Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 500th career victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium was a bit different than all of the others.
After missing seven games while recovering from lower-back surgery, Krzyzewski had to reacclimate to his usual position on the bench with the same players who had been battling without him for a month.
One had to wonder whether the 69-year old would be limited in any way as his team navigates the back half of its ACC schedule.
But despite still wearing a back brace, Krzyzewski was fully active, jumping up off the bench and moving normally during the Blue Devils' 72-64 victory Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh. Sometimes he was cheering, other times he was prodding his embattled team as it struggled to pull away from a feisty Panther squad.
And the emotional impact on his players mired in a sluggish performance was a reminder that Duke finally has its full complement of players and coaches healthy.
“His energy, his fight—it was the best I’ve seen him in a while and it was big for us," junior Grayson Allen said. "[Associate head coach Jeff] Capel and the staff did a great job. They made sure the program stayed up while Coach was gone, but having Coach back and having his face and energy on the sideline was great.”
In a season filled with adversity from day one—from Allen’s tripping suspension to six of the team's current eight rotation players missing games due to injury—Krzyzewski's return was a welcome sign for Duke. But the five-time national champion also managed to influence the team even when he was not available as much in person.
In addition to watching practice and helping with game preparation, Krzyzewski made national headlines by banning the Blue Devils from the locker room and saying they could not wear program apparel following their ugly 84-82 home loss to N.C. State Jan. 23.
Now with Duke on its first three-game ACC winning streak of the year, Krzyzewski further elaborated on the decision Saturday.
“Before they ever went to Wake Forest [Jan. 28], they were back in the locker room, they had their uniforms,” Krzyzewski said. “It wasn’t about punishment. It was getting rid of bad habits.”
Coming off the Blue Devils' first two road wins of the year, Krzyzewski was back leading practice as usual leading up to Saturday's contest. In what has been one of his toughest coaching jobs, Krzyzewski and his staff have tried to solve the team's defensive inconsistencies that led to three losses in four games just a few weeks ago.
“The two single biggest things to develop something good are preparation and continuity, and this group has been denied a lot of preparation and continuity—bottom line,” Krzyzewski said.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Duke's defense has improved considerably since Krzyzewski's reprimand, including Saturday, when the Blue Devils held the Panthers scoreless for at least five minutes in each half and forced 13 turnovers.
Although Duke was still prone to some mental lapses and gave up 40 points in the paint—it has been among the nation's worst in paint points surrendered per contest this year—it buckled down late in the game once again.
"He hadn’t been around in a while, so at first it was a little different hearing him cuss you out for the first time," freshman Harry Giles said. "You could tell it was like a different energy. He always brings energy, but it was different because he was back. He was rejuvenated and just ready to go."
Many of Pittsburgh's buckets inside came courtesy of the league's top two scorers—Jamel Artis and Michael Young. Young frequently took advantage of his quickness and size advantage when the Blue Devils switched, decimating the home team in the paint to keep the Panthers in the game.
Duke's frontcourt rotation also seems to still be a bit of a conundrum, to say the least.
Jefferson was the only big man on the court for essentially the entire second half, as Giles and classmate Marques Bolden have seen their opportunities disappear recently. Despite scoring five quick points in seven minutes and showing improved explosiveness, Giles did not play after halftime.
So although Krzyzewski is grateful to be back, his job won't get any easier.
The Blue Devils host Tobacco Road rival North Carolina Thursday, and will see if their recent progress can stack up with the best rebounding team in the nation. The Tar Heels almost always play two traditional big men and gather more than 16 second-chance opportunities per game.
Duke has likely not seen its last adversity of 2016-17—senior Matt Jones was a game-time decision Saturday after suffering an injury in practice earlier this week and was limited to one point in 14 minutes.
But with their head coach back in full form, the Blue Devils somehow still have a chance to reach their preseason goals.
"Whatever happened with my team [before the Wake Forest game] is the start of a process and it’s called team building,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re a good team. We want to become better.”