By Bill Brill,
USBWA Hall Of Fame
April 7, 2003 DURHAM If there were a word that could be applied to the Duke basketball program, stable would be as good as any. For the second time in four years, the Blue Devils faced a season without three players who had left early for the NBA. That's never happened to anybody else, ever.
But Duke did not fall apart. Even with a majority of the squad being freshmen and with the veterans all having to assume different roles, the Blue Devils won their unprecedented fifth consecutive ACC championship and reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight time. No other school in the nation has such a streak.
Duke remains the top program in the nation and one that is quite likely to remain that way as long as Mike Krzyzewski remains the coach.
As far as the 56-year-old Hall of Famer is concerned, he can remain ensconced in his sixth-floor tower as long as he wishes. He has a lifetime contract. He has become, over the years, the university's greatest asset. His next challenge may not come until June 2004, when president Nan Keohane steps down.
When Keohane arrived at Duke from Wellesley in 1993, she had no way of understanding Krzyzewski's value. In fact, she didn't know anything about high-profile college sports. After a somewhat rocky beginning, Keohane became a huge Coach K fan and a terrific supporter of Duke basketball. The next president almost certainly will learn the same lesson quickly.
Krzyzewski's imprint is everywhere, from the Coach K lab to his continuing support of the Duke Children's Miracle Network telethon, the Jimmy V Foundation, the Duke Children's Classic and the NABC Foundation. He has been involved with the community Duke/Durham Neighborhood Partnership and the Emily K Center, named after his mother. He received Duke's highest honor, the Medal of Honor, at the University Founder's Day Convocation in 1997.
He is, to put it mildly, No. 1 at Duke, which is something some academics have needed to accept.
Nobody knows how long the fire to succeed will burn in Krzyzewski. He has been at Duke for 23 years (590-175) and won 663 games overall. There have been three national championships, seven title games and nine Final Fours. In a sport with increasing volatility, his program has avoided almost all of the pitfalls.
His staff of three former Duke guards has proved to be excellent, and although rumors about head coaching opportunities for Johnny Dawkins (39), Chris Collins (28) and Steve Wojciechowski (26) abound, all are likely to return next season.
Duke's recruiting is virtually unparalleled. When the Blue Devils lost their first-ever players to the NBA in 1999 (sophomores Elton Brand and William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette), the program suffered only slightly. The Blue Devils finished 29-5 and 15-1 in the ACC and won the league tournament while advancing to the Sweet 16. The incoming freshman class had been rated the best in the nation. All except Carlos Boozer had signed in November, when none of the recruits expected that anybody would defect early.
When Duke lost Jason Williams and Boozer (expectedly) and Mike Dunleavy (unexpectedly) last spring, they were replaced by the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. Duke went after six players and got every one of them, including four McDonald's All-Americans. Shooting guard J.J. Redick and big man Shelden Williams performed particularly well as rookies in 2002-03. They'll return as key figures in a talented young nucleus in Durham, at least for the next two years.
Next year's class will include potential superstar Luol Deng and Kris Humphries, both McDonald's All-Americans. California guard DeMarcus Nelson, who committed to Duke after his sophomore season, will arrive in Durham in 2004. Potential talent is not going to be a problem.
Although resentment of the Duke program has increased nationwide the Blue Devils were widely booed during an NCAA game in Salt Lake City there is more indication that people are tired of them than anything else. Virtually every game is on television. Announcers, notably Dick Vitale, have been accused of gushing about the program. When you win all the time, you are going to attract detractors.
Because Duke is able to identify the kind of players Krzyzewski wants early in their careers, most controversy is avoided. Players can communicate and graduate. Several of the current crop of freshmen are superior students.
Duke is known for a fast-paced offense that is not structured and, as was the case too often this season, that often results in a lot of perimeter shots. It is rare that the Blue Devils have had a strong rebounding team, although the possibility exists in the future with five players 6-9 or taller scheduled to be on next year's squad.
It is indicative of the presence of Duke on the national basketball scene that the Kansas game, which ended the 2002-03 season, marked only the second time the team had been an underdog all year. There have been numerous occasions when the Blue Devils have been overrated, but primarily because they historically never have been underrated ever since Krzyzewski established his program with a 37-win season in 1986.
Very little changes, although Duke is perhaps the most reactive of all schools to the constant change that exists in the sport.
After Coach K, rehabilitating at home following the first of two hip replacements, was blindsided by the unexpected departures of Avery and Maggette, he became proactive instead of reactive. By 2002, two-time national player of the year Jason Williams was able to graduate in just three years, and Boozer was within four classes of the same accomplishment.
Seeking an early start for this youthful team, described by its coach as totally lacking in any reference point, the Duke staff discovered a loophole in NCAA rules that permitted a trip to London in October during fall break for four games and one scrimmage against European pro teams. That enabled the Blue Devils to begin practicing in late September.
Krzyzewski has been a constant voice for his sport. He would like to see a sports-specific body pay constant attention to basketball. He suggests ways in which the NCAA Tournament could be tweaked that would benefit the student-athletes.
Vermont had never been (to the NCAA Tournament) before and might never go again, Coach K said. Why not play them in Boston, instead of Salt Lake City?
He knows common sense is not a virtue of the basketball committee, but he also knows that his ideas will not be dismissed out of hand. Among other things, they never are self-serving.
Krzyzewski has been labeled the best coach in the country in any sport. Not many people would disagree. Secure in his position, able to keep his program at or near the top on an annual basis, the lone question is how long will his desire remain? There is no indication that he'll back off any time soon.