Checking in with ... Duke
Sophomore Nolan Smith should take over for Greg Paulus as starting point guard
Freshman center Miles Plumlee provides Duke with a missing dimension
If Gerald Henderson steps up, Duke could make it to the Final Four
DURHAM, N.C. -- Now this is what I call an open Mike: As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski conducts the Blue Devils' fourth practice of the season, his nasally, Chicago-accented voice is being piped through the sound system at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Krzyzewski is wearing a microphone for the benefit of the 200 or so spectators who are assembled in the upper deck as part of a leadership conference being conducted by Duke's Fuqua School of Business, where Krzyzewski is a member of the faculty.
Coach K has mostly praise for his players, but towards the end of the two-and-a-half-hour workout, he loses his patience. The Blue Devils are scrimmaging five-on-five, with the starters wearing white jerseys and the backups wearing blue, and the blue team starts to get the better of the first-stringers. Finally, after 6-foot-10 freshman center Miles Plumlee throws a careless pass out of bounds, Coach K lets 'em have it, microphone be damned. "White shirts, you look like f------ losers right now," he barks. "There's no f------ energy. And you're getting your asses beat."
Nothing a little direct (K)ommunication to make you feel glad that college hoops season has arrived.
Krzyzewski may be 61 years old and beginning his 29th season at Duke, but don't think for a moment he has a lost his edge. Fresh off his gold medal triumph with the U.S. Olympic team, Coach K is by all accounts refreshed and revived, not to mention a little relieved that the huge time commitment of USA Basketball is behind him. "I thought about it every day for three years," he told me as we sat together on the sideline after practice ended. "It didn't negatively impact me, it helped me. But now that's off my plate."
Krzyzewski's experience with Kobe, LeBron et al. will forever be a frame of reference for him. As we talked about his Duke program, he constantly peppered his remarks with analogies to the Olympic team. First and foremost is his analysis that last year's squad, which went 28-6 but barely survived 15th-seeded Belmont in the first round of the NCAA tournament before bowing out to West Virginia in the second round, sputtered partly because it was trying to live up to the school's legacy.
"When you don't have older players, you can get caught up with playing for what Duke has done. You have a different opponent than the team you're playing against," he said. "We could have had that with the U.S. team. If we lose, as the coach of that team, it's not going to be a happy lifetime, because people are people and they're going to jam that down your throat. Same thing as a player. Does LeBron get called LeBronze? I can give you a list of things that were our opponents. Spain had none. We were Spain's only opponent."
The main reason Krzyzewski is optimistic about his current team is that for the first time in three years, he is coaching older players. Two years ago, the Blue Devils had zero seniors and just one junior. Last year, they had one senior (guard DeMarcus Nelson) and had to rely on a freshman, 6-9 forward Kyle Singler, to be its lone inside threat. (Singler got so worn down that he gained 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.) As a result, players had to be forced the last two years into certain positions not based on merit but on need.
This year, Coach K can finally build his team the way he usually likes to, around three dominant players: Singler, 6-4 junior guard Gerald Henderson and 6-5 junior guard Jon Scheyer. Just like he did with Kobe, LeBron and Dwyane Wade. "Now," he says, "we have guys who are worthy of being complemented."
Krzyzewski also admitted that even when his team was 22-1 last season, they were "kind of jabbing and dancing around the ring." When they got to the NCAAs, they showed they couldn't take a punch. That's what happens when you have no depth inside, but for those of you who are skeptical that the Blue Devils can avoid the same fate this season, let me assure you this group is far better equipped to handle the mental and physical rigors of the postseason. Before I get to my official breakdown, I'll pass along three overriding impressions from my visit to practice last Tuesday:
1. Nolan Smith is this team's starting point guard. Period. I speculated in my Twenty Questions column that Smith, a 6-2 sophomore, might overtake 6-1 senior Greg Paulus at some point during the season. Turns out that point was the first practice.
Smith had a listless workout when I was there, but that's only because he was trying to shake off a stomach virus that had him vomiting for two straight days. Everybody I talked to, Krzyzewski included, said that Smith had played better in the summer and fall than any other player. And when I raised the question to Coach K that this development might be tough for Paulus to deal with, he brushed me off. "There's only one ego on this team, and that's our team ego," he said. "So everybody is responsible for doing what's best for the team. This isn't some inherited wealth. Each year you have to earn it. That doesn't mean Greg's a bad player, but right now Nolan would start."
I asked Krzyzewski if he had talked to Paulus about this. "We talk to all of our guys. We're a program of full disclosure," he said. "You have good chemistry by telling the truth. You can tell a lie without ever saying anything, just by not playing the right people."
2. Plumlee is much better than I realized. The 6-10 freshman from Warsaw, Ind., was a late addition to the program. He had originally signed with Stanford, but the school released him last spring from his commitment after Cardinal coach Trent Johnson left for LSU. The fact that Krzyzewski's former player and top assistant, Johnny Dawkins, was Johnson's successor didn't stop Coach K from signing Plumlee, and now I can see why.
For someone who is as young and tall as he is, Plumlee has plenty of meat on his bones, and he is very agile to boot. (Krzyzewski told me he jumped 6 feet, 9 inches for his high school track team.) He seemed a little lost at times basketball-wise, but that's nothing unusual considering it was only his fourth practice. Plumlee is Duke's best shot-blocker, and he fits the Blue Devils' wide-open style much better than 7-1 sophomore center Brian Zoubek. If the season started today, Plumlee would be Duke's starting center.
3. Communication is a top priority. I have been to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of practices during my years of covering college basketball, and I can say without a doubt that no other coach emphasizes communication quite as much as Krzyzewski does. This is how he described it to the participants in Fuqua's leadership conference: "We have three systems -- offense, defense and a system of communication."
He harps on this all the time. During one offensive sequence, he said to 6-4 freshman Elliott Williams, "You were open. You have to call for the ball. It's okay if you call for it and don't get it, but you have to let him know you're there." Later, he stopped a defensive drill to say, "This isn't about talking. This is about commanding. You got him! You got him! I got him!" Still later: "All of us need to call for the ball more. Don't assume your teammates can see you."
At Duke, the players are required to talk to each other even during the most basic drills. If they relax a little bit, Krzyzewski will step in and remind them to keep up their vocal energy. I've heard other coaches describe certain players as quiet types who lead by example. At Duke, they have a special place for such types. It's called the bench.
In other words, the Blue Devils are going to make plenty of noise this season.