One on one with Duke Associate Head Coach Jeff Capel

It’s been quite a year for Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel and his program. Not only did he win a national title in April, Capel also helped restock the roster by spearheading some key recruitments this spring before heading to work with Team USA over the summer. We spoke about all of that and much more with him recently.


One of the things we heard a lot about during the run to the title was “Eight Is Enough”, a reference to having just eight scholarship players at year end.  I’m curious as to how the coaches came up with that approach following the dismissal of a player.  

Coach Jeff Capel:  “Eight is Enough” is a mantra we came up with to let our guys know that we had enough in that locker room to continue our pursuit of becoming the best team we could become, and to winning a championship.  Obviously, we were in a position that we did not want to be in, and a position we had never experienced in our program.  Couple that with coming off a very tough loss at Notre Dame, and getting ready to travel to play at Virginia, who was undefeated and ranked #2 in the country.  It was College Game Day there, and people were saying it was the biggest game in the history of their program.  We wanted to let our guys know that we were confident, that there would not be any excuses, and that we had enough.  Everyone had to step up, guys would get opportunities, and we were going to win.  Simple as that.  

After the decision was made and the dismissal happened, what were the concerns and adjustments that were discussed (from practice to game management to health management to the fallout from the decision), and was it important to have all the details/etc worked out before presenting to the remaining roster?

We knew we had to adjust a lot of what we were doing in practice and preparation for games.   From that point on, we hardly did any 5-on-5 live action.  We would go over different things offensively we wanted to work on as a group.  We would walk through our defensive game plan for the opponent, then we would do a lot of individual skill work.  The skill work is the main thing we did.  As a result, our guys improved a lot individually, which in turn, made us a much better team.  Our strength coach, Will Stephens, did a great job of making sure we stayed in shape with extra conditioning for our team, and for guys individually.  Our training staff did a great job of helping us stay healthy with treatments throughout the day, recovery, and maintenance.  Really, we did a lot of what we do with the USA National team once we start a competition.  It turned out to be great as we continued to get better and played our best basketball towards the end of the season, especially on the defensive end.

Obviously the plan with Jahlil Okafor was always one and done, but was there any point during the season when you as a coaching staff began to realize that Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow could be leaving as well?

I think we had a feeling once we beat Gonzaga and advanced to the final four that there was a good chance Justise and Tyus would be leaving.  It wasn’t something we knew or talked to them about, but just a thought we had.  We were so focused on the task at hand that we did not look ahead.  We wanted to remain in that teams moment.  Once the season was over, we met with Jus and Tyus when we returned for Indy.  From there, we knew that they were most likely going to turn pro.  It was the absolute right decision for them.  It was a difficult decision because they both love Duke.  We gathered and shared information we received from NBA teams so they could make an informed decision.  Once the decision was made, we supported them and wanted to make sure they finished the semester up the right way academically.  

How did that change the recruiting focus?

The only real change was the situation with Derryck Thornton.  We felt good about where we were with Derryck, but with Tyus leaving, maybe the urgency for him to possibly graduate a year early became more serious.  With Brandon, we felt great about where we were.  We had put in a lot of work over three years with Brandon, and felt we were in a good spot.  We started recruiting Antonio towards the end of his senior season, and felt like we were in a great place with him.  Fortunately, it all worked out.  That happened because of the work we had put in over time and the relationships we developed with each kid and their family over that time. 

While there’s certainly a lot of pressure, what were some of the highlights for you as a coach and as a team in general away from the court during the run to the title that helped keep everyone loose?

Our team was an amazing team to be around all year.  These guys truly loved each other.  There was no jealousy, no resentment, nothing.  They were always loose and very confident.  That all started and happened because of Quinn Cook.  He set the tone and example from day one.  And the rest of the guys followed.  They were so much fun to be around.  When it was all over, we missed them.  We missed not being with them.  Thats when you know you have something very, very special.

In our alumni series we’ve heard a lot of guys talk about how Coach has evolved from when they played - be it strategy, their relationship with him, etc.   I’m curious as to your opinions of how he’s changed since you played in the mid-1990s to now, and how that evolution has kept him and the program in a good place.

One of the may things that makes him the best coach in sports is his ability and willingness to adapt.  Its amazing when you really think about it.  Here is a guy that has won everything:  Five NCAA titles, 12 final fours, ACC championships, two Olympic gold medals and two World Championships with USA Basketball.  He is one of the architects, along with Mr. Colangelo, Sean Ford, and the players, that has rebuilt and revived USA basketball.  So you have a man that has achieved all this, and all he wanted to do was be in this moment with this team.  He wanted to have a special moment with Quinn Cook.  With all our guys, because its what they deserved.  Most coaches or people that have accomplished greatness are stubborn to change.  They get stuck in “this is the way we do it.”  Coach is the exact opposite.  

This year we made adjustments to our defense in the middle of the season.  We constantly were tweaking things with our offense.  In the championship game, with five minutes to play, he called an ISO for Grayson Allen!  Grayson was our 8th man last year, but was/is a really good player and was having a helluva game.  Think about the confidence it must have given Grayson for in the biggest game of Grayson’s young career, down one with five minutes to go, Coach K calls an ISO for him!  I think his willingness to adapt, adjust, and the relationships he builds with his players has gone to a different level since I played here.  And he was really good at it back then.  The fact that he is still trying to learn and grow as a coach and leader with all that he has accomplished continues to amaze me!


Brandon Ingram was the considered the gem of the recruiting class this year.  What, in your opinion, makes him so unique and what will translate to the college game?

What makes Brandon unique is he is a guy that is 6-foot-9 and can play multiple positions on the court.  He can really handle the ball.  He has a very good feel.  He can really pass.  He’s a very good athlete.  And he wants to be really good.  He’s not afraid of the work that comes along with that.  He understands its a process, and he is falling in love with the process to become the best player he can be.  That is why he chose Duke.  He is in an environment every day that pushes him to be his best.  Both as a player and a person.  There is no jealousy, and no resentment.  On the court or on campus.  He has a very bright future and we are excited to watch and help him develop.  

Last year’s freshman class was clearly special in that they were ready to play from day one.  The narrative out of the program has been that last year was last year, but the goal is to always compete for the title….so how does this year’s class compare in the terms of being ready to from the start?  

Our freshmen this year are all very talented and great kids.  We feel like they have the ability to help us from day one.  We don’t compare them to any other class this year, last year, or previous years.  There is a learning curve for sure, but they are willing to put in the work and understand they have a lot to learn.  Fortunately, they have four really good guys returning in Marshall, Amile, Matt, and Grayson to help them.  That is really important.  All four of our returning players have a chance to be very good leaders.  All 4 will be key guys for us this year and are really good players.  They have been very good leaders and examples to our young guys of what it means to be a Duke basketball player.  

Derryck Thornton is stepping in as a guy who may be the starting point guard as a freshman.  He’s got some big shoes to fill at the point guard position from both Tyus and Quinn.  What about both he and his game convinced the coaches he’s up to the task?

Derryck is a very talented young player.  It’s not about him filling shoes, its about him becoming the best player he can be.  He is very different than Tyus as a player, but hopefully, he will be able to achieve similar results.  Again, we don’t compare him to anyone and have never talked to him about filling anyone’s shoes.  But we think he is more than capable of coming in and being a really good player.  We have a lot of confidence in Derryck and his ability to help us right away.


What are the biggest differences for you as a coach when it comes to your approach to working with professionals (the best in the world) versus practice at Duke?   

Coaching is coaching, in my opinion.  You have to be prepared, and know what you are doing.  The guys you are coaching may be different, but its still coaching.  The thing I’ve noticed about being with the NBA guys is you have to really know your stuff.  They are very serious about their craft and they work their butts off.  They are about business.  Its why those guys are so good.  Most people just see the end results when you watch them on television.  But there is a lot of work that goes into making the things they are able to do look so easy.  So when you are working with them, you have to be really sharp.  For instance, when we were in Vegas with USA basketball, I had a day where I was working with:  Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Demarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Deandre Jordan, and Mason Plumlee!  We are doing a drill and Lebron is asking me “which way do you want us to go when we catch?”  So you have to be sharp and decisive.  But you talk about a cool experience!

A lot has been said on what Coach has brought to Team USA and the benefits of his ability to build the program in collaboration with the Team USA executives, staff, etc.   From your perspective, what has Team USA been able to do for Coach?

A lot has been said about coach K’s involvement with USA basketball, some of which is so wrong and irresponsible, but I won’t go there.  USA basketball has made coach a better coach.  First of all, there are a lot of really good coaches in the world.  Some of the things these teams do, especially offensively, are beautiful.  We have tried to incorporate some of those things into what we do here at Duke.  Also, you’re able to learn best practices of what players do.  You ask questions of the guys of why they do certain things.  How did they get better at this or that?  

Every day you are in an environment where you are surrounded by these amazing basketball minds.  From the players to the coaching and support staff.  So if you have an open mind and a willingness to learn, you get better being in an environment like that.  The thing that is most amazing to me is how that environment was created.  How was this college coach able to come in and earn the respect of these great NBA players.  The very best players in the world. Coach is not in their world (NBA) and never has been.  But he is able to connect with them where we had a mini camp and 34 of the best players in the world show up!  That is amazing!


You’ve seen the guys in over the summer.  Has anyone in particular stood out to the point they may be ready to take their game to a different place this season?

Each guy has had moments this summer where they have stood out.  We were not so much making decisions with our guys this summer.  It was more of an evaluation of where they were when they initially got here, then us figuring out the things they need to work on, and what we need to concentrate on in our skill development program and our strength and conditioning program to help them get better.  Our whole team was here with the exception of Derryck.  They all worked very hard and had great attitudes.  We love our team and what we have a chance to become.

What are some of the major ways this team differs from last year’s group?  

It’s hard to tell right now what all the differences are.  One thing that jumps out is we are a lot taller.  We have a very tall and long team.  That’s noticeable right from the jump.  We have 4 really good returning players that have championship experience.  In the National Championship game, all 4 we in the game in the second half during our comeback.  All 4 made major contributions at different times last season.  What we need for them is to become consistently really good players.  Guys we can depend on every day.  We have all the confidence they can do that.

Is there any portion of the schedule you point to that could be the most trying or, perhaps, defining?

I haven’t really studied the schedule closely.  We take every game as a championship game.  Coach K’s motto has always been “every game is the most important game because Duke is playing.”  That approach will not change.  We feel it is a challenging schedule with the non conference opponents.  Obviously, we feel we play in the toughest and most competitive league in the country.  So we are going to strive to be at our best every game.

The white jerseys that we worn throughout March…are those a thing of the past or will they be used again this season?

The white jersey’s were awesome!  But I am not the decision maker with that.  I don’t know what jersey’s we are gonna wear until I see our guys in them.  I am not sure who is actually responsible for that

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