DURHAM, N.C. — West Point, other service academies and branches of the military are renowned for their mental toughness teaching tactics.
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski attended West Point, where he played for Bob Knight, served five years in the Army and then was the head coach at his alma mater for five seasons. That quadruple dose taught him a great deal about various forms of mental toughness training, which he has masterfully used in building one of the great juggernauts in American sports at Duke.
So when people try to explain why Cornell and Elon served more as necessary fodder on consecutive nights this week at Cameron Indoor Stadium, look no further than Krzyzewski and his unique approach at fortifying his team’s inner core.
“There’s no question this was about challenging us,” senior forward Ryan Kelly said after the Blue Devils dispatched Elon, 76-54. “We started off slowly both nights but got it going. It was on us and we got stronger. So I think it worked.”
Duke beat Cornell on Wednesday night 88-47 but led just 28-26 with 4:21 left before halftime. But in almost frightening fashion, the Blue Devils outscored the Big Red 60-21 the rest of the way.
On Thursday against the Phoenix, Duke found itself tied at 25-25 with 4:20 remaining before the intermission before outscoring the visitors from 30 miles down the road 51-29 over the remainder of the contest for the team’s 100th consecutive victory at home over a nonconference foe.
“I thought we were mentally tired. You could see it in our faces,” Krzyzewski said Thursday, also noting that the team had recently come off 11 days of final exams.
“It’s been a heck of a first part of the season. Exams, two games in a row, I thought we really need a break. Thank goodness our defense played so well. Again, 10 assists and 17 turnovers by our opponent.”
At times, Duke’s offense has been fantastic during its 11-0 start and path to a No. 1 national ranking. But more consistent has been the team’s defense. On the season, Duke’s opponents have handed out 86 assists but turned over the ball 152 times; that’s an average of just 8.6 assists per ballgame.
Opponents are shooting 38.1 percent from the field, including 29.7 percent from 3-point range, numbers that have been good enough to forge a top overall ranking, which Krzyzewski calls an honor, not an accomplishment. This is the 13th Duke team to start a season 11-0 and the 10th of the Krzyzewski era. This is the 11th in the last 16 seasons the Blue Devils have been ranked No. 1 in the country.
The Blue Devils are a remarkable 209-31 as the nation’s No. 1 team, with 185 of those victories coming with Krzyzewski at the helm. The Hall of Fame coach and his players will get a chance to get away from basketball and the daily layering of history that is part of playing at Duke during a six-day break for Christmas.
The Blue Devils were free to go home following Thursday’s contest and won’t report back to Durham until Dec. 26.
“Anxious for them to get home, get away from it, and then come back refreshed and ready to charge on,” Krzyzewski said.
And when they get back, duplicating what was accomplished in the first segment of the season will be a challenge. The Devils have beaten Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville, Ohio State, and Temple to comprise one of the top resumes in the nation.
“We’ve been a really good basketball team, that’s what I told our guys, ‘Tonight is about looking at the last 11 games, not looking at one game,’” Krzyzewski said. “Are we proud of that? We’re very proud of that. What can we do better? We know what we can do better individually and collectively. But the main thing we can do better is get refreshed. It’s a long year.”
Considering the postseason, Duke is basically just a third through its season. Games versus Santa Clara and Davidson remain before the Devils dive into an ACC schedule that includes 18 games for the first time, and as always will carry a giant target on their backs.
But given the challenges they’ve faced so far, from opponents and their 65-year-old former Army Captain, there’s little reason to expect a drop off.