Beyond the Bison : Time After Time

Julian Dorey, Senior Writer

Coach K has reached yet another mountain top.

With another national title (putting his total at 5–along with 2 Olympic gold medals), Mike Krzyzewski certainly has a case to be considered the greatest college coach of all time (yes, even John Wooden may have to recognize Coach K’s accomplishments in the era in which he has coached and take a bow).

The thing is, this time, he did it differently. He adapted. He meticulously spent the last five years changing the very foundation upon which he has built his program.

For years, with few exceptions (Elton Brand and Corey Maggette come to mind), Coach K has recruited blue chip players with the intention of keeping them around for three or four years. He won four titles with this strategy (the last of which came in 2010 with a roster headlined by Kyle Singler). But even standing at the apex of college basketball once again after that 2010 victory, Krzyzewski saw the writing on the wall.

This was a new day. The super freshmen were starting to become yearly commodities teaming up with one another at powerhouse programs–and other coaches (spearheaded by John Calipari) were figuring out just how to manage the young studs to produce a contending culture. This, of course, was thanks to an NBA rule change in 2006 that prevented high school players from jumping directly to the pros.

The very first year of the rule change proved that a different form of college basketball was on the way.  In the 2006-2007 season, freshmen phenomena, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, took the country by storm–dominating opponents and cementing themselves as the two best players in the country (Durant has gone on to have an All-Star NBA career while Oden, unfortunately, found the injury bug early on and could never shake it).

By the new decade in 2010, the freshman-centered ideology at big programs was in full swing. So what did Coach K do? He won a title with perhaps the last “veteran” roster he’ll ever have–and then switched right over to the freshman-oriented approach.

He started off with Kyrie Irving, who later became the number one pick. Irving had injury problems in his only year–and so Coach K didn’t get to see much of the superstar that Irving would later become–but he was undeterred.

He followed up Irving with blue chip prospect, Austin Rivers. Once again Duke failed to go far in the tournament–and Rivers bolted for the NBA. After one year (2012-2013) of not landing a five-star freshman, Krzyzewski went back to the freshman water well and grabbed Jabari Parker–an absolute stud who wound up as the second overall pick last year.

Once again, four years into this new approach, Duke had little postseason success. Many questioned whether or not Coach K’s style could fit such a different philosophy.

But clearly the Hall of Famer didn’t question himself.

After watching Parker leave him just as the other freshmen had in the past few years, he went “all-in” and grabbed two of the best high school prospects in the country, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. On top of those two, he grabbed another four-star high-schooler, Tyus Jones.

This time, the bet paid off. Despite the attention that “undefeated” Kentucky received all season, it was Duke, not Kentucky, whose freshmen took over the Final Four. With an easy win over the Tom Izzo-led Michigan State Spartans in the national semifinal, Duke didn’t even have to worry about playing Calipari’s Midwest machine. Wisconsin, an anti-freshman strategy team, took care of the Wildcats in the other national semifinal.

In the national championship game, the freshman talent that Coach K had spent the last five years investing in finally paid the ultimate dividend.

Despite an average game from the likely number one overall pick, Okafor, Duke won on the back of the lesser of the three freshmen, Jones.

Jones picked a great time to post a game-high 23 points as it was just enough to carry Duke past Wisconsin in an otherwise average (by Duke’s standards) performance.

Okafor and Winslow are headed for the NBA–and Jones might just follow them in an effort to capitalize on his stock improvement following his most outstanding player award in the Final Four. With their pending departures, once again Coach K will be forced to scrap everything and start over with freshmen again.

Only, this time, he’ll do so knowing just how far a freshmen-led team can take him.

(Visited 64 times, 1 visits today)