Duke Basketball: Ranking Coach K's 5 Most Impressive Seasons

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2015

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame's in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. Duke won 90-60. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Associated Press

Few institutions in all of American sports inspire the type of pure hatred and disdain as the Duke basketball program. 

Somehow in that acrimonious environment, the leader of the Blue Devils not only inspired begrudging respect but admiration along the way. That may be an even bigger testament to Mike Krzyzewski’s greatness than the pure numbers and accolades.

That’s not to say the numbers aren’t still incredible.

He became the first NCAA Division I men’s coach to reach 1,000 career wins earlier this season, he has multiple Olympic gold medals to his name, there are four national championship banners hanging in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium from his tenure and he made 11 Final Fours.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

For context, those 11 Final Fours are more than every single program in college basketball history except North Carolina, UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State and, naturally, Duke.

While the entirety of Krzyzewski’s career is tremendous, there are a few individual seasons that stand out above the others. Here is a crack at ranking the five most impressive seasons in Coach K’s illustrious tenure at Duke.

Factors such as wins, championships and individual player success were all considered, but taking home the national title was the ultimate trump card. The 1998-99 Duke team with National Player of the Year Elton Brand was deemed an honorable mention. 

No. 5: 1985-86

Ron Helfin/Associated Press

The 1985-86 Duke team gets the nod over the 1998-99 team as the top squad that fell just short of the national championship because of what it meant for Krzyzewski’s career. He was struggling to establish himself as a consistent winner at Duke, and there were some concerns about his long-term ability to win.

Former player and current ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas discussed the climate, via Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports:

Durham was not a pleasant place to be in 1983. There was a lot of discontentment around the program, and it was vocal. Heck, there was a petition circling around calling for Mike to be fired. I saw it. One of the Iron Dukes showed it to me, which I thought was kind of a classless move. But there were a lot of people who were really unhappy.

That all changed with the players on this team who came into Duke at that turbulent time and then dominated as upperclassmen. While the Blue Devils ultimately lost in the 1986 national title game to Louisville, they finished with 37 wins, which is still tied for the most in a single season in Krzyzewski’s tenure and set the stage for what was to come.

Duke finished in first place in the ACC in the regular season and then went on to win the ACC tournament with a thrilling one-point victory over Georgia Tech. It also beat a dominant Kansas squad in the Final Four that was led by all-time college great Danny Manning. 

The threesome of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and David Henderson were scoring machines who all shot better than 50 percent from the field and scored in double figures (led by Dawkins’ 19.3 points per game).

No. 4: 1990-91

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

The 1990-91 team lost the most games of any Krzyzewski national title squad when it finished at 32-7.

However, it still ended the regular season in first place in the ACC standings, but it actually lost in the conference tournament by a stunning 22 points to archrival North Carolina. That didn’t exactly inspire much confidence moving into the Big Dance.

If it was not for an incredible hot streak in the NCAA tournament, this Blue Devils squad wouldn’t necessarily be remembered in program history as a special unit.

The Blue Devils became a collective freight train in March Madness and racked up a 29-point win over Louisiana-Monroe, 15-point win over Iowa, 14-point win over Connecticut and 17-point win over St. John’s.

Anonymous/Associated Press

The crowning moment of the season came with a narrow two-point victory in the Final Four over a UNLV squad that started the year No. 1, finished the regular season No. 1 and boasted the National Player of the Year in Larry Johnson. The seven-point win in the championship over Kansas felt like a formality after the Final Four vanquishing of UNLV.

Christian Laettner led the way for this team with 19.5 points per game.

No. 3: 2009-10

Ironically, the 2009-10 national championship-winning team will likely always be remembered by college basketball fans at large as the group that survived a scare from Butler when Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave just rimmed out at the buzzer.

That would be selling these Blue Devils short as a group that went 35-5, finished atop the ACC regular-season standings and won the ACC tournament. 

As great teams often do, this Duke squad played its best basketball when it mattered most and destroyed archrival North Carolina by a whopping 32 points in the final regular-season game (much to the delight of the Cameron Crazies), won the ACC crown and then won four of the six NCAA tournament games by double digits, including a 21-point beatdown of West Virginia in the Final Four. 

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24:  Kyle Singler #12 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after a play against the Arizona Wildcats during the west regional semifinal of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Honda Center on March 24, 2011 in Anaheim, California
Harry How/Getty Images

It was a ruthlessly efficient performance that left little doubt who the best team in the country was that season.

Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith may not go down in Duke lore like Grant Hill or Laettner because none of them has experienced a particularly noteworthy NBA career, but they were dominant during the championship run. All three averaged more than 17 points per game and were unstoppable as a combined unit.

No. 2: 2000-01

GRANT HALVERSON/Associated Press

There is very little that the 2000-01 Duke squad didn’t accomplish.

Shane Battier won the National Player of the Year award behind 19.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and got some serious help from future pros Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy along the way. Incredibly, Battier wasn’t even the leading scorer on this Blue Devils team despite his Player of the Year status. That designation went to point guard Jason "Jay" Williams.

Williams averaged 21.6 points per game and ran the show with 6.1 assists a night. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to say Williams was the true MVP that season, which is a testament to how loaded this Duke squad was in 2000-01.

10 Mar 2002: Jason Williams #22 smiles as Carlos Boozer #4  and Mike Dunleavy #22 of Duke observes the ACC Tournament championship game against North Carolina State at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Duke defeated North Carolina State
Craig Jones/Getty Images

It finished atop the ACC regular-season standings and then won the conference tournament with a 26-point demolition of the Tar Heels in the championship game. 

The NCAA tournament almost felt like a formality at that point, and Duke won every single contest by double digits, including a 10-point victory over Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson and the Arizona Wildcats in the national title game.

No. 1: 1991-92

The 1991-92 team grabs the No. 1 spot for a handful of reasons, not the least of which is nostalgia. Laettner’s shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight is still the most famous shot in college basketball history and ended a thrilling 104-103 contest that will forever be remembered.

This team was much more than that one game, though.

Laettner won the National Player of the Year, Duke finished the regular season in first place in the ACC and then won every game in the ACC tournament by double digits, including a 20-point win over North Carolina. 

Incredibly, the Blue Devils were No. 1 in the country in every single Associated Press Poll the entire season and never looked back. Even this year’s best teams are compared to the 1991-92 Blue Devils, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

After shooting 69% Thursday, Gonzaga is shooting 53.3% this season. No team has finished with a FG% that high since 1991-92 Duke (53.6%).

The cherry on top of the dominant performance was a 20-point victory over the Fab Five of Michigan in the national title game. That Wolverines squad may be the most famous college basketball team to never win a title, but the 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils were a force of nature that wouldn’t stop until it won the national championship.

*Stats and information is courtesy of Sports-Reference.com/cbb.

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