Krzyzewski and Boeheim: A rare glimpse of greatness

Saturday's Duke-Syracuse matchups will feature the two winningest coaches in the history of men's Division I basketball.
Saturday's Duke-Syracuse matchups will feature the two winningest coaches in the history of men's Division I basketball.

Plenty of times, I’ve heard people have a conversation that goes something like this:

“When do you think Coach K will retire? Five years? Ten years?”

“After Boeheim retires.”

The point is that Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has 939 career wins and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has 974—if Krzyzewski retired first, it would take less than two years for Boeheim to overtake Krzyzewski and become the sport’s all-time winningest coach.

Krzyzewski is 66. Boeheim is 69. At this point, there’s annual speculation about when Boeheim will retire. In an ACC Digital Network video filmed just before Syracuse joined the ACC last summer, the two joked about their age and why people don’t ask Krzyzewski about it. “He’s way younger than me,” Boeheim teased. “Plus, he’s not even thinking about retiring.”

Nobody knows how long this will last. It could be one, three, five, 10 years or more. But this weekend begins an exciting era for college basketball when Syracuse and Duke tip off at the Carrier Dome, with two of the game’s greatest coaches going against one another as ACC foes for the first time.

"I'm not looking forward to it,” Krzyzewski told The Chronicle in June. “We're real close friends, so you don't like to play against close friends.”

The two coaches have faced each other just twice. The Blue Devils prevailed 80-67 in the 1998 NCAA tournament, and the Orange won 78-76 at a neutral site in 1989, so they have never visited each other’s home courts.

More often, the pair has coached together: Krzyzewski made Boeheim one of his assistants when he took the reins as the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Together, they won gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games in Beijing and London.

"Your style changes given your personnel,” Krzyzewski said. “I don't run the same system every year, so it's more you're coaching against his kids, he's coaching against mine. The thing we know about when we're together with USA Basketball is that we can depend on one another for instant truth and a good understanding of what's going on."

Krzyzewski and Boeheim have found success with different coaching styles. Boeheim’s Orange teams are always noted for their stingy 2-3 zone defense. Krzyzewski rarely plays anything other than man-to-man.

In their video, Boeheim and Krzyzewski had a laugh over whether Boeheim ever suggested that Team USA implement the zone.

“Once and it won a game,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a good call though. It was Spain in Madrid.”

“I mean, they had scored 10 straight times so it couldn’t have been any worse,” Boeheim added.

This week Boeheim spoke to their relationship, saying they first met a long time ago at a celebrity golf tournament. They have grown closer coaching together, he said, and their families—wives, kids and grandkids—all get along well.

They have learned from each other, too.

“He’s got so many strengths in coaching,” Boeheim said. “He’s got unbelievable organization and motivational skills.”

And when people compare conferences, Krzyzewski and Boeheim are the reasons why the ACC’s success will endure from year to year, more than any other league. No conference has better coaches.

There’s already Krzyzewski and Boeheim, Roy Williams and Jim Larranaga, not to mention younger ones in Tony Bennett and Jamie Dixon. Next year, Louisville’s Rick Pitino only adds to the cachet.

"You have four Hall of Fame coaches,” Krzyzewski said of the ACC when Pitino's Cardinals join the conference July 1. “You have four coaches who have won national championships. No conference has that.”

Who knows what Saturday’s game will look like with such contrasting styles. With 81.5 points per game, Duke’s offense is ranked as the second most efficient in the nation by basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy. The stingy Syracuse defense gives up only 57.8 points per game, sixth fewest nationally. The Orange’s 2-3 zone forces 15.0 turnovers per game. The Blue Devils rarely cough it up, turning the ball over only 9.6 times per game. Even if Duke doesn’t run the floor at a blazing place, the offense can push the ball. Syracuse ranks in the bottom 10—in all of Division I—in adjusted tempo. It’s zone versus man. Man versus zone. Something’s gotta give.

The only guarantee is that it will be an absolute pleasure watching two of the game’s greatest go at it. The last time that comes to mind when two of the game’s greatest competed in conference play is when Krzyzewski and Dean Smith shared Tobacco Road.

Enjoy it, no matter how long it lasts.

Daniel Carp contributed reporting.


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