Isn’t it great when Coach K gets cranky?
As the years have passed into decades and the legend’s resume has grown impossibly more legendary, Mike Krzyzewski has more and more frequently employed his God-like stature to bitch about various aspects of the game whose manifold challenges he blithely tamed before any of his current players were born. While never appearing less than rational in his criticisms, Coach K can brink on indiscriminate in his eye-rolling frustrations with other coaches, referees, the NCAA, the entire amateur basketball apparatus, and just about anything else that involves the bouncing of an orange ball on a hardwood court in pursuit of baskets.
Depending on your perspective, this is Krzyzewski at his most fun and human-like. Despite his endless successes, things annoy him. He has many advantages over his enemies in terms of reputation, resources, and recruiting, and those advantages keep his star-making factory functioning at a Warhol-like level of productivity. But along with this comes unreasonable expectations and outsize criticisms.
This week, on the heels of a dominating 90–69 win against a not-at-all-bad Indiana team, Krzyzewski had words for the Duke fan base itself, or at least the portion he deemed overly critical following the team’s first defeat last Wednesday. That defeat came in the form of a nail-biting 89–87 loss to Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational, against a team that is deep and experienced and is now ranked first in the nation. It was the Blue Devils’ third game in three days, and they often looked sloppy and disorganized. They were tired. They didn’t defend well. And yet they were one or two blown calls away from winning.
In defending his already famous young team, Coach K attempted to deflate the ever-ballooning hype dirigible that has followed one of history’s most storied recruiting classes for the better part of a year. This was classic Krzyzewski, pitched somewhere between insolent pique and high moral authority.
“Duke fans, just cut it out, man,” he angrily proclaimed. “These kids aren’t perfect. I’ll go to war with my guys. We lose, I’ll lose with them.”
Folks, don’t poke the bear.
“Let’s get real about this whole thing,” he said. “Let’s not get spoiled. We’ve got four nineteen-year-old kids that are busting their ass trying to learn how to play and have a lot of pressure on them.”
Of course he is correct on the merits. But it’s so hard not to get spoiled! In fact, it’s too late.
It is weird on some level that the final chapter of Coach K’s career will be spent managing the expectations placed on one-and-dones. After years of largely avoiding players who are sure to jump to the pros after just a year in Durham, the program has made a 180-degree turn in recent seasons and loaded up on the best and brightest freshmen available. There’s nothing grotesquely wrong with that accommodation, but the ultimate consequence of adjacency to that level of talent is patience. While Coach K may rationally wish to pump the breaks on expectations for his freshman class, ten million Instagram followers can’t be wrong. Zion, Cam, R.J., and Tre will be expected to deliver night after night, without exception. All the coach can really do is kvetch, and so, as is his wont, he has done so with a championship level of acuity.
In any event, we’re off and running now. This season promised to be nuts, and six games in, it already is. And we’re still five weeks away from the beginning of ACC play! This week’s glorified exhibitions with Stetson and Hartford should give everybody a chance to calm down. In fact, the next serious test appears to be a full three weeks away, when Texas Tech visits Durham on December 20. Many things are going to happen on this long, strange ride, so take a deep breath and enjoy the downtime.
The Record: 5–1
The Ranking: #3
What to Watch For: How long will the starters play