For all of the years that Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has failed to meet expectations at Duke, he hasn’t really received all that much criticism for it. He has been able to bring a great deal of talent in, and has one of the most talented teams in the country year in and year out, yet seems to fall short with elite talent more times than not. Being the winningest coach in NCAA history has its merit, and his ability to coach off of the court and foster character is second to none. Despite this, there are things that Coach K likes to do in-game that as a Duke fan, make me believe that his time to pass the torch has already passed.
The first thing I would like to point out is that Duke had one of, if not the most, talented teams in NCAA history. And it’s one that didn’t win the championship because of coaching.
The 1998-1999 Duke team was as dominant a team that ever existed in college sports. They were able to roll off a 32-game win streak in a season where they averaged a Division I leading 91.8 points per game while allowing only 67.2 points per game. This team possessed a star-studded lineup that included future NBA studs Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Shane Battier along with an incredibly talented point guard in William Avery.
This team was loaded with these great talents along with a slew of other good college basketball players, such as Chris Carrawell, Chris Burgess, Nate James and Trajan Langdon. Langdon was a senior forward on that team who was one of the leading scorers, averaging 17.3 points per game. Coach K had a great deal of faith in him when the game was on the line, which started a trend that has lasted since. The over reliance on certain seniors over more talented underclassmen was the vice that crushed the 1999 team’s championship dream.
Coming down to the last 5.4 seconds in the National Championship with Duke down one, Coach K told Langdon to take the one-on-one against the University of Connecticut’s Ricky Moore, who was widely regarded by analysts as the best defensive player in the entire tournament, instead of giving the ball to the point guard Avery. Langdon ended up traveling to give the ball up, then was given the ball again for a 3-point attempt, but tripped and lost control of the ball as time expired. That’s right, after the travel, Coach K continued to ignore the incredible young talent around him in favor of one senior, and it cost Duke everything.
The 1999 team is not the only example of Krzyzewski relying far too much on his seniors. This trend has been evident by the number of top high school prospects that transfer from Duke for more playing time. These are unquestionably great players, but they are forced to leave simply because Coach K will overplay upperclassmen and leave the freshmen buried. Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones are recent cases of this, and their inflated playing time has forced Duke to lose a great deal of talent. Michael Gbinije, Semi Ojeleye and Derryck Thornton all were top high school prospects who came to Duke with a lot of expectations, but were simply never allowed to play. They each left and flourished as key components at their new schools (with the exception of Thornton, who redshirted this season in compliance with NCAA transfer rules), while seniors shooting under 40 percent from the field and getting lost on defense continue to get over 30 minutes a game (looking at you Matt Jones). Meanwhile, this year’s top prospect Harry Giles continues to be in flux after being poorly reintegrated in the Blue Devils’ system following his injury, and top prospects Marques Bolden and Chase Jeter continue to warm the benches. Since returning from injury, Giles has only played 12 minutes a game.
While foul trouble and getting into game speed has been a factor, the fact that a top talent such as Giles struggles to get on the floor while Jones continues to play 30-plus minutes unabated makes it no surprise that the 2016-2017 Duke team has fallen far below expectations with all of its great talent.
This was no more clear than in Duke’s final regular season matchup with the University of North Carolina, where they let a much less talented team lead by a hot-handed Joel Berry, beat them. Other than a few matchup switches, Coach K made no schematic defensive adjustments all game. Duke continued to go under screens, they continued to hedge too hard which resulted in the 180-pound Duke guards being constantly switched into defending Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, who weigh 230 and 260, respectively.
Any fan who was watching the game could see that the Tar Heels were looking to take advantage of these switches, but Coach K did not make any kind of adjustments to stop them. As for Berry himself, who had hit threes from just about everywhere on the court, there was no adjustment for defending him either. Looking at the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers outlined the parameters for containing a great shooter. Contact off the ball to make him uncomfortable as possible was key, but Coach K couldn’t even bother to tell his players to go over screens on Berry much less to disrupt his movement off the ball. This lack of ability to adjust has made it difficult for me to trust in Coach K anymore, and is enough for me to believe that he is an overrated in-game coach.