Many sportswriters across the country have made the argument that this has been head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s best coaching year ever. But given his gaudy résumé, which is in the company of only a select few coaches in history and filled with national championships and conference titles, how can a season which ends in a disappointing loss in the Sweet 16 be Krzyzewski’s best year ever?
To begin to understand why this year has been so impressive, you have to start with the summer of 2004. Duke’s most talented player, Luol Deng, and its most skilled recruit, Shaun Livingston, declared for the NBA draft, leaving gaping holes on the roster, especially in the frontcourt. Even the consequences of forward Michael Thompson’s departure to Northwestern the previous season were looming larger and larger as Duke had a team with only two players—Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph—who could play inside.
Plus, there was this soap-opera incident with the Los Angeles Lakers. Krzyzewski turned down a mega-million dollar deal just to stay in Durham, but admitted to being intrigued by the offer presented by Jerry Bus, the owner of the Lakers. In the 90s, Krzyzewski said he would never even consider an offer from the NBA or another school because he was so happy at Duke, but that sentiment obviously changed.
But Krzyzewski had a plan for the season. First, after assuring his team and every Duke basketball fan that he was committed to staying in Durham, he began to tackle the problem of depth the only way possible: conditioning. Krzyzewski converted his big time players into 40-minute players. J.J. Redick was notorious for getting out of shape during off-seasons and then forcing himself back into shape once basketball season rolled around. But this year, Krzyzewski forced him and Williams, Randolph and Daniel Ewing to be able to play a full game without tiring.
The next thing Krzyzewski did was develop some of his players who had been marginal role players the previous season. Sean Dockery turned from a player who could only help the team on defense or in transition to an accurate jump shooter who defenses could not leave alone. Lee Melchionni stepped out of the shadows to become a very dangerous offensive threat and even ended up carrying the Blue Devil offense to some very big wins throughout the season.
Krzyzewski also had to deal with multiple injuries to key players on the team. Randolph, Dockery and DeMarcus Nelson all had to miss significant time. Krzyzewski turned to former wide-receiver Reggie Love, senior Patrick Johnson and even to Deng’s high school teammate Patrick Davidson for productive minutes.
The fact is, this team was just not loaded with talent like Duke squads in the past—but Krzyzewski did an amazing job getting full mileage from every part that he had. The list of this team’s accomplishments isn’t mind-blowing (ACC Tournament Champions, No. 3 in the final AP poll), but it could’ve been a lot worse.
After the loss in the Sweet 16 to the Spartans, Krzyzewski put the season into perspective: “It’s been a tremendous season. I’ve loved my team. You either want the season to end in jubilation or crying. That emotion will show if you’ve actually had a great season. There’s a lot of crying in that lockerroom.”
The NCAA Tournament was very disappointing, but Krzyzewski and his players have very little to hang their heads about.
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