I have met Mike Krzyzewski and know several people that know him intimately, having played for him. Coach K is not the saint many of his supporters paint him to be, nor is he the selfish egomaniac that others see. Like many of us, he is a saint on some days and selfish on others. The thing about Coach K is that when selfishness has shown up, it's usually been because of his hubris.
I wrote these short portrayals of these two legendary coaches because of the comparisons that are made between Coach and Coach K. The facts speak for themselves; Coach won 10 NCAA titles and is almost universally acknowledged as the greatest basketball coach in the history of the sport. Coach K has won 4 national titles, but holds the record for NCAA Division 1 wins and the most NCAA Tourney wins in history. Most of those wins have come at Duke, where Krzyzewski has been the coach since coming from Army in 1979.
As Coach K racks up the years and the wins, whether BROs want to admit it or not, he inches closer to Coach's legacy. In his 33-plus seasons in Durham, Krzyzewski has defeated UCLA, sometimes badly, and lost to the Bruins, sometimes badly. A win against UCLA means something to Krzyzewski because he understands legacies. A win against Duke creates a bit more of a buffer for UCLA's and Coach's legacy. UCLA versus Duke hasn't been a big match-up or potential match-up on the national stage since Ben Howland's teams were in the middle of their three Final Four runs, but to the schools, and especially to Coach K, it is always a big game.
UCLA and Duke square off at 4:30 PM PST on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, with the game televised nationally on ESPN.
For the first time in a while, this is a big game for both teams. While still high in the polls, Duke was beaten soundly by a Kansas team that is looking more and more average, and saw a lead against Arizona slip away because the Blue Devils stopped shooting the ball well in the second half. The Blue Devils nearly lost at Cameron Indoor to a decidedly bad Vermont team, struggled with a Michigan team that is having its own issues and even struggled a bit with a mediocre Alabama squad. In short, this isn't the Duke of 20 or even 5 years ago. Don't get me wrong, the Blue Devils have talent, but they aren't deep and they have some glaring holes.
Krzyzewski's Duke teams are founded on an offense that spreads the floor and a very active ball pressure, man defense.
The Duke offense is essentially a four-out, one-in offense and is spread quite liberally. The key to the offense is quickness and shooting. The idea is that the spread of the offense makes it very difficult for the opponent to provide help defense, and the quickness that Duke has had at times over the years allowed Blue Devil players to continually beat their man to the paint. As defenses began to play full lane denial defense against the Blue Devils, the Dookies buried the opposition under a flurry of ‘3's. Generally, Coach K had a solid, if not very good true post player who could score on the block when the inevitable pass was made by the driver of the ball. You could tell when Duke was missing one of these components when they struggled, either in a game or in a full season.
Duke has the three-point shooting, the post play and just enough quickness to keep defenses honest. The best players this season for the Blue Devils have been true freshman Jabari Parker (6'8" 235 lbs.), sophomore Rodney Hood ( 6'8" 215 lbs.) and junior Quinn Cook (6'2" 180 lbs.).
Parker is going to be a one-and-done player. He leads the Blue Devils in scoring at 22 PPG, rebounding at 7.6 RPG, is second in three-point shooting percentage at 47%, leads in blocks with 14 and is tied for the team lead in steals. Parker has the capability of single-handedly running the Bruins off the Madison Square Garden court. However, Parker has some areas the Bruins can exploit. Like most freshmen, Parker is subject to moodiness, especially when his shots aren't falling. When that happens, he can become overly selfish and start shooting Duke out of sections of a game. Still, if UCLA is relying on Parker to have a bad game in order for the Bruins to win, then UCLA could be in trouble.
Hood is the second-leading scorer and rebounder at 18.9 PPG and 5 RPG. He is a better shooter from the floor than Parker but his slight frame allows opponents to push him around. Parker is 20 pounds heavier. Like Parker, Hood is just as apt from the inside as he is from the outside as Hood leads the team in both three-point attempts and free throw attempts.
Cook is the clear floor general on the team, having 60 assists on the season. He is also a solid scorer at the point guard position, averaging 14.7 PPG. He is, however, the worst statistical shooter of the big 3 Blue Devils. That doesn't mean he's poor as he shoots 50% from the floor and 39% from behind the arc.
It certainly also helps Duke that the big 3 shoot 86%, 85% and 75% from the free throw line.
The question you may be asking is, with all that these three players can do, how is it that Duke is perceived as struggling? There are several reasons for that, but since I'm writing about offense, I'll focus on that end of the floor.
Duke isn't deep--in fact, if any one of Parker, Hood or Cook go down for any length of time, it could derail Duke's season. The problem for Duke is that some guys have been slow to develop (Rasheed Sulaimon) or haven't developed (Marshall Plumlee) as Coach K would have liked or imagined.
Because of this lack of depth, Krzyzewski has been tinkering with his starting line-up, even as late as this past Tuesday night. Senior Tyler Thornton (6'2" 190 lbs.) will start, but the question is whether he'll finish…he's fouled out of three games already this season. Senior Josh Hairston (6'8" 235 lbs.) started on Tuesday, but he doesn't offer much more than a big body. Sulaimon has started 4 games but he is deep in Coach K's doghouse right now. Sophomore Amile Jefferson (6'9" 210 lbs.) has started in place of Hairston, but he is very raw and thin.
The one player off the bench that Krzyzewski can count on is 5th year senior guard Andre Dawkins (6'5" 215 lbs.). He is the offensive dynamo off the bench for Duke. He averages 8.6 PPG, shoots over 50% from the field and 49% from behind the arc. He does all this in an average of 12 MPG. Dawkins, however, is almost strictly an outside shooter, having attempted 37 of his 47 shots from outside the three-point line this season.
But, still, even with the depth issues, Duke shoots over 50% as a team, gets to the line, and has four players who can light it up from deep…so what's the problem?
The problem, on top of depth, is that Duke has produced these statistics against some weak competition. Duke has had a few poor shooting performances and the Blue Devils have tended to come against the tougher competition. However, until UCLA shows sustained effort on the defensive end of the floor, then you have to figure that Duke will shoot around 50% for the game.
That means that UCLA has to do the same…and UCLA actually can do that. You see, Duke's biggest failing this season has been its lack of a solid defense. The ball pressure defense only works when you have quickness and athleticism on the perimeter. Duke lacks that. The ball pressure defense only works if you have a rim protecting big man for when you get beat off the dribble. Duke doesn't have that. The ball pressure defense only works if you hold the opposition to one shot opportunity per possession.
Heck, Duke looks a lot like UCLA; very efficient offenses with mediocre to little effort on the defensive end and on the boards.
If UCLA can score at will, as the Bruins did in the first half against Missouri, then UCLA has a real chance, but what gives UCLA its biggest chance, and why UCLA has a better chance of beating the Dookies than Missouri is the fact that Duke is not a team that tries to physically impose its will on you. They don't crash the boards or own the glass with ferocity. In fact, I think it's safe to say that if UCLA get ups by 8 at the half that Duke won't have the physicality necessary to knock the Bruins around. This isn't to say UCLA will win, only that Duke won't be able to intimidate UCLA like Missouri clearly did in the second half of that game.
UCLA has some real questions, namely in terms of the defensive match-ups. Coach Alford has to decide who's going to guard Hood and Parker. It's funny (as in ironic) that this could be the game where playing Wannah Bail could have real dividends for the Bruins as he appears to have the athleticism to stay with Parker or Hood.
UCLA really can't go to a zone because Duke shoots well enough to rout the Bruins if Alford decides to play that sagging 2-3.
The emotional piece of this may go to the Bruins. Kyle Anderson is from the New York City area and he will undoubtedly have a large contingent of family and friends in the MSG stands. He'll want to play well in front of those that care about him. Then there's the little case of Anderson's short suspension last year. Without rehashing it all, if Anderson blames Krzyzewski for that suspension then we can bet we'll see Kyle play at another level. However, it's tough to predict if those things will happen.
I wrote in the Missouri preview that the game would come down to who would impose their will on the game more, UCLA with its penchant for causing turnovers, or Mizzou, with their ownership of the glass. Missouri won that battle. This game will strictly come down to a battle of the glass. Whichever team rebounds better will win the game, period. Duke has been getting outrebounded all season. UCLA has the ability to win the glass. We'll see if the Bruins have the wherewithal.
A win by the Bruins keeps Krzyzewski's chase of Wooden's ghost at bay, if just for a little bit, while a Duke win inches him closer, whether we like it or not. Until UCLA proves it can win games like this and Alford has the coaching chops to take down an admittedly well-coached team, I have to predict the Bruins will lose…but this will be very close.