery. Krzyzewski had surgery to repair a displaced disc in October 1994 and missed 10 days of preseason practice. He then coached 12 games before being hospitalized in January 1995 for four days after complaining of fatigue. He eventually passed the reins to assistant coach Pete Gaudet.
Krzyzewski coached his final game of the 1994-95 season on Jan. 4, 1995 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That team’s first game without him was a loss three days later against Georgia Tech. His last game before the surgery this season will be Wednesday against Georgia Tech, which also falls on Jan. 4.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played for Krzyzewski and was an assistant coach for Duke, said he thought this would be a different scenario for Krzyzewski and Duke from the 1994-95 season.
“This is more of the equivalent of a player injury,” Bilas said. “He has to get his body healthy and then he’ll be able to come back and help his team. Last time, he had to completely step away.”
Capel, 41, was a sophomore at Duke when Gaudet took over, and he was second on the team that season with 12.5 points a game. But the team struggled under the change in leadership. The Blue Devils lost 14 regular-season games under Gaudet and won only 3, missing the NCAA tournament and losing to Wake Forest in the second round of the ACC tournament.
Capel, a Fayetteville native who graduated from Duke in 1997, was an assistant coach at Old Dominion from 2000 to 2001, then at Virginia Commonwealth from 2001 to 2002. He was the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth from 2002 to 2006 and Oklahoma from 2006 to 2011, where he coached 2009 National Player of the Year Blake Griffin. Capel, 175-110 as a head coach, joined Duke’s staff in 2011.
Bilas anticipates that Capel, whose VCU and Oklahoma teams averaged nearly 20 wins per season, will be able to keep Duke on track while Krzyzewski is out.
“I’m not suggesting not having arguably the best college basketball coach of all time is not going to be an obstacle, but I think they will be able to handle it in a positive way,” Bilas said. “Jeff Capel was a terrific head coach at VCU and Oklahoma. He has done this before.”
In a statement Monday, Krzyzewski, who has recovered ahead of schedule after previous surgeries, said he’ll return as soon as he is able. He has gone through “conservative” treatment options for the disc over the past month, Duke said.
Dr. Allan Friedman, a Duke neurosurgeon, will perform the surgery.
“As soon as the doctors clear me to do so, I look forward to returning and giving our team 100 percent of my energy and attention, which is certainly something that they deserve,” Krzyzewski said in a statement.
Krzyzewski said he’s wanted to be a coach and teacher since he was 16, and being able to do that is what helps him get out of bed every morning, what helps him remain Duke’s basketball coach.
Continuing in that coaching role is not about accomplishing a certain number of wins, championships, Hall of Fame inductions or numerous other accolades – those have been a bonus, he said. Krzyzewski came into the 2016-17 season in the hunt for a sixth national title and has an NCAA men’s best 1,055 wins.
“I love what I do,” he said in an interview with The News & Observer in December. “I enjoy the process of doing it. To be quite frank with you, when you have a setback or things that go wrong a little bit, that’s OK. Like, I’d rather try to figure that out, because that’s life; it’s going to happen. I’m anxious to do the next thing. I’m anxious to do this thing, and I don’t know how long I’ll continue wanting to do that, but I still want to do that now.”
Krzyzewski refuses to set a date for his retirement because he said he may be ready before a set time, or he may want to stay longer. He said he’ll be able to sense when the time is right.
“There’ll be an end, obviously. I’ll know,” he said. “I’m also lucky I’m in a position where people allow me to know.”
His wife, Mickie, was the one who encouraged him to go to the hospital in 1995.
Krzyzewski is equipped with the confidence and expertise to navigate through unexpected twists, but the bumps this season have been a lot to bargain with.
“Coach has been demanding something from us that we just haven’t given to him yet,” one of the team’s veterans, Amile Jefferson, said Saturday, after the Virginia Tech loss. “We just have to be together, find ways to help each other. At the end of the day, it’s all about Duke winning, so we have to find way to win games with whatever group we have out there. We have to be men.
“That’s the bottom line.”
Joe Giglio contributed.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
In 42 seasons as a head coach, Mike Krzyzweski leads or is in the top five in nearly every statistical category among NCAA Division I coaches. Krzyzweski will take a leave of absence as he undergoes back surgery on Friday, the school has announced. Here is Coach K by the numbers:
1,055-323 overall record (at Army and Duke)
.766 win-loss percentage
445 ACC wins
90 NCAA tournament wins
37 seasons at Duke
32 NCAA tournament bids
13 ACC tournament championships
12 Final Fours
5 NCAA national championships
3 Team USA Olympic golds with him as head coach
69 age - he’ll be 70 in February
Jonathan M. Alexander