DURHAM Mike Krzyzewski was worried. His team had been undefeated and ranked No. 1 before losing one of its senior starters and its first game during the previous nine days. He began to wonder, he admitted, if his Blue Devils would make the NCAA tournament.
The first half of the game following the loss at N.C. State did little to reassure him, as Duke, still missing Ryan Kelly, trailed Georgia Tech by one after 20 minutes. His star, Mason Plumlee, was struggling, going just two of 12 from the field. But as the second half progressed, the coach felt much better.
It took Plumlee just two minutes to equal his field-goal total from the first 20. A few possessions later, Plumlee received the ball and posted up Marcus Georges-Hunt. A dribble, pump fake and pivot later, Plumlee slammed the ball home, giving Duke a 10-point lead and forcing a Georgia Tech timeout. As Plumlee ran toward the sideline, Krzyzewski ran toward him on the floor.
Krzyzewski jumped up and threw his arms around the 6-foot-10 forward’s shoulders. It was the type of celebration the Blue Devils had previously seen only on film.
“I give emotion a lot during my 33 years here at Duke, so I am going to do whatever I think my team needs,” Krzyzewski said. “I did that in 1980, and I should do it in 2013, so I thought that’s what my team needed. It’s what I gave.”
Plumlee is the type of player who can bring this kind of emotion out of Krzyzewski, who said the senior is a veteran completely dedicated to making himself and the team better, and a rarity in college basketball today.
Plumlee’s drive and focus reminds the coach of Christian Laettner, and of professionals like LeBron James, who Krzyzewski coached on the U.S. Olympic team.
Plumlee constantly reaches out to Krzyzewski, whether initiating conversation inside the locker room or going over the daily practice plan before the rest of the team hits the floor. That’s a role he has grown into, he said.
“I was more comfortable knowing that I felt like I was the guy this year,” Plumlee said. “That’s a role that I’ve always wanted here, and now that I’ve had it, I love being in that role.”
Because of that, player and coach have grown quite close.
“He’s a really good guy,” Krzyzewski said. “Like, I love him. He and I have an amazingly strong bond. …
“Most of the time in coaching, you give and you don’t get as much. And when you have a player who gives to you, boy, that’s terrific.”
Plumlee was ranked the 10th-best prospect in the Class of 2009 by ESPN. Only one other top-10 player from that year (Florida’s Kenny Boynton) still is in school.
Before arriving at Duke, Plumlee thought he could be a one-and-done guy like Kentucky’s John Wall of Raleigh and DeMarcus Cousins or Kansas’ Xavier Henry. But maybe he’d stay for two years, he thought after experiencing the game at the college level. Maybe even three.
After his junior year, Plumlee was projected by most as a late first-round pick (his older brother Miles was picked 26th overall by the Indiana Pacers in the 2012 NBA draft) . He discussed his decision with his family, former Duke teammate Jon Scheyer, and the Blue Devils’ coaching staff.
Plumlee now says he knew at the end of last season he needed to return to Duke. But he realized during meetings with the coaching staff that he would have the opportunity to be the unquestioned leader of this season’s team.
Heading into Tuesday’s game Plumlee is averaging 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. per game.
His preparations for this season began well before the start of practice. He did something he hadn’t done previously, showing Krzyzewski a written list of his goals for the season. They became “our goals,” shared by Plumlee, Krzyzewski and the rest of the team.
Plumlee remembers them well.
“Absolutely,” he said with a smile.
But he’s not ready to reveal them.
“Well, there’s a lot left to be determined,” he said. “I will say that I haven’t accomplished any of them yet.”
” said assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski. “And he has. Those are cool moments to be a part of in the locker room.”
Connecting to Krzyzewski
His relationship with his coach began to deepen last spring, as Plumlee and Krzyzewski started to imagine his senior season.
“I think just coming back and showing that I want to play for him, I appreciate what he does for me as a player,” Plumlee said of Krzyzewski.
“A lot of kids could have left. Even though I wasn’t projected to go extremely high, it’s easy to leave. But I know what he does. It’s turned out for the best, I think.
“I keep saying there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, but I’m so happy that we made the decision that we did.”