The Duke Odyssey
In the midst of all the distractions, sophomore Luke Kennard has emerged, averaging 21 points per game.
This has been anything but an ordinary season at Duke.
Three prized freshmen missed the opening month due to assorted injuries. Grayson Allen tripped Elon guard Steven Santa Ana - his third such incident in the last two seasons - and was suspended for a game. Mike Krzyzewski coached his last game for a month on Wednesday. He’ll have surgery Friday to remove a fragment of a herniated disk from his lower back.
“I feel like a guy who is alright and ready to go to surgery and I’ll be happy when it’s done,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday night. “This has been about a month of this. You try to beat it and you can’t beat it. So, I give up ... I do know how to beat it. You have to go for surgery.”
Allen returned to the starting lineup Wednesday against Georgia Tech. His indefinite suspension lasted one game. You can bet Krzyzewski didn’t want his temporary replacement, associate head coach Jeff Capel, burdened with deciding when Allen returned. Although most TV talking heads and all non-Duke fans felt the suspension was too short, it’s not difficult to understand why K made the decision when he did.
“Talking with (Duke athletic director) Kevin White and there were things behind the scenes that we’re doing,” K told reporters after Duke beat Georgia Tech 110-57. I think it’s appropriate what we’ve done. We feel like it was appropriate.”
Allen said he let his teammates down.
“It’s tough to watch because if I did all the right things, I would’ve been out there. And I didn’t and with that part of it, I let my team down and I’m sorry to the guys for not being able to be out there with them,” he said. “It’s not anyone else’s fault but myself and so that part of it, as a competitor, really hurt, but I’m very happy to be back now.”
Nevertheless, the Blue Devils are full strength for the first time this season. Against the Yellow Jackets, they played like the team picked No. 1 in the preseason, setting season-highs for points (110), 3-pointers (16) and assists (24). Freshman forward Harry Giles had a double-double as he joined the starting lineup for the first time, alongside Allen, leading scorer Luke Kennard, freshman small forward Jayson Tatum and fifth-year senior Amile Jefferson, the team’s leading rebounder.
Krzyzewski felt it was important to identify that starting lineup and tighten the rotation to seven or eight players before he departed. Ordinarily, Duke would’ve accomplished these goals during its two exhibition games, but again, this season has been anything but.
“Sometimes you ask these guys to do a little bit more than they can do and they forgot what they can do,” he said.
If Krzyzewski is out for exactly one month, he’ll miss eight games, including back-to-back trips to Florida State (Jan. 10th) and Louisville (Jan. 14th).
This won’t be Capel’s first time filling in. He coached the Blue Devils at Georgia Tech last season when K was ill and couldn't make the trip. He joined the staff in May 2011 after nine years as a head coach at VCU and Oklahoma. Most important perhaps, he was the primary recruiter for a majority of the Blue Devils’ current roster. Some view this as an opportunity for Capel to prove he’s the right man to replace his boss permanently, whenever that day arrives. Krzyzewski turns 70 next month. This will be his fifth surgery in the last year. Time marches on and change will come to the Duke bench, probably within the next five years.
Capel takes over the Blue Devils when, all of a sudden, they look like a team and not just a compilation of individuals measured in flashy highlights and recruiting stars. Just two weeks ago, Kennard questioned whether some teammates were unselfish enough. Yet, after the Tech demolition, he and the other Blue Devils praised the joy felt when sharing the basketball.
“Today was probably our best game so far as a collective unit, the way we moved the ball, everybody scoring and having fun,” said Tatum, who projects as a top-5 pick in June’s NBA Draft. “I think that’s how we should play all the time. I think we were more together today and everybody was having fun. Nobody was down. Everybody was just worried about winning and it showed. Nobody cared about who scored just as long as we scored, and we were having fun doing it.”
Even with the disjointed roster, undefined roles and questionable chemistry, Duke is sixth in the nation in points per possession (1.19), recording 82.9 points per game and 13-2 entering Saturday's visit from Boston College.
Capel will put his stamp on the Blue Devils before Krzyzewski returns, presumably, Feb. 9 when rival North Carolina visits Cameron Indoor Stadium. If the timing works out that way, expect a raucous greeting from the home fans and another unusual scene in a Duke season that, so far, reads like a cheap paperback novel rather than a championship reflection.