When TDD interviewed former Blue Devil turned head coach Jeff Capel a few years ago, we asked about what happened to an obviously talented team during the infamous 13-18 year. The answer was what you might expect, but rang very true at that time.
"We lost our leader, and when that happened we were left with a bunch of guys who didn't know how to come together and win. Without Coach, we were just lost and things kept going against us -- eventually it just snowballed and we were out of control."
Fast forward to this season and you can certainly draw comparisons between the two years. Both teams' star players were young - though this year's team is younger. Both teams were facing a strong ACC schedule, though the '95 team probably had a more difficult road in terms of the league's overall talent. And both teams started 0-2 in the ACC - losing the opener at home and then the first road game -- oddly enough to Georgia Tech.
That brings up the potential answer to the long standing question. Just how much of a difference will Mike Krzyzewski make? Some will argue that the Coach K difference was seen during the 1995-1996 season when a less talented (on paper) squad clawed their way to 18 wins. However, this comparison is a bit off since it was Krzyzewski's first year back and emotions were riding high.
What he did from there is history as the Blue Devils run of unsurpassed dominance over the ACC began in 1998 with the arrival of K's best recruiting class in years (William Avery, Chris Burgess, Shane Battier, and Elton Brand). Now, Duke is once again at a sort of cross roads when it comes to immediate success. The long term success isn't as concerning at this point since Duke will welcome an already top five rated class full of scorers next year, and may still add the nation's top un-committed power player. No, the concern now is the 2006-2007 season in which we'll finally see the difference Krzyzewski can make.
Once again Duke is a team full of young players, without a proven top drawer ACC scorer. Once again the Blue Devils got off to a fast early season start, winning 13 of their first 14. And once again Duke has been knocked off that lofty perch with a pair of early season ACC losses.
There are some other similarities as well. Just as Capel recounted, you can see the pressure mounting on the young players in every thing they do on the court. At least Krzyzewski does.
"I told the press conference last night that you don't inherit winning. We've got to learn how to win with this group of kids. [Against Georgia Tech] I didn't think it was the three point shooting that hurt us. We missed lay-ups, and put backs - and that put more pressure on the three point shooting. When it was 55-53, there were five or six plays right around the basket that we just didn't finish. We haven't been a good finishing team all year long, which is why we've struggled to put up points. Our kids are playing hard, but they have to learn how to win. That's what we have to teach them."
That mission begins on Sunday afternoon with a trip to Coral Gables to face a Miami Hurricane team that is coming off a big victory over No. 24 Maryland on Wednesday night at the Comcast Center. Though most Duke fans figured the game against Miami may, in fact, have been the most winnable game this week - it should be noted that the Hurricanes already have an eight point victory over Georgia Tech on their resume.
In 1995 after the loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the Blue Devils traveled to Winston Salem where they were dealt a 10 point loss despite 23 points from Capel. The next week they built a huge lead on Virginia only to watch the Cavaliers roar back and win in double overtime. At that point Duke was 0-4 in the ACC and snowball effect was in full force as the Blue Devils wouldn't win in the ACC until a Cherokee Parks double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) led the Blue Devils to a 77-70 win over those same Yellow Jackets in Cameron. By that time it was too late and the team without a leader was done at 1-9 in the ACC and 11-11 overall.
Just like this year's team the players were playing with pride and were in every game. They were battling and leaving it all on the court - losing those first nine games by an average of just 5.1 points per game. But they didn't have their coach, and they didn't know how to lead themselves.
Luckily for this group, they have their Coach and he's at full strength. Which means things in Dukeville are bound to improve. It may also provide an answer on what might have been more than 10 years ago.