On Nov. 15, only three games into the season, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight shared an emotional embrace courtside in Madison Square Garden, a symbolic passing of the torch from one legendary coach to another.
In that moment, the Duke basketball coach’s long chase concluded. He had caught and surpassed Knight, his former coach at Army, on the NCAA’s all-time coaching victories list. In the news conference following win No. 903, Krzyzewski described a feeling of “relief,” as if a burden of pressure had been lifted from his 64-year-old shoulders. The days of looking up were officially over.
One birthday and 23 victories down the road, Krzyzeweski has his team poised to earn a No. 1 seed in the looming NCAA tournament. In turn, the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year race has come to its end, as well. Six letters are etched across the tape at the finish line: C-O-A-C-H-K.
The 2011-12 season not only will go down in Krzyzewski lore for that career-defining victory, but it also will be remembered as one in which he orchestrated and, ultimately, carried a fundamentally flawed collection of players to yet another first-class regular-season run. From a national perspective, the Blue Devils knocked off Michigan State, Kansas, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida State — teams that are ranked this week. And after a 79-71 victory over Wake Forest on Tuesday night, the Blue Devils will play for the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season crown Saturday vs. North Carolina.
There are only one or two schools with more impressive NCAA résumés, yet voters have historically shown the tendency to throw that evidence out the window because Duke is, well, Duke. Winning is supposed to happen in Durham. It is an annual occurrence, not a single-season coaching joyride.
Too often, voters overvalue their own preseason rankings in determining which teams have “overachieved,” and which coaches have earned their paychecks. For instance, if Georgia Tech is projected to finish 12th in the conference but manages to wrap up the fifth spot, many will elect Brian Gregory as the ACC’s top coach. There’s no shame in that approach; it’s a simple formula that yields a reasonable outcome.
But consider this: If a team is projected as a national contender in large part because of its coach’s reputation and propensity to win (and win a lot), is that coach automatically not to be considered for his conference’s top coaching honor come March?
That makes little sense, yet it is too often the case.
So while Duke’s winning ways are nothing new to ACC or national voters, Krzyzewski’s success with this particular team should nonetheless be considered one of his best coaching jobs in recent memory.
Forget the No. 6 ranking in the AP preseason poll. Just think of the obstacles Krzyzewski overcame this season. He lost his three best players from last season – Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and No. 1 NBA draft pick Kyrie Irving. He has been forced to shuffle and reshuffle the lineup. There is no definitive starter at point guard, the shooters are as streaky as they are gifted, frontcourt production remains a toss-up from game to game and the team’s best offensive weapon is a supremely talented, yet ultimate gunner in freshman star Austin Rivers. It reads like a recipe for shaky offense.
Still, it is late February and the Blue Devils grade out as one of the top offensive teams in the country — limiting turnovers and averaging an elite 119 points per 100 possessions.
Krzyzewski is also dealing with, statistically speaking, his worst Duke team defensively in the efficiency era (2003-present). A perennial member of the top 10 in defensive efficiency, Duke has improved in conference play but still sits at 59th nationally, allowing 94.4 points per 100 opponent possessions.
Yet the Blue Devils keep finding ways to win, often in thrilling fashion.
Duke’s run through the ACC alone has featured two overtime games, two memorable comebacks against its fiercest rivals and two buzzer-beaters. The come-from-behind victory over North Carolina, capped by Rivers’ heroics, might as well serve as Krzyzewski’s Heisman moment in this awards race as he once again exhibited his command over the game in the rivalry’s closing minutes.
There still might remain a glimmer of hope for a few remaining candidates. Tony Bennett has pieced together a basketball renaissance as Virginia has reclaimed its position as one of the top teams in the league, but the Cavaliers have lost four of their past seven games. Similarly, Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State squad is on one of the best runs in school history, but the Seminoles lost their share of the conference lead by dropping three of their past six outings.
Mark Gottfried, Jim Larranaga and others have seen their names drawn from the hat once or twice this season, but each has proven the criteria needs to be greater than engineering one or two upsets. Barring a miracle run by one of those teams to the conference tournament championship, it is hard to envision any of those names measuring up.
Yes, it is true that Krzyzewski coaches top-rated recruits and a top-notch basketball program. But that is part of a coach’s responsibility, to bring that type of talent to campus in the first place. His McDonald’s All-Americans have completely bought in this season, embracing their deficiencies and playing as a team.
Somehow, Krzyzewski has not been named ACC Coach of the Year since 2000. Herb Sendek and Dave Leitao have won the award since then. Heck, Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg has won twice. So how does a 12-time National Coach of the Year winner claim the ACC honor only five times in 31 seasons? The country’s top chef is struggling to earn Employee of the Month at his own restaurant.
It’s a preposterous notion, and one that needs to change.
It’s time the ACC voters remember what that November night in Madison Square Garden meant: That even when the entire basketball world anticipates the outcome, a legend still deserves his moments in the spotlight.