It’s common practice for fans to question the strategy implemented by their team’s coach. For Duke fans this isn’t easy. After all, Mike Krzyzewski has won four national championships at Duke and four gold medals with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Still, Duke fans are fans at heart and, as such, are prone to bouts of fury at the coaching decisions opted for by one of the greatest coaches of all time. This season in particular drew a great deal of ire from Blue Devil supporters.
Duke entered the season will all sorts of hype. The combination of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood was thought to be a duo that would lead Duke to unparalleled heights in the college ranks. Returning players such as Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson would play complementary roles. In total, the Blue Devils had a talent level that appeared to place them among the country’s most elite teams.
Once the season started, however, it was clear that minor soft spots in what appeared to be Duke’s nearly impenetrable armor were much more problematic than anticipated.
Though talented, the Blue Devils were inexperienced. Parker was a freshman and Hood, though he had the benefit of a year practicing with Duke, only had one season of playing experience. Meanwhile, Sulaimon appeared to go through a sophomore slump, and fellow sophomore Amile Jefferson showed improvement but, as of yet, is nowhere near the level of a team leader.
Duke’s most experienced players were junior Quinn Cook and seniors Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston. Cook’s inconsistent play made him problematic in terms of on-the-court leadership. Thornton and Hairston provided solid senior leadership off the court, but during games they simply lacked the skills to take over and steady the ship offensively or defensively.
Duke’s roster makeup also posed a challenge. While the team was replete with wing players who could slash to the basket, there were only two true point guards and limited options for inside post players. As a result, the Blue Devils struggled in both half-court offense and half-court defense.
The bottom line is that Duke was not nearly as invincible as the preseason projections often made it out to be.
In fact, the issues of inexperience and roster makeup presented Coach K with serious difficulties that he would have to scheme around. Even though the season didn’t end with any regular-season or postseason titles, Duke’s overall record shows that Coach K was able to cobble together enough of an answer to these problems to avoid an embarrassing level of underachievement.
For starters, the Blue Devils did improve over the season. This was especially clear at the individual level. Jabari Parker took some time to adjust to ACC opponents, but once he did, he proved he could score against any opponent. Parker had a tendency to float away from the basket instead of using his size and skill inside.
By the end of the season, Parker wasn’t undercutting his own offensive potency by drifting around the perimeter. He became increasing aggressive on offense and as a result became a reliable and versatile scorer.
Similarly, Jefferson went from being a scrawny liability down low to a post player who could actively contribute on both ends of the floor. Without needing plays run for him, Jefferson scrapped his way to 6.5 points per game.
Those points mostly came off offensive rebounds and heady cuts to the basket. Both types of plays showcased Jefferson’s growth as a player and his potential to leave his mark on Duke basketball. Marshall Plumlee also showed signs of being a productive low-post option off the bench.
The overall improvement of Parker, Jefferson and Plumlee helped erase Duke’s nagging issues with rebounding. By the end of the season, Duke was no longer getting routinely dominated on the glass.
Defense was also an issue for Duke all year. The Blue Devils may have never fully solved that problem, but it’s undeniable that they did improve from the total defensive disaster that they were in November.
The improvement of the Duke players and the team as a whole speaks to a job well done by the coaching staff. However, the means by which Coach K managed to achieve these end results is what’s truly impressive.
Despite having a team loaded with star players, Coach K never once gave preference to a player based on off-the-court accolades.
Parker’s defensive issues led to him sitting on the bench at the end of some games. Cook had a hot start to the season, but when things started to fall apart for him, Coach K removed Cook from the starting lineup. Hairston served as a valuable senior leader, but his stature couldn’t overcome his limited play, so he barely got minutes in the second half of the season.
Most importantly, Sulaimon was held out of the Michigan game entirely. Duke won the game without him, a significant accomplishment, and Sulaimon got the message that he needed to step up his play. The rest of the season, Sulaimon played solid defense, kept his composure and provided good penetration. He even ended up as the de facto point guard.
A common complaint among Duke fans is that Coach K sometimes seems too stubborn. While he may never use a zone defense, it has to be said that this season Coach K was incredibly flexible and willing to try new things.
Nine different players started for Duke. Six players averaged more than 20 minutes per game. Four players averaged 9.9 points per game or more. For a couple of games, the Blue Devils subbed off five guys at a time in hockey-style lineup changes.
Coach K was clearly open to any option that might mitigate his team’s weaknesses. Whether he was experimenting with playing time or who the leading scorer should be, Coach K tried every conceivable solution to Duke’s problems.
While the end result was an unsavory first-round loss, it’s evident that, at 67 years old, Coach K will continue to expand his arsenal of coaching tactics and do whatever is necessary to put the team in a position to win. Especially with a team that was so complex in terms of talent, youth and positions, Coach K was as big an asset as ever for the Blue Devils.