Before the streamers and confetti rained down in celebration of Duke’s national championship Monday night, that was Mike Krzyzewski’s feeling: We’re dead in the water.
He had called timeout after a Frank Kaminsky layup put Wisconsin ahead 48-39 with 13:25 to go. And he had plenty of reasons to be worried.
I don’t think Justise is playing well right now. Quinn is not up at the level that he should be. Jah is not playing as well. We’re in foul trouble. This is not good.
Krzyzewski kept those thoughts to himself. He would talk about them later, after the 68-63 win that gave him a fifth championship at Duke.
But now, during the timeout, he simply urged his team on, and continued to set up opportunities for the last guy off the bench – freshman Grayson Allen – to drive to the basket.
The story of the 2014-15 Blue Devils, started four years before the championship game.
That’s when Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, just wrapping up ninth grade and in Cancun, Mexico, to compete for USA Basketball, decided to attend the same college, an unlikely pact between the point guard from Minnesota and the center from Chicago that would hold throughout the recruiting process.
Duke entered the picture on July 13, 2011, the day assistant coach Jeff Capel saw Jones play as a rising sophomore at an AAU tournament in South Carolina. He called Krzyzewski and asked him to move up his travel plans – Krzyzewski saw Jones dazzle the next day.
And that was the end of Duke’s recruitment of point guards not named Tyus Jones.
On Nov. 15, 2013, Jones and Okafor announced they were headed to Duke on ESPNU, in a simultaneous broadcast from their high schools. Less than a week later, Justise Winslow of Houston followed suit, and the pieces were all in place.
One byproduct of stockpiling one-and-done talent: less time to establish relationships. So Krzyzewski went to work before any of the freshmen arrived on campus, coaching them over the phone while they were still in high school.
“I want them to be able to trust me at a higher level earlier,” Krzyzewski said. “And the only way to do that is to talk about things instead of just, ‘You’re great, boy, you had 30 last night,’ and all of that. You still do that, but you also tell them when they weren’t that great, how you handle defeat.”
Krzyzewski was gone most of that summer coaching with USA Basketball, but he was on campus when the freshmen arrived in July. And it was then the group could sense they had the potential to be great. The guys clicked well together, strengthening bonds that already existed. Quinn Cook, the lone scholarship senior, impressed the newcomers with his work ethic and embraced them, encouraging them to use their talents and speak up when they had something to say.
“There has been absolutely no jealousy,” Capel said in the preseason. “And I think that speaks volumes about the older guys on our team.”
Okafor stands out
In his first public appearance on the court for Duke – the Oct. 25th Countdown to Craziness scrimmage – Okafor showed why Krzyzewski had started offering unsolicited praise for the young center just days after Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
After 12 minutes, Okafor had 12 points, including baskets via a hook shot, dunk, lay-up off of a spin move going to his left, a jump shot from the elbow and a 15-foot bank shot from no-man’s land toward the baseline.
Those moves would be repeated time and time again.
The Blue Devils first proved they were for real when they beat Michigan State 81-71 in the third game of the season. That was the first appearance of Tyus Jones, who scored all 17 of his points in the second half, playing his best when it mattered the most.
Next came a hint of things to come in an otherwise nondescript, Nov. 26 blowout win over Furman.
With 30 seconds left in the first half and Duke up 47-22, Krzyzewski called timeout and put Allen in alongside Tyus Jones, Matt Jones, Winslow and Rasheed Sulaimon. Matt Jones and Allen were in the corners, ready to shoot 3s. Tyus Jones passed it to Allen in the corner, and his shot swished through true.
“Grayson might not play for 19 minutes and 50 seconds against” – Krzyzewski paused to come up with a hypothetical – “Wisconsin, and we put him in, and he did it.
“That was one of the best plays of the afternoon.”
Allen would not play at all against the Badgers on Dec. 3.
Ups and downs
The 80-70 win at then-No. 2 Wisconsin was the highlight of the first half of Duke’s season.
“Definitely, we’re better at this point than I thought we could be,” Krzyzewski said a few days after that game.
But then after a break for fall semester final exams, the Blue Devils lost their shooting touch. It didn’t come back after Christmas break. Next, the Blue Devils defense began to fray, as N.C. State and Miami exposed weaknesses in guarding high ball screens and dealt Duke back-to-back losses in January.
The 90-74 blowout by the Hurricanes in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13 forced deep soul-searching.
“We’re going to be fine,” Cook said more to himself than the reporters around him. “We’re going to take the hit, take all the negativity that we’re going to get, take it in stride, and just move on.”
A surprise 2-3 zone defense helped Duke rediscover its mojo with a win at then-No. 6 Louisville on Jan. 17. So did a double-digit comeback win against St. John’s in Madison Square Garden, giving Krzyzewski 1,000 wins for his career.
But just as it looked like the Blue Devils had gotten back on track, they lost 77-73 at Notre Dame, the only time all year their opponent made more clutch plays late in the game.
The next day, for the first time in Krzyzewski’s 35 years at Duke, he kicked a player off of his team.
“Rasheed (Sulaimon) has been unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program,” Krzyzewski said in the press release about the dismissal.
On the court, it would be addition by subtraction.
Eight is enough
Without the junior guard, Krzyzewski was left with eight scholarship players, and he drew a No. 8 on a white board before Duke’s game with then-No. 2 and undefeated Virginia, telling his team eight was enough. And it was enough to beat Virginia (69-63), Notre Dame (90-60), North Carolina, in overtime in Cameron (92-90) and then in Chapel Hill (94-77).
Back-to-back complete and total domination against Wake Forest and N.C. State had the Blue Devils primed for a deep NCAA tournament run. But then, curiously, in the ACC tournament semifinals against Notre Dame, the Blue Devils did something they hadn’t really done before: They came out flat.
And it got them beat.
That left Cook in an all-too-familiar postseason position in the locker room: disappointed, staring down into space.
After scoffing at the idea that his younger teammates needed to be reminded about the stakes in March, Cook said they would be fine. They needed just six more wins.
Behind the scenes, all was well. Krzyzewski estimated he had yelled at his team zero times in he final two months of practice.
“That would shock you from watching the game,” he said with a small smile. “That’s another thing that I’ve loved this year. I didn’t have to hold anything back at any time during a game.”
A final push
The Blue Devil’s first five wins in the NCAA tournament came by an average of 17.6 points.
But the sixth win would be tougher.
With just over 13 minutes to go in the title game, nine points down to Wisconsin, Krzyzewski had called his worried timeout.
And suddenly, everything changed.
Out of the timeout, Allen hit a 3.
“Now, who knows that he is going to hit 3s,” Krzyzewski would say.
And then came the play of the game, in Krzyzewski’s mind, one that gave him chills as he spoke about it two days later. Allen poked the ball away from Kaminsky, and dove on the floor to save it from going out of bounds. In the process, he drew a foul from Wisconsin’s Treavon Jackson.
“You talk about reckless abandon,” Krzyzewski said. “It was an amazing play.”
Allen wasn’t done, as he scored five consecutive points, driving to the basket and getting to the free throw line. The least heralded of Duke’s freshmen would play 21 minutes, scoring 16 points. It was a long way from that first meeting with the Badgers on Dec. 3.
Krzyzewski celebrated freely on the sideline after each play, jumping and pumping his fist.
“Usually you’re there, ‘come on, play defense’ – It wasn’t that,” he said. “It was in reaction to these plays that our guys are making. You’ve got to be kidding me.
“And part of it is, a minute ago, I thought we were dead in the water. Someone has a lifeboat. Holy mackerel, we’re on a yacht. We went from drowning to having a glass of wine on a yacht.”
While Allen’s heroics pulled Duke back in the game, it was Tyus Jones who delivered the dagger, nailing a 3 with 1:24 left to put Duke up 66-58. After he hit that shot, Jones looked over to his older brother. His eyes wide, he screamed, a smile clear in the corners of his mouth.
Jones and Okafor found each other at center court as the final horn sounded, the 6-foot-11 Okafor knocking 6-foot-1 Jones over. They laid on the hardwood, hugging and crying, as their teammates dog-piled on top.
Allen, Okafor, Winslow and Jones scored 60 of Duke’s 68 points – won and done.
“I thought we should win when we got to the Final Four,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought we were as good as any of the other three teams in the Final Four. And they were. They were. It was just a joy.”