Duke Basketball: Widely considered the greatest, but is Coach K a closer?

While it is hard to argue against all the things Duke Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski has accomplished and still might, his years as a standard-bearer in college coaching bring increased scrutiny on his decisions. 

Is Mike Krzyzewski, Duke Basketball’s leader, the greatest college coach to ever shout, sneer and scowl his way across the hardwood?  I would say yes.  After all, Coach K has already won five NCAA Tournament titles and was within a shot or rebound or some small but missed thing that ultimately cost him a few more.

I include last year since if they had made the Final Four, they would have already beaten every other team including Virginia, the eventual champion, twice. You can tell it still hurts.  Even if I didn’t, take out the UNLV blowout in 1990 and Coach K has lost three title games by a total of 10 points.

The only other realistic candidate would be John Wooden who won eleven.  But do any of us really know who Wooden was other than the titles and the fact that he won half of them with two of the greatest college players ever in an era where only conference champions made the tournament?

Since we tend to believe what we see with our own eyes is the highest pinnacle that anyone can ever hope to achieve, we value the accomplishments of today over what was done even in the recent past.  If we have never even witnessed any of it at all, it might as well be ancient history to be thought of as novel and charming in the way I grew up in the eighties.   We walked around with Walkmans, but no cell phones, while St. John’s and Georgetown were the best teams in the country.

Yeah, I know, it’s crazy right?  Sorry, my heartfelt apologies go out to any sister sites or fellow downtrodden contributors, I’m a long-suffering Canes fan in NCAA Football so I know how good it used to feel too, but I digress.

Coach K has won with the most talented teams, but he has also won without them.  He has shifted coaching philosophies numerous times and is willing to adapt and create new systems for the talent that he has on a year to year basis.  He has helped get guys to the NBA.

I’m not talking about his one and dones, but the project guys, players who spent four years at Duke getting better with each one and outplaying their expectations.  Guys like the Plumlee brothers, two of whom were drafted.  Guys like Lance Thomas, Chris Duhon, Kyle Singler and now maybe, Quinn Cook.

I’m not saying Coach K is solely responsible, but he had more of a hand in the development of Lance Thomas than Jayson Tatum or Marvin Bagley.  I don’t have to keep going into his accomplishments to extol his greatness, but I could.

That’s why it makes what I’m about to say a little blasphemous almost.  I feel I should whisper it or pay some consequence otherwise.  Why can’t Coach K, the greatest of all time, seem to coach at the time of the greatest moments?

Whew!  I had to wait there for a minute but I think I’m okay.  No thunderbolt struck me down nor virus instantaneously crashed my computer.  There was no threatening knock on the door as my world keeps turning…for now.  If you’re listening, I have four kids who need their father so please spare me my insolence.  We all have mouths to feed.

Now that’s out of the way, I can get to Duke’s most recent disappointment, the Louisville loss.  I was sure Vernon Carey was coming into the game at the 1:54 mark with Duke down three.  The Blue Devils‘ offense gets completely stagnant without him on the floor a lot of the time and besides an initial Tre Jones drive, Duke just passed it around on the perimeter without any threat of attacking through the post.

Stops/turnovers on five straight possessions in the last two minutes of the game without your best and most consistent offensive weapon ever on the floor, even after the Louisville timeout with 43 seconds left and Duke still only down three; is open to second-guessing no matter who you are.

It’s not like Vernon Carey is a defensive liability.  One of his most impressive traits, especially for a freshman big man, is his sense of timing and defensive transitioning.  This is evidenced by his top five rankings in the ACC in blocks, block percentage, defensive rebounding percentage and overall defensive rating.  He is also #8 in defensive win shares and #6 in total defensive rebounds.

Granted he was in foul trouble, but with two minutes left, who cares, even the threat of him in the post opens up the outside shot or put him in pick and roll and let him pop or dunk it.  Far from a one-game sample, we can look at the recent past to see Coach K is only 21-20 in games decided by seven points or less going back three and half years to the start of the 2016-2017 season.

There is something to be said for the freedom that Coach K gives to his best players and it is something that attracts kids to play at Duke.  So it’s somewhat understandable to let players make plays when you have RJ’s alpha attitude or Zion’s almost magical will to use last year as an example.

I would argue though that Cam Reddish was best suited for Duke’s closer role since he was the best three-point and free throw shooter on the team.  He also won two games, FSU with a three in the last seconds and two clutch free throws to seal the incredible comeback at Louisville.  He could have been great for wide-open kick-outs when the defenses were collapsing on Zion and RJ drives and being the third option, he attracted less initial attention.

We saw no real execution from Duke in the final minutes with chances to win in losses to Gonzaga and Michigan State but they happened at opposite ends of the season.  It was on Coach K to change course and reign in the player freedom during end of game situations.  These are just kids after all, who despite their wealth of talent and mental fortitude, could use some guidance from a forty-year veteran who has seen and done it all to the point of being considered one of the best to ever coach across any sport.

If he is not the man to craft a few plays at the end of the game then who is?  I know, who am I to pick apart the strategy of a West Pointer and the man with more wins than anyone else in college basketball history?  Who am I to question his decisions when his decisions have made him a figure of reverence, of wealth, of fame, of wisdom?

The answer is no one.  I’m just some schmoe with a blog and a fan with an opinion like all fans who think they know what’s best, but if a schmoe with an opinion can’t question and second guess the greatest to ever do it, who can?