The man has coached two Olympic gold medal-winning teams and five national title teams, including last season. So what you won’t hear in this space is that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is having his best season in coaching.
But it’s certainly been one of his most demanding.
Even before senior forward Amile Jefferson was injured nine games into the season, the Blue Devils were left with a depleted roster after Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones entered the NBA draft after just one season on campus. Last season’s team was so talented, it only needed tweaks here and there.
But this year’s team? The one that dropped three straight in January and fell out of the Top 25 for a brief period?
“Different teams need different things and as a leader I didn’t have to do that much last year,” Krzyzewski said. “A lot of times it was just telling them to ‘Be you’ or whatever. This group is a lot younger and less talented, obviously, but talented. It just needs a little bit more.”
In Tuesday night’s 79-71 win over Wake Forest — a team they beat 91-75 on Jan. 6 — they needed a lot more. The Demon Deacons didn’t play like a team that’s won just two games in ACC play and is only kept from the league’s basement by Boston College’s winless and hopeless campaign.
The game had eight ties and six lead changes and it was a one-point game midway through the second half.
And for only the second time this season, Krzyzewski lost his suit jacket.
“I just wanted to show our team anything, maybe a little sign,” Krzyzewski said.
It was the kind of toss often misconstrued with a coach disagreeing with an official’s call. He’s only done that twice this season — the first time came in Duke’s 95-91 home loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 16.
He wasn’t protesting; he was shaking his team up.
“When coach is fired up that fires you up. You’re either going to be excited to play a game, or if not Coach is going to drag it out of you one way or another,” senior center Marshall Plumlee said. “He has a great way of getting through to us or relating to us. I think our guys showed some maturity by responding to Coach K’s energy.”
He shakes the crowd in Cameron Indoor Stadium, too. As much as he has implored and cajoled his team this season, he’s just as likely to turn to the stands, wave his arms up and down, and demand they make some noise.
He didn’t have to do that much last season.
Plumlee said he’s seen something different from Krzyzewski in each of his five seasons on campus. Krzyzewski, he said, isn’t a coach that just fits players into a system or has “cookie-cutter methods.”
“Coach K really caters his coaching style depending on what we need whether we like it or not,” Plumlee said.
This season Plumlee said they’ve needed “a kick in the pants,” and sometimes just encouragement. Krzyzewski has had to balance both because the team depends on so many young players.
Aside from LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram, the 2015 freshman class has proven to be a bit behind in their development compared to recent years. So even though the Blue Devils had the No. 1 overall class, their three additional freshmen — Luke Kennard, Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter– haven’t just plugged into the lineup. They’ve played with the kind of inconsistencies expected of freshmen.
“We’re fighting, we’re competing, we’re growing together, but we have our moments where we look out of place or we look like our heads really aren’t into the game,” junior guard Matt Jones said. “And that’s the leader he is, he tries to find ways to kind of motivate us and get us competing at the highest level.”
It doesn’t always work, of course.
Krzyzewski drove himself so hard that he had to take a step back a month ago. He missed the Georgia Tech game — the first time since the 1995-96 season he wasn’t on the sideline with Duke — with an illness that required him to undergo a stress test.
And it didn’t work during Sunday’s 76-62 loss at Pittsburgh, which Krzyzewski described as “like an out-of-body experience.” But the kids have come to expect their coach will know when they need to be prodded along.
“Coach K is an energy-giver,” sophomore guard Grayson Allen said. “His energy is limitless; it never stops. We see his desire, his emotion, his passion to win and we have to match that as a team.”