Time for Duke Blue Devils To Evolve?

Jonathon AustinContributor IMarch 3, 2010

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 17:  Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils watches the action during the game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on January 17, 2010 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Mike Krzyzewski has amassed over 800 victories at the collegiate level; three of those have secured national championships. An Olympic gold medal in 2008 has further cemented his place among the greatest coaches of all time, be it at any level. But perhaps his most remarkable achievement, his most enduring legacy is his role as chief engineer of the transformation of Duke basketball. 

The intense level of Krzyzewski’s commitment to basketball at Duke was affirmed in 2004 when he turned aside a behemoth $40 million contract to assume head coaching responsibilities for the storied Los Angeles Lakers. The scope of his contributions to basketball at Duke and nationally are in many ways beyond description.

Recent years have seen Duke squads flounder in the NCAA tournament. In fact no Duke squad since the 2003/2004 season has advanced past the Sweet 16. Krzyzewski for his part has maximized returns on these largely marginal squads. But along the way he has made some dubious recruiting choices and coaching decisions

Each and every year Coach K lures an impressive crop of talented high school graduates, many of the All Americans to don the Duke Blue and white. But each and every year it seems the essential pieces needed to assemble a national contender are lacking. One needs look no further than this year’s edition of Blue Devil basketball. Superficially, they would appear quality No. 1 or 2 seed. Close examination would suggest otherwise.

Among Duke’s most glaring deficiencies is their current reliance on perimeter shooting limits their chances of making a deep run in this year’s NCAA tournament. The past few seasons Krzyzewski has seemed quite content to give his players the green light from outside, even at inadvisable time.

The “live by the three, die by the three” philosophy has become a staple of Duke’s offense recently. When their shots fall, they can be tough to play against. But this year’s team, like all Duke team’s of the past few years can best be summed in a single, albeit hyphenated word: one-dimensional.

The departure of Sheldon Williams in 2006 forced Krzyzewski to find a new cornerstone for his front three. Josh McRoberts figured to be a surefire fix. While he boasted tremendous length and athleticism his lack of physicality and limited number of true post moves rendered him largely ineffective. The gangly and awkward Brian Zoubek hasn’t fared much better.

Duke’s perennial lack of inside presence has forced them to play a highly structured motion offense relying on outside screens, cuts, and spreading the court to generate open outside looks. This approach is easily defended by an athletic and committed opposing defense.

Duke’s second major deficiency is their lack of athleticism. I am not sure whether to attribute this to major recruiting trends or the coaching philosophy of Coach K. Gerald Henderson is the only Duke player in recent memory to show flashes of superior athletic ability.

This is somewhat perplexing considering players like Nolan Smith and Elliot Williams (transfer to Memphis) were also regarded as electric athletes when initially recruited. It seems that, perhaps as a method effort to indoctrinate players into his system of offense, Coach K forces his players to tone down their games, emphasizing a complete team game over dynamic playmaking ability.

After leaving Duke for Memphis, Williams has emerged on the national stage, with many projecting him to be chosen in this years NBA draft. He has excelled under the tutelage of Josh Pastner who has adopted the freelance offensive approach introduced by John Calipari.

Coach K seems both reluctant to recruit dynamic athletes and to let dynamic athletes play a raw, one-on-one style of basketball. This has proved to be a questionable strategy. His decision not to let his players free-wheel, has made the Duke offense, predictable, occasionally boring and ineffectual when it matters most.

Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure at Duke is not likely coming to an end anytime soon. This year’s team is a near lock to win the ACC, and they are likely to enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 or 2 seed. Rest assured though very few experts will have them advancing very far in their projected brackets. As a Duke fan, I can only hope for better

Mike Krzyzewski may be a living legend, but that does grant him immunity from criticism, nor does that mean fans should not objectively assess his recruiting and coaching decisions. He has shown limited ability evolve to a rapidly changing game at the collegiate level.

The subtle transition to free-flowing offenses, where dribble penetration and inside-outside ball movement are used to generate offense appears to have been wholly overlooked by Coach K who seems insistent on often sapping fluidity from the game and robbing his players of creative license. At the same time he has not had the personnel to do so.

Coach K deserves every bit of respect he gets nationally but perhaps the time has come for him to mix up his game. Tiger Woods has changed his swing. Peyton Manning has altered his release before. Sometimes a little change isn’t a bad thing.