Mike Krzyzewski said something following his team’s drubbing of North Carolina on Saturday night at the Dean Dome that required a second glance.
It seems the legendary Duke coach offered an opening to the hoops world that what people saw Saturday night may not exactly be what we get at the ACC Tournament that began Thursday in Greensboro, NC.
Krzyzewski’s words came after a question regarding the day off he gave his team last week when he ordered the players to stay away from basketball. The night before, Krzyzewski said his team was “emotionally spent” after beating Virginia Tech in the Blue Devils’ third game in six days.
“We have to watch, even this week,” he said. “We want to do a great job in Greensboro but we have to be careful just how we bring our team along so we’re fresh for the following week.”
The Hall of Fame coach lives to win championships. He has led Duke to 13 ACC Tournament titles, including 10 in the past 14 years. Krzyzewski relishes cutting down nets and calling his teams champions regardless of the magnitude or venue. The man sees a pair of scissors as a means to the ultimate end.
So what are we to make of that comment?
Does it mean to preserve his team, with two of its three best players, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, battling injuries and stamina issues, he will dig deeper into the bench for longer stretches this weekend? More Alex Murphy and more Amile Jefferson? Perhaps even a minute or two for Marshall Plumlee?
There’s no reason whatsoever to believe Krzyzewski will view the ACC Tournament any differently than he has before. But perhaps he was voicing concern over three games in three days and how it may affect his team.
The No. 2 seed, Duke (27-4) will play at 7 p.m. on Friday night, and with a win will play at 4 p.m. on Saturday. The title game is Sunday at 1 p.m.
Three games in 44 hours with the constant pounding on Curry’s ankle and Kelly’s foot could have a lasting effect on Duke’s freshness and the skip in its collective step in the NCAA Tournament.
Just go back two weeks to get an idea how playing games so close together generally isn’t a recipe for success for the second-ranked Devils.
In a loss at Virginia on Feb. 28, Curry, who has battled a high ankle sprain all season and rarely practices, scored 28 points in a 73-68 loss. Duke trailed the Cavaliers all night and Curry was all over the floor trying to lead the Devils to a comeback. He played 35 minutes that night.
Forty-three hours later, Curry struggled in a three-point victory over Miami. If not for Kelly’s amazing 36-point return to the lineup, Duke would have lost.
Mason Plumlee was tired. Rasheed Sulaimon was knee-deep in dealing with hitting another freshman wall, and the bench was once again ineffective. Curry was slow, lacked explosiveness, and struggled to a seven-point outing. He was just 2-for-8 from the field and a shocking 2-5 from the free throw line. Curry’s legs didn’t provide what he needed.
“I was a little tired,” Curry said after that game, fudging on if he felt any discomfort. “I didn’t shoot the ball well, I was tired… It was tough.”
Curry was fresh and awesome in the win at UNC, at least in the first half. He finished with 20 points while converting his first seven field goal attempts. But he missed five of his last six, maybe in part because Carolina made Curry work for those baskets by forcing him to use the dribble more than usual. He even hit one basket falling to the ground.
That Curry averages 17.1 points per game is quite remarkable given what might have been.
“I have nothing to compare it to,” Krzyzewski said. “In the middle of September, we were told that he might not be able to play this year. And everyone — his parents, and Seth and our medical people — took a course of action to really attack the injury and come up with a plan and give rest and move along.
“It’s incredible, really. And the thing is, his leg has gotten better.”
Kelly, who is third on the team averaging 14.6 points per game, missed 13 games with a foot injury, returning for the Miami game on March 2. His 36-point performance was the talk of the nation for several days, but few people said anything about the 32 minutes he played and its residual affect.
The senior forward admitted he was going on adrenalin last Tuesday against Virginia Tech. He was constantly crouched over, hands on knees seemingly every time there was a dead ball. Kelly signaled asking out of the game numerous times, but the staff rejected many of those requests.
“Yeah, I did but they know I have to get into game shape now,” Kelly said. “It’s March and there’s no waiting. So I have to just keeping pushing through.”
Krzyzewski knows he has a team that can win the national championship, and as wonderful as another ACC title might be, the NCAAs are the bigger deal, especially given that Duke has been to just one regional final in the last nine years and has seen too many of its ACC Tournament championship teams flame out in the NCAAs with early, and sometimes ugly losses.
Duke is going to Greensboro intent on cutting down the nets, make no mistake. But maybe the legendary coach was saying if he can do that while limiting the pounding Curry and Kelly could take would be the most ideal scenario.