Krzyzewski, Williams zeroed in on success
By Andrew Jones
February 8, 2011
Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have accomplished so much in their Hall of Fame coaching careers that some of their achievements don't even get noticed, such as their performances this winter.
The legendary coaches might be turning in some of the best work of their magnificent careers. Each has faced adversity and a developing roster. And with their teams meeting Wednesday to renew the greatest rivalry in American sports, they square off with their teams playing quite well.
Krzyzewski's No. 4-ranked Duke Blue Devils are 21-2 overall and 8-1 in the ACC. This isn't a vintage Duke team, however. It is flawed on several levels, but it's still one of the best clubs in the nation and has a fiber that can be placed against any Devils squad in Krzyzewski's 31 seasons in Durham.
Duke was dealt an early blow when point guard Kyrie Irving suffered a toe injury on Dec. 4. He hasn't played since and likely won't return this season, his coach has repeatedly said. In fact, he views Duke as 13-2, its record since Irving went down.
Within those 15 games have been some poor starts, ugly halves and one terribly unbecoming performance on national television. But Duke is still Duke.
"What Mike has done with this team is truly remarkable," said longtime college basketball analyst and former Duke coach Bucky Waters. "He was forced to junk this season's plan and go in another direction to make it work, and it's working."
The Devils still defend like crazy and run many of the sets that have made it lethal from the perimeter for years, and the team's overall focus has enabled it to tweak much of what it worked on in the preseason.
Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith are among the nation's top players, but no Blue Devil has stepped forward as third consistent producer, although 6-foot-10 sophomore Mason Plumlee has been a horse on the glass and wreaking havoc around the basket.
Krzyzewksi has started three different players at point guard since Irving, who was regarded as the nation's top playmaker although only a freshman, without finding a truly comfortable combination.
Thus, Duke has no real point guard available, which includes freshman Tyler Thornton, who has started the last two games but just isn't an offensive threat. And it has no real post presence offensively other than garbage buckets, alley-oops and rolls to the basket. Yet, there are the Devils, positioned for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"Coach is so amazing in how he relates to everyone, and it seems he is different with each player," said sophomore forward Ryan Kelly. "He just knows how to teach us things while making us fully believe we can do them. When Kyrie went down, the first thing coach did was settle us down believing everything would be okay. He was right."
Carolina began the season with just 10 players on scholarship, and only one, point guard Larry Drew, was asked to execute the same role he had a year ago.
Often-injured junior center Tyler Zeller hadn't yet gone through the rigors of a full ACC season, sophomore John Henson was basically a novice playing the power forward spot in college, and sophomore Dexter Strickland, last year's backup point guard, was moved to the shooting guard spot even though he's not a very efficient perimeter shooter.
Sophomore wing Leslie McDonald earned a regular spot in the rotation, and 6-4 junior Justin Watts was asked to use his strength to fill in at power forward to balance a thin front line that also includes Alabama transfer Justin Knox.
UNC, which went 20-17 a year ago and failed to make the NCAAs, was essentially starting from scratch, even though the media curiously ranked the Heels in the top of most preseason polls and made Harrison Barnes the first freshman an preseason Associated Press first-team All-America.
That newness and Barnes' struggles were factors in the Tar Heels early losses to Vanderbilt and Minnesota on neutral floors and at Illinois, essentially turning the nation's focus away from UNC. A win over Kentucky and well-played loss to Texas changed no minds.
With the spotlight completely off of Chapel Hill, the Heels learned about each other and began to develop chemistry. They also started winning.
A few impressive performances, like a 23-point win over Rutgers in New York, were overlooked, and narrow escapes against Virginia, Virginia Tech and Miami garnered almost no attention. The team drew criticism in victory, while the truth of the matter was that Carolina was growing. Then came a 20-point loss at Georgia Tech.
The beating UNC received from all corners camouflaged the fact that this team and its coach needed the lessons that came with that loss. And instead of it having a negative impact, UNC's response has been its best hoops since winning the national championship in 2009.
"In a way, I think you can say our heads were spinning when the season began," Strickland said. "It seems like everyone was learning something new, and then to have to play games without that anchor made it tough at first. That might be why we lost some games. But we've come together and are still coming together. Coach has guided us all along, and I think that's why we're improving so much."
The final act of moving this team in the right direction with the potential to really erupt came when Williams replaced Drew with freshman Kendall Marshall, who had been far more efficient and whom the players preferred playing with.
No. 20 UNC (17-5, 7-1) enters Wednesday's game at Duke riding a five-game winning streak with its last two wins by a total of 52 points at Boston College and versus Florida State. And with Drew having left the team last Friday, Marshall is now a 33-minut-a-night player, which benefits UNC. Credit Williams for his foresight and for UNC's clean cutting of the cord to the Drew era.
"It's a little bit of a difficult time that we've gone through in the last 48 hours," the coach said after Sunday's win over FSU. "We talked a great deal about some of what had happened and that it was over and behind us, we had to go forward. And I think we did that today."
Both teams share some similarities, including using embarrassing road losses to fuel immediate improvement. Both continue looking for consistency from among its more role-oriented players, and both continue learning about themselves, given the newness of their processes.
And both have coaches who will long be remembered for their amazing accomplishments, even if the brilliance of Krzyzewski and Williams this season has been overlooked.
But maybe that won't be the case Wednesday. Credit belongs where it's due, and no coaches in the ACC have earned their pay checks quite like Coach K and Ol' Roy.