DURHAM – For most of his three-plus decades at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski has coached without a true center.
He’s had “stretch fours” such as Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner playing in the middle and natural power forwards such as Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer and Shelden Williams at center. Brian Zoubek, who was a classic center, did start for the last month of the 2010 season and he did help Duke claim a national championship.
Even the two oldest Plumlee brothers, who got most of the starts at center over the last few years, were more face-the-basket big men than classic back-to-the-basket centers.
It got to the point where the perception that Coach K didn’t want or couldn’t use a traditional big man in his system. Mitch McGary, one of the best big men in the Class of 2012 – and a player Krzyzewski did want very much – talked about the negative perception of Duke’s approach to the pivot when he was making up his mind.
The Blue Devils are playing this season – as usual – without a true center. Freshman Jabari Parker is the team’s most effective post presence, and he’s naturally a stretch four and may eventually be a small forward in the NBA. Sophomore Amile Jefferson also sees major minutes in the post, and he’s a painfully slender 6-8 forward. Marshall Plumlee, the only true center on the roster, averages less than eight minutes a game.
That’s going to change next season when Jahlil Okafor, the top center (and top player) in the prep Class of 2014 joins the Blue Devils. The 6-10, 265-pound Chicago native is a true center in every sense of the word. He’s expected to be the most gifted Duke “center” since Mike Gminski played in the late 1970s.
The only problem is that Okafor is very likely a one-and-done player at Duke. As long as he stays healthy, Okafor fills the center void for Duke in 2014-15, but what about the next season when he’s gone to the NBA?
That seems a long way off, but to maintain a program as consistent as Duke’s under Krzyzewski, a coach has to plan far ahead – especially when relying on one-and-done talent.
The Duke coach has already started surveying the big man talent for the Class of 2015.
His first offer (to a big man) was to Chase Jeter, a slender 6-9 forward from Las Vegas. Jeter, who physically resembles Jefferson, will visit Duke for the UNC game on March 8.
But Jeter is not a center, and the Blue Devil coach is pursuing several true centers in the Class of 2015, although he has not yet offered any. Duke is in the hunt for 6-10 Diamond Stone of Milwaukee, who is generally rated the best big man in the class. It’s going to be a tough battle – Stone is also being targeted by Kentucky, Arizona, UNC, Florida and a host of Big Ten schools.
If Stone makes an early decision, it probably won’t be to Duke. However, Stone has a good relationship with Okafor, and that could help the Devils if (1) Stone waits to see how his friend is used at Duke and (2) if Okafor has a successful season in Krzyzewski’s system.
Beyond Stone, the best top-rated center target for the Blue Devils could be 6-10 Skal Labissiere, a raw but talented native of Haiti who is currently playing for a prep school in Memphis. He’s also being pursued by a host of national powers – Kansas, Kentucky and Memphis have already offered.
How important is it that Duke lands one of the top centers in the Class of 2015?
It’s important, but barring any unexpected developments, Duke will have a senior Jefferson and a fifth-year senior Plumlee available to Krzyzewski in 2015-16, so there will be options – although, if it comes to that, it will probably be back to small ball for the Blue Devils.
A Final Four Weekend
The postponement of Duke’s Feb. 12 trip to North Carolina created an incredible schedule crunch for the Blue Devils later in the month. Starting with Maryland’s visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 15, Duke had to play five games in 11 days.
At the heart of that stretch were two killer games in 48 hours – at UNC on Thursday night, followed by a visit from No. 1 Syracuse on Saturday night.
Andre Dawkins, the last Duke player with Final Four experience, said UNC-Syracuse scenario had a Final Four feel.
“It’s basically the same set up,” Dawkins told ESPN. “It’s going to be a quick turnaround, we just got to be ready for it. I think it gives us good preparation for the tournament because that’s how the tournament is set up.”
Well, maybe … but Duke lost its Thursday night game at UNC, and if it was really a Final Four situation, the Saturday night rematch with Syracuse would have never been played.
Instead, the two instant rivals produced another classic game – although a very different classic than the first meeting in the Carrier Dome.
“This was a different game – it was an all offense game in Syracuse and pretty much an all defensive game here,” Orange coach Jim Boeheim said after his team’s 66-60 loss in Cameron.
But the two games did have one thing in common – both were decided by controversial officiating decisions – and both calls involved Duke’s Rodney Hood.
In Syracuse, Duke was down one with just over 10 seconds left in overtime when Hood drove for what would have been the go-ahead dunk. Instead, his arm was raked by Jerami Grant and he missed. Krzyzewski was outraged that no foul was called.
This time, the Orange was down two with just over 10 seconds left, when C.J. Fair slashed to the basket. He scored what would have been the game-tying basket just as he collided with Hood. Boeheim expected to get the “and-one” – a chance to take the lead after Hood was called for the block. Instead, ref Tony Greene whistled Fair for the charging foul, negating the game-tying shot. Boeheim went ballistic, drawing two technical fouls and an ejection.
“I thought that was the worst call of the year,” Boeheim said.
Krzyzewski thought Greene made the right call, but he was more interested in highlighting Hood’s role.
“The basketball gods are the best,” the Duke coach said. “They put Rodney in the two defining plays – the dunk, which was maybe a foul up there, and the charge, which I think was a charge.”
Duke needed the strong showing against Syracuse to erase the sour taste of a nightmarish second half against North Carolina. Krzyzewski thought the stretch of tough games (which also included a thrilling win over Maryland and an easy victory over Georgia Tech) will get his team ready for postseason.
“To me, it’s great preparation for the tournament,” he said. “Because, if you are fortunate, you may win an epic game, like that type of game.”
He pointed to his first national championship team, which bounced back to beat Kansas 48 hours after upsetting No. 1 UNLV in the semifinals.
“To me, that was our greatest national championship because we had to overcome an epic game,” Krzyzewski said. “You’ve got to get past those things if you’re going to win.”