Tim Crothers is an author and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who is joining The Charlotte Observer sports staff to write a regular column during the rest of the college basketball season.
What about the number on the other side of the hyphen?
During this season when Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been lauded for breaking the NCAA Division 1 record for career coaching victories, I asked him, "Coach, do you know how many games you have lost?"
"I have no idea," Krzyzewski said. "I'm being honest. I know we have three losses this season. I couldn't tell you how many I've lost overall."
That's 86 fewer losses than Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, 84 fewer than Bobby Knight, 15 fewer than Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and 33 more than Dean Smith. If Duke defeats Virginia Tech tonight in Blacksburg, Hokies coach Seth Greenberg will move to within one career loss of Krzyzewski, in 15 fewer seasons on the bench.
When I asked Krzyzewski, who ranks 95th all-time in Division 1 coaching losses, if his 287 defeats qualify him as an expert on losing, Krzyzewski replied, "I just think it makes me old."
So, why bring this up? Because Krzyzewski's losses have as much to do with his unprecedented success as his victories.
"One thing that has never changed for me as a coach is that I hate to lose," Krzyzewski says. "But losses are inevitable and you don't want it to be a repeated act. You have to be honest about why you lost, whether it's lack of preparation, lack of energy, lack of enthusiasm, lack of competitiveness. If you don't see losses as part of the growth process, they will become part of the destructive process."
Over his 37 seasons as a head coach, Krzyzewski has come to the conclusion that winning and losing has very little to do with the game's final score. From his perspective, not every game fits snugly on one side of the hyphen or the other. He views some Duke wins as losses. Some losses as wins. After the Blue Devils beat St. John's 83-76 on Saturday in what Krzyzewski deemed a lackluster effort, he said, "We did enough to win, which almost makes me sick to say that. To me, it was like a loss."
After losing to Florida State a week earlier, Krzyzewski said, "It would have been a tough loss for either team because neither team played losing basketball."
Judging by his mood following the two games, Krzyzewski was happier after the loss to Florida State than after the win against St. John's.
"I look at every game asking, 'Have we had a good performance or a poor performance?' " Krzyzewski says. "Performance takes care of winning and hopefully it takes care of losing, too."
Here is Krzyzewski's take on each of Duke's three losses this season:
Nov. 29; Ohio State 85, Duke 63
"To me nothing about the Ohio State game was about Xs and Os. Ohio State came after a very rugged schedule for us. We may not have beaten them even if we were fresh because they are very good, but we didn't know how to reenergize ourselves and we learned from that."
Jan. 4; Temple 78, Duke 73
"We saw something that has given us trouble even in our wins: a very tall, athletic perimeter. We had been able to win against Kansas and Washington, two very big athletic perimeters, but against Temple we weren't good enough in other areas of the game to compensate for that weakness."
Jan. 21; Florida State 76, Duke 73
"They're a very old team. You have six seniors, two graduate students - you're just older. They're men and they play together. You have to assume the other team is going to play very hard and when they're as athletic and they're men like that, that's just a very tough game. It was an older guys' game."
If there's a common thread through the three defeats, it's that Duke is inexperienced compared to recent seasons. There is only one senior on the Blue Devils roster this year and at times, Krzyzewski has started two freshmen, Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook, in the backcourt.
"With this team we're continuously trying to teach them how to be mature basketball players," Krzyzewski said. "They need a mindset of seriousness. Not that they're fooling around, but they have to take their mental and physical preparation into a game and sometimes they're young and they don't do that. When you're going onstage you have to be in character from the moment the curtain rises."
Has Krzyzewski learned from his losses? Consider this. He lost 106 games in his first eight seasons as a coach at Army and Duke, an average of more than 13 per season.
He has lost only 181 games in the last 29 seasons, an average of about six per season, most of which his Blue Devils have played with targets on their jerseys.
When I asked Krzyzewski which of his losses have stuck with him the most, he mentioned two.
He recalled losing to Virginia by 43 points in the opening round of the ACC tournament during his third season at Duke in 1983 and the 30-point loss to UNLV in the 1990 NCAA championship game.
"I remember certain losses and I think they've been motivators for me," Krzyzewski says. "After we lost that game to Virginia, I think we beat them 16 times in a row. After losing to Vegas, the next year we beat them in the Final Four and won a national championship. I don't forget those type of losses."
Which explains a lot about the number on the other side of the hyphen.
918 and counting.