For a stretch on Thursday night, it looked like Coach K’s career was slipping away. His Duke Blue Devils struggled to find their feet against a physical Texas Tech squad, putting their NCAA Tournament in jeopardy. Then, when it all seemed lost, Krzyzewski pulled an ace out of his sleeve and shifted to a zone defense. That call proved to be a literal game-changer.
From afar, that looked like a pretty jarring audible. Although he’s evolved over the years, Coach K’s teams have always prided themselves on tough, man-to-man defense; just think back to Steve Wojciechowski slapping the floor before a making a stand in the 1990s. Dropping into a 2-3 zone is a page out of Jim Boeheim’s book, not Krzyzewski’s.
With all of that being said, though, Duke probably didn’t stray as far from the script as it might seem. When push came to shove, it was classic Coach K.
Duke survived a thriller to keep Coach K’s career alive
As the classic sports cliche says, “Defense wins championships.” Even in an era when offense reigns supreme, both Texas Tech and Duke did their part to prove that adage to be true.
When the game began, the Red Raiders promptly put Duke through the wringer. The young Blue Devils looked nervous, and after a couple of turnovers, they found themselves in an early hole. While they regained their footing and climbed back into the game, things didn’t get easier; Duke struggled through an ugly scoring drought and was fortunate to enter halftime trailing by only four points.
After the intermission, Coach K needed to make a change. He shifted into a zone defense, hoping to mitigate some of Texas Tech’s physicality on screens and slow down their drives. Duke got a few stops, climbed back into the game, and, thanks to some strong offensive play by Paolo Banchero and Jeremy Roach, managed to hold on to earn Krzyzewski a historic 100th March Madness win.
“What a game. What a tremendous game,” Coach K said after the contest, according to a 247 Sports transcript. “The resolve of Jeremy Roach was incredible. His drives against that defense were so strong, so determined. If Paolo — Paolo did a couple of things tonight that he has never done in his life, and he did it instinctually. He just wanted to win so badly, and it was so beautiful to see. And Mark with the rebounds. Boy, my guys are really doing a great job. They’re really doing a great job, and we beat guys who were doing a great job on the other team.”
Despite the zone defense, the win was classic Coach K
Speaking as someone who admittedly hadn’t seen much of Texas Tech before Thursday night, the Red Raiders seemed strikingly like a Coach K team of old. While recent Blue Devils squads have been made up of talented one-and-done players, their Sweet 16 opposition had plenty of March Madness experience under their collective belt. The Big 12 squad also played stifling man-to-man defense, setting up transition opportunities and building scoring runs.
By contrast, Coach K’s main rotation consists of three freshmen, two sophomores, and one junior. The Blue Devils also “saved” the game by dropping into a 2-3 zone, which would have been an unimaginable sight in Krzyzewski’s earlier years.
Despite that notable decision, the victory was classic Coach K.
Over the course of his legendary career, the iconic coach has penned numerous books, most of which detail his views on leadership. While you could cynically argue they do little more than regurgitate cliches, albeit with a royal blue veneer, there’s probably some kernel of truth buried within them. Since he’s been in the spotlight for decades, it’s safe to say that we know Krzyzewski, at least as well as you can know any public figure.
I have a copy of Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success near my desk as I’m writing this post. While the book (obviously) discusses plenty of individual words, it concludes with Krzyzewski’s beloved metaphor of “the fist.” For his teams, things boil down to five fundamentals: communication, trust, collective responsibility, care, and pride. When those are combined, he explains, everything changes. Think about the weakness of a single finger as compared to the strength of a clenched fist.
Jumping back to the present, Coach K made two admissions about Duke’s zone defense after the game. First, the possibility of using it was on the scouting report, but the Blue Devils did little more than mention it could be an option during the walk-through. Secondly, when the team returned to man-to-man defense down the stretch, it was at the urging of his players.
“It was like a Catholic boys’ choir,” the coach quipped when asked who spoke up about making the change. “It was a chorus. They all said it. They all said it, and they said it with enthusiasm. ‘We want to do this. We want to go man.’ God bless them.”
In those comments, the elements of the fist are plain to see.
Dropping into the zone, especially without much preparation, required multiple levels of trust. Coach K had to trust his gut and feel confident that his players could execute. By the same token, the Blue Devils had to believe that Krzyzewski knew what he was doing and buy into the change.
Zone defense is also based on collective responsibility and trust, which feature prominently within the fist. If anyone tries to work as an individual and doesn’t trust the player next to them, the entire system collapses.
The most striking example, however, is the decision to abandon the zone with the game on the line. There was communication on the players’ part, trust on Coach K’s part, and a sense of collective ownership. This NCAA Tournament isn’t just Krzyzewski’s last dance; it’s a chance for the entire program to do something special.
At the risk of breaking out another cliche, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Coach K probably didn’t wake up in the morning thinking that zone defense would punch his ticket to the Elite Eight, but, with retirement on the line, there was no reason to hold back. He made the call, it worked, and, in a roundabout way, it proved to be a fitting chapter within his last campaign.
And, if nothing else, there’s nothing more classically Krzyzewski than winning a game and setting another record.