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UNC vs. Duke: Let’s demystify Coach K

Duke’s coach gets a free pass from everyone, despite a long track record of hypocrisy and tournament underachieving. Let’s get some facts straight.

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NCAA Basketball: Duke at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Mike Krzyzewski is easily one of the five best college basketball coaches to ever live. He built a long-dormant program into a national elite, as his five NCAA titles will attest. He has won more games than any coach— 1,123 and counting— and is ranked in the top-20 all-time in win percentage. To do the latter is a great accomplishment in the modern era of college basketball, and the former is a great testament to his longevity.

His ability to adapt his entire program to the one-and-done era has been swift and impressive, as Duke has joined Kentucky in the ‘amass the most talent possible, roll the ball out, and let the chips fall as they may’ model. This paid off in 2015 with a national title, remarkable because he also won in 2010 with a completely different type of team—your typical slap-the-floor, space-and-shoot vintage Duke. As I said on Between the Banners the other night, the type of try-hards you hate to lose to.

The 2018-19 Duke team, if one can mentally disassociate it with the name on the front of the jersey, is a fascinating case study in ‘positionless basketball’, which values versatility, creates mismatches for the entirety of games, and has made for great entertainment. Zion WIlliamson is made in a lab, R.J. Barrett is delightful to watch, and Tre Jones is a more pesky version of his brother.

He’s a really, REALLY good basketball coach, a marketing genius, and a perpetual, overwhelming threat to win a sixth NCAA title. But...K is a self-serving, media manipulating egomaniac, and here is my proof.

Mike Krzyzewski has created a situation in which he is no longer selling the Duke brand, he IS the brand. While it’s hard to figure an exact date for that transition, his American Express commercial from 2005 certainly possesses the self-indulgence to serve as a good boundary marker for the K Brand, Sponsored by Duke University.

The self-proclaimed “leader who happens to coach basketball” has become a regular Tony Robbins. As of 2011, he had time to book 20-40 corporate speaking gigs for six figures a pop. THE DUDE HAS A QUOTES PAGE ON THE WEBSITE COACHK.COM, WHICH I DIDN’T KNOW WAS A THING UNTIL NOW.

He’s leveraged his coaching success into some kind of motivational speaker role, which he has somehow leveraged back into coaching success. Remarkable.

The ‘Brotherhood’

The branding machine has adopted a catchy social media moniker, as many things do. Duke basketball has cornered the market on the fraternal expression, and is unapologetic about it.

Look, we all copy from each other. Because one place has family, does that mean I can’t call my family my family. Is the ‘Brotherhood’ working, or is Duke working?

That’s associate head coach Jeff Capel, quoted last year. Even he readily admits it’s a trope.

A trope it is, indeed. Rarely is there mention of his treatment of William Avery— a lottery pick, for what it’s worth— who was told by K that he was “f**king his program” upon his declaration of intent to leave after his sophomore season. Pat Forde wrote this piece back in 1999 about K’s treatment of Avery, Chris Burgess, and their parents.

Apparently the brotherhood only has room to initiate a few new members each year. A quick list of outgoing transfers from Duke since Burgess left for Utah:

  • Michael Thompson
  • Eric Boateng
  • Jamal Boykin
  • Taylor King
  • Elliot Williams
  • Olek Czyz
  • Michael Gbinije
  • Alex Murphy
  • Semi Ojeleye
  • Rasheed Sulaimon
  • Derryck Thornton
  • Chase Jeter
  • Sean Obi
  • Jordan Tucker

In the cases of Burgess, Thompson, King, Czyz, Murphy, Ojeleye, Jeter, and Obi, there is an indication of promised increased roles if they stayed on campus. Ojeleye was 2017’s AAC Player of the Year. Gbinije was an All-ACC performer at Syracuse. Williams was a first round draft pick in 2010.

From what I’ve seen (and an extensive search of Instagram feeds), the ‘Brotherhood’ is a trope— there are no degrees being finished at Duke, no summer pickup games among alumni — just an empty hashtag to keep their recruiting content in one convenient hyperlink.

Handling of Players

Transfers notwithstanding, an apologist would argue that Krzyzewski shapes men by forcing them to sink or swim, by holding them accountable. But...where is his own accountability?

No matter what we said, it didn’t work with our team.

They were a very frustrating group to coach today.

In the past, K has coined the fallout from such rants ‘emotional exhaustion’. J.J. Redick’s senior year was brought to a halt by this disease, as the expectations placed on the 2006 Blue Devils was simply too much to overcome. Hell, on the way to their last national title, ESPN bought in to the same line.

Speaking of exhaustion: it is fair to characterize some of his teams as victims of physical exhaustion. The ‘no depth’ excuse with McDonald’s All-Americans collecting dust on the bench has been a fun one for Carolina fans to follow over the years. In this same piece last year, I wrote that Duke’s bench played a total of SIX minutes in their 65-63 loss to Virginia. Sophomore big Marques Bolden, the 11th-ranked player from the class of 2016, has THREE straight DNP’s. Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell, and Jordan Goldwire have all shown promise in limited action, but are collectively averaging about 15 minutes a ACC play.

This year, they again rely heavily on six men, with Jack White (23.2 minutes per game) serving as the 6th man. Javin DeLaurier is good for 10-12 minutes, and Alex O’Connell has played 10 minutes, total, in the last three games.

Handling of Other Teams’ Players

Remember this whole saga with Jordan Brooks in the 2017 NCAA Tournament?

It’s not a good look when a 20-year-old takes the high road in a high-profile incident, but Brooks did.

Duke, academic haven, as a one-and-done factory

In 2005, Krzyzewski took over as the head coach of Team USA. After a disappointing 2004 Olympics, K’s “Redeem Team” won gold in 2008, 2012, and 2016— and you’d think he saved basketball in America. The self-congratulatory nature of this piece almost convinces you of that fact.

K has leveraged that into recruiting success. Testimonial videos from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony are part of his recruiting pitch. Much like John Calipari uses Drake to recruit for Kentucky, K uses guys from the preps-to-pros era as recruiting props. One should note that it’s a recruiting violation for a school’s former players to personally reach out to players, so— again. Marketing genius.

Jeff Capel returned to Duke on May 6, 2011. He left Oklahoma under questionable circumstances, as his last big recruit “Tiny” Gallon was saddled with impermissible benefits at OU.

Those two factors have completely shifted the paradigm of Duke’s profile. Gone are the “hateable” (read: scrappy, often white) Dukies of yesteryear— Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Wojo, Greg Paulus, Kyle Singler, and Jon Scheyer. In is a one-and-done program that even Kentucky can envy, but somehow lacking in the innuendo of NCAA violations.

But...hmm. Corey Maggette admitted to taking extra benefits and is potentially involved in much more serious allegations. Lance Thomas was sued over almost $70,000 in jewelry debt. Hell, Christian Laettner was part of a Ponzi scheme. Shameful for the ethics professor emeritus to have such things on his watch.

Oddly enough, Duke’s 2019-2020 basketball class looks more like the pre-2010 norm. They have elite big Vernon Carey, the #3 player in the class, signed, along with two guys Carolina recruited and has specialized in developing in recent years: Wendell Moore (#22) and Boogie Ellis (#34).

Where are the results?

Listen, most any rational college basketball fan would love for his team to have Duke’s recent run of success. This decade boasts two national championships, three ACC tournament titles, and an ACC regular season title.

One. Regular. Season. Title. Two in the past 13 years. Ever the controller of narrative, K has brushed this off and gotten media buy-in.

Despite not winning the long haul of the ACC regular season since 2010, K gets a hall pass for “not knowing who the hell won the ACC” in the modern era. I can point to one school who has won four in that span. Hell, Virginia has won three in the past five years, and Big Ten member Maryland has one as recent as Duke’s.

In the NCAA Tournament, which is realistically the only spotlight college basketball has in the national consciousness, Duke has underachieved to its seed, well, a lot:

2002: 1; Sweet Sixteen
2003: 3; Sweet Sixteen
2004: 1; Final Four
2005: 1; Sweet Sixteen
2006: 1; Sweet Sixteen
2007: 6; 1st Round
2008: 2; 2nd Round
2009: 2; Sweet Sixteen
2010: 1; National Champion
2011: 1; Sweet Sixteen
2012: 2; 1st Round
2013: 2; Elite Eight
2014: 3; 1st Round
2015: 1; National Champion
2016: 4; Sweet Sixteen
2017: 2; 2nd Round
2018: 2; Elite Eight

In the past 17 years, Duke has reached a round in the tournament commensurate with its seed a grand total of five times. Duke has been a top-4 seed in each of those seasons, which is an achievement in remarkable consistency, but the return on investment has been almost nonexistent.

In case you don’t remember some of those early exits, they include 11-seed VCU, 15-seed Lehigh, and 14-seed Mercer in the first round. A near-miss by #15 Belmont portended a second-round exit vs. West Virginia in 2008. 5th seed Arizona blew out the overwhelming title favorite 93-77 in 2011, Jason Williams and the defending champions bowed out in the Sweet Sixteen to 5th seed Indiana, and South Carolina started its surprise run to 2017’s Final Four with an 88-81 upset over the #2 Duke team.

Again, I’m not here to argue with Mike Krzyzewski’s success. He has run the most successful college basketball program of the past 30 years.

Much like Dean Smith, K is an innovator. He’s solely responsible for the block/charge semicircle making its way to the college game:

He invented the ‘indefinite’ one-game suspension:

Coach K: college basketball’s leading innovator, your nation’s most successful college basketball coach, leader of men, and principled arbiter of what is good in sport— and in life.