Kevin White and Mike Krzyzewski walked into Lucas Oil Stadium together Thursday morning. The Duke athletic director and basketball coach have been here before, winning a national title in 2010, coming within one game of the Final Four in 2013.
There is nothing new or unfamiliar about it, especially not after 1,000 wins and 12 Final Fours and four national titles, and yet White noted Krzyzewski’s demeanor was far, far from jaded.
“He is giddy, here today,” White said Thursday morning. “He’s so excited to be here.”
A year after Krzyzewski admitted he didn’t have enough energy or focus during the second half of a season that ended all too quickly, he says he’s never felt better at this time of year. Duke made it to the Final Four, its first in five years, but the season began with Krzyzewski wondering how he’d feel if he made it this far.
The answer: Giddy, apparently.
“I was worried: ‘I hope I have the gas, the energy,’” Krzyzewski said. “But it hasn’t been a stretch at all. In fact, I think I’m as energized now as I’ve ever been at the end of the year.”
At 68, he has been energized by not only the atmosphere around this team, which managed to coalesce into a tight-knit unit despite any number of potential hurdles, but also by his USA Basketball experience over the summer, which – instead of being a drain on his time – helped restore his passion for basketball.
“He took last year hard. He took a lot of the blame, for not getting to guys,” Duke senior guard Quinn Cook said. “He took it hard last year. I think (Team) USA got him back to where he was in game mode, tournament mode, scouting.
“Usually in the summer, in the fall, we’re just working out and stuff, and he kind of eases his way in, kind of feels the team. He came back locked in and was ready the first time he and coach (Jeff) Capel got back. (Team) USA really re-energized him from last year. He hasn’t let up at all.”
A full reassessment
Last season was difficult for Krzyzewski, on and off the court. Long before the NCAA loss to Mercer, he was struggling to deal with the death of his older brother Bill, just after Christmas. Duke went on a bit of a swoon in the weeks that followed, and Krzyzewski took the blame for it.
In March, during a loss at Wake Forest, Krzyzewski became dizzy and almost collapsed on the bench. He was examined by doctors at Duke and cleared, but it was an unusual moment of frailty during a season that clearly weighed upon him in many ways. Afterward, he initiated a full reassessment of every aspect of his program, including himself.
“One, I’ve tried to stay in better shape, too. It may not look it, but I’ve tried,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve had energy all year. So I never had a dip. I’m surprised at it, really. Now, last year, I just had a personal thing that was tough to get over. It just was difficult to get over. I didn’t like who I was last year, in the second half of the year for my team. I didn’t. So you get motivated by not liking what you did, sometimes. Or how you look.”
Krzyzewski also was influenced and enervated by factors over which he had less control. The makeup of his team, this team, was a major one.
Unlike 2012 or 2014, when Duke’s chemistry was clearly off – visibly, from the outside – this team has operated without friction, in part because Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones were a package deal, in part because Justise Winslow wanted to join them, in part because Cook was both frustrated with the way his first three years at Duke ended and had matured as a leader.
These are Krzyzewski’s guys. They respond to him.
“It’s an amazing thing,” White said. “It’s a very unique dynamic.”
And perhaps because this team has, and has had, from the beginning, a limited lifespan, Krzyzewski has talked repeatedly about being “in their moment,” seeing the season not through the eyes of a coach with more than 1,000 wins but the eyes of a 19-year-old freshman doing it all for the first and likely only time.
His Duke players aren’t the only ones keeping him young. His Team USA players have as well. His time with USA Basketball, once perceived to be a drain on Duke basketball, has turned out to be the opposite.
Not only has his prominent association with top NBA players opened recruiting doors that might not have been open before, his experience at that level, with unfamiliar players and peers as assistants and a different style of basketball, has re-engaged him as a coach. And after a difficult season at Duke, winning the World Championships over the summer – with Duke assistant Capel alongside – sent him back to campus with renewed vigor.
“This year, he just seemed more focused after winning a gold medal with Team USA,” Cook said. “He came in, already in tournament mode. He was locked in. He hasn’t let up ever since.”
White said there wasn’t any one conversation about Krzyzewski’s concerns about his energy level, just an “ongoing dialogue” as he would have with any of his coaches. He was concerned then. He is not now.
“As I look over at him, I see him getting younger,” White said, “which is amazing to me, truly amazing to me.”
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947