In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes of all time, "The Maestro," George wonders why a clothing store security guard should spend all day on his feet.
"I can sense the slightest human suffering," George tells Jerry.
"Are you sensing anything right now?" Jerry asks.
George replies: "Let me just say this. It is inhumane to make a man stand on his feet in one spot for eight hours a day. Why shouldn't he have a chair?"
For three years at Duke basketball games, I felt like George Costanza. Why, I wondered, did the managers have to wear suits to games when they spent a good deal of time on their hands and knees wiping up sweat?
I had always wanted to write a column pleading for more comfortable uniforms for the managers, just like how George hatches a plan to bring the guard a rocking chair.
But a funny thing happened when this season began. The managers' uniforms were different; their suits replaced with polo shirts and slacks.
In the Seinfeld episode, the rocking chair George brings for the security guard ends up resulting in the guard falling asleep while the store is held up in an armed robbery. That's where the analogy ends (that is, unless the managers get too comfortable and allow the opposing team to steal the black bag in which they carry the team's shooting shirts).
Cosmetic changes, like the managers' new getups, and real ones, like Duke's newfound commitment to a running game and zone defense, have transformed the Blue Devils' appearance from last season, the program's worst in a decade. A month ago, a columnist in this newspaper (Okay, it was me), wrote, "Whether Coach K admits it publicly or not, his program is currently in a bit of a valley. On the court and on the recruiting trail, the Duke brand has lost some of its value."
While I stand by my message that last season's early exit hurt the program's image and was cause for concern, let's give credit where credit is due. From the exhibition games and the first two regular season contests, it appears as if Mike Krzyzewski and his staff have done an excellent job of adjusting and updating their strategies to give this year's team a chance to blow away preseason expectations.
The changes have been written about before, but their significance bears repeating. This year's Blue Devils are running and even employing the ultimate strategic sacrilege of the Coach K era: zone defense.
Some of it is surely driven by changes in personnel. After gaining three impact players in this year's freshman class while only losing one in Josh McRoberts-whose departure is looking more like a net positive--depth is an obvious byproduct. The arrival of Nolan Smith has allowed Krzyzewski to reduce Greg Paulus' minutes, providing Duke at all times with a fresh body at point guard to push the ball up the floor. Since Chris Duhon left in 2004, Duke has struggled pushing the tempo without the necessary backcourt depth.
Beyond a different roster makeup, the time Krzyzewski spent this summer with Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni appears to be paying dividends with Duke's fastbreak.
Personnel changes alone also do not explain the other big change Duke fans have seen this year, the zone defense. In fact, it might have made even more sense to utilize a defense that better rests its players when the team was using the six-man rotation that it has for much of the past three seasons. The Blue Devils watched as deeper, more athletic teams found enough flaws in the vaunted Duke man-to-man defense to pull away late and win.
Coach K has taken his experience at USA Basketball this summer and used it toward positively affecting the 2007-08 Blue Devils.
After the blowout win over N.C. Central Krzyzewski credited Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, with whom Coach K worked over the summer, with helping the Blue Devils' coach implement the 2-3 matchup zone. Most Duke fans can probably count the number of times they remember Krzyzewski's teams playing zone defense in the past 27 years on both hands, regardless of the roster's makeup.
This year, however, the fans have gotten what they've been pining for. It's been only two games so far, but it's been a while since Duke has been scoring at this pace or winning by this much at this stage in the season.
After last season, Krzyzewski told reporters he would take the summer to re-evaluate his program going forward. Judging by the early season results, mission accomplished-on everything from the managers' outfits to the offensive and defensive strategy.
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