Entering the college basketball stage is a tough task for any player. But add on the final season of your legendary coach’s career, and now you are playing with fire.
It is becoming increasingly clear that this season becoming the capstone of head coach Mike Krzyzewski's career has placed an added pressure on his team to win. And given the severity of this season and everything that's at stake, I believe the team should be facing more pressure to succeed.
Krzyzewski has nearly reached the end of his stellar 46-year career, but he is taking one last trip around the sun in the spotlight before he officially calls it quits. The news of possibly the greatest coach of all time retiring did not go unnoticed by the nation, but with a full year ahead for the Blue Devils, expectations are riding high, and with good reason.
After a disappointing season last year, Duke fell somewhat out of mind for those debating the powerhouses of college basketball. But with Krzyzewski’s sudden news, all focus turned to the Blue Devils.
How would Krzyzewski be sent off? A Cinderella story ending with the elusive sixth ring finding its way onto his hand? A stunning loss in the NCAA tournament like the 2018-19 season? Or a second straight year of not even dancing come March?
This truly has become the season of big questions and this Duke squad is finding itself at the heart of them all.
The undeniable truth is that all eyes are on the Blue Devils this season. No matter how highly they rank or how low they fall, they will constantly be the subject of talk shows and radio programs. That stuff is great if you’re doing well, but can be detrimental if you stumble at all.
Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels, AJ Griffin and Jaylen Blakes are all extremely talented basketball players, there’s no denying that, but they’re also all just 18-year-old freshmen who are trying to grow up.
Even the older guys on the team are subject to the pressure. None of them have played in front of fans for at least two years and as much as Duke fans would like to picture them as superheroes, they’re still just college athletes.
Facing the media can be one of the hardest adjustments when entering the collegiate basketball scene. The flashing lights, difficult questions and publication of every word you say can make focusing on the game a challenge. I don’t underestimate the rookies’—or the veterans’—abilities to field questions from the media, but when every other reporter asks about your coach retiring and what that means for this season, it can become overwhelming.
All the pressure Duke is already facing just by being on this stage is instantly multiplied when there is an expectation to perform. Of course the Blue Devils all want to win, but now they need to win. And if you think that message hasn’t infiltrated the locker room, you’re dead wrong.
This season-long retirement party has the world waiting for the Blue Devils to fail. If they don’t win the ACC, that’s a failure. If they don’t win the ACC tournament, that’s a failure. If they don’t make the NCAA tournament, that’s a failure. If they don’t win the whole thing, in some eyes, that’s a failure.
I understand that Krzyzewski’s legacy is already protected. No amount of “failure” this season could tarnish the career that he is capping off—this season is just an attempt to put the cherry on top. But at this point, it’s about more than legacy. It’s about all the eyes that are falling upon the Blue Devils and the taste that’s left in the mouth of Duke fans as they wish their beloved coach a farewell.
I’m not saying that Krzyzewski doesn’t deserve the attention, nor am I saying that his players will collapse under the pressure. I am simply pointing out the obvious extent to which weight needs to be placed on the shoulders of each and every Blue Devil.
The increased attention will follow Duke for as long as it is still playing basketball this year. Just check out this Jason Jordan line from Sports Illustrated’s ACC season preview:
“Try as it might, Duke won’t be able to escape the 'win it for K' storyline this season, but Krzyzewski will have to live up to the GOAT moniker if he’s going to end his career with a sixth national title.”
Thus far, the players have done an excellent job responding to the hounding of Coach-K-last-year questions. There has been a consistent theme of treating this as just any other year. And that’s exactly how you’d want it as one of the players, but unfortunately, it is impossible to block out the pressure.
How the team deals with the gravity of this season is up to them, but one thing is sure, it will be feeling it all year long.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
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