College Basketball

Duke assistant Jeff Capel instrumental in building these Blue Devils

Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel speaks with Duke guards Tyus Jones, center, and Quinn Cook during the Jan. 13 loss to Miami.
Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel speaks with Duke guards Tyus Jones, center, and Quinn Cook during the Jan. 13 loss to Miami. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke has many connections to Houston: It’s the hometown of freshman Justise Winslow, the site where the Blue Devils clinched their most recent Final Four bid in 2010, and so on and so forth back through time.

But there’s another little-known connection to Houston, one that helped set the foundation for the Duke team as it is assembled today, readying to play Utah (26-8) in the Sweet 16. It was at the 2011 Final Four in this city that Duke reached out to Jeff Capel about coming back and joining the staff.

“I was at the Final Four in Houston, and I got a call from Chris (Collins),” Capel said. “And he just told me that (Steve Wojciechowski) was probably going to take the Dayton job. He and Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) had talked, and they felt like they needed me back with what they were losing and things like that. Would I have interest?”

Capel had recently been let go by Oklahoma, after inheriting a program saddled with NCAA sanctions, recruiting the future No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft (Blake Griffin) and compiling a 96-69 record over five seasons in Norman (an NCAA investigation for the last year and a half of his tenure implicated an assistant, but not Capel, for taking an impermissible benefit).

So Krzyzewski didn’t want to reach out directly – Capel was a head coach, and Krzyzewski wanted to respect that. And ESPN had called, so Capel was preparing for a role in television.

But Collins’ call changed Capel’s thinking.

“I said look, if Coach wants me to come back, I’ll do it,” Capel said. “I wasn’t looking to coach. I felt like in some ways I needed a break because of the last year and a half and how difficult it was at there at Oklahoma. But the opportunity to come back here and to, A, learn from him and to really understand how to run a program and B, to be with CC and Wojo, and it was home.

“It was almost like divine. I needed it. As much as he may say he needed me, I needed to be in this environment. I needed to be back home. I needed to be with people that I know care about me because of what my family had just gone through out there, especially like I’m in that last year and a half. It was like the perfect marriage. It was a little bit of a godsend, to be honest.”

It was a little bit of a godsend for Duke, too. Since his return to Durham before the 2011-12 season, Capel has been the point man for the recruitment of Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Winslow – and the latter three are pacing Duke (31-4) in the NCAA tournament run.

“With me personally, he related to me a lot,” Winslow said of Capel. “Just with where he came from, where he grew up, how he grew up, that sort of thing. Music, just his knowledge of the game, those are things that really attracted me to him.”

“I love Jeff. He has been so good for me,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a natural.”

It should be noted that Wojciechowski did not end up in Dayton that offseason, but Krzyzewski still made a spot for Capel on his staff (Nate James moved to the special assistant role to make room). And since then, both of Capel’s former teammates, Collins and Wojciechowski, have left to become first-time head coaches at Northwestern and Marquette, respectively. And as they have moved on, Capel has taken on more responsibility.

When Capel arrived, all three assistants would take turns as the head scout when making preparations for future opponents. This year, Krzyzewski rearranged responsibilities so it was always him and Capel handling that role. And in addition to his recruiting duties, it’s Capel who has spent the most time with Okafor, helping develop the player that will likely be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft.

“I look at some of the things I did when I was a head coach – I feel like I’m so much better now,” Capel said. “And a big reason is being in this environment, watching how a program is put together, how it’s run, the behind-the-scenes, the support system, the value in that. Those are things that I didn’t understand to the level that I understand it now. And I don’t think I ever would have if I wasn’t here and having a chance to learn.”

Capel is still a head coach at heart, and he wants to run his own program again. This week, his name surfaced in connection with the opening at Arizona State, and there is mutual interest and intrigue on both sides. Krzyzewski was asked about Capel’s potential departure on Tuesday, and he offered a ringing endorsement.

But Krzyzewski isn’t quite ready for Capel to leave him just yet.

“Hopefully he can finish his tour here in fine shape,” Krzyzewski said with a smile. “Something great will happen for him.”

Twitter: @laurakeeley

Duke vs. Utah

When: 9:45 p.m.

Where: NRG Stadium, Houston

TV/Radio: CBS, 620 AM/102.9 FM

Projected starting lineups

Duke (30-4)

G Tyus Jones, 11.4 ppg, 5.8 apg

G Quinn Cook, 15.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Matt Jones 5.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg

F Justise Winslow, 12.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg

C Jahlil Okafor, 18.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg

Utah (26-8)

G Brandon Taylor, 10.5 ppg, 3.4 apg

G Delon Wright, 14.7 ppg, 5.2 apg

F Jordan Loveridge 10.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg

F Chris Reyes, 4.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg

C Jakob Poeltl, 9.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg

Three keys

1. How will Duke defend the high ball screen?

Utah loves to put 6-foot-5 point guard Delon Wright in high ball screens, which plays a little bit to a weakness in Duke’s defense (Jahlil Okafor has struggled to defend, at times, when he is pulled out to the perimeter by his man). Utah has the ability to make it rain from 3-point range, too, so going zone might not be the best option, either.

2. How do the Utes handle Jahlil Okafor?

Utah has the frontcourt depth to be physical with Okafor and force him to beat the Utes from the free throw line, where he shoots 51.6 percent. Freshman 7-footer Jakob Poeltl is a potential first-round NBA draft pick, if he decides to leave school (though he is not used to guarding players at Okafor’s caliber)

3. Does Justise Winslow rise to the occasion at home?

Winslow is back in his hometown of Houston, playing in front of family and friends . Does it affect him in a positive or negative way (bet on the former).

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