Say this for Mike Krzyzewski: His Blue Devils don't do anything halfway. First they reach seven Final Fours in nine years and win consecutive NCAA titles in 1991 and '92. Then, in 1995, they finish last in the ACC. Three seasons later Coach K is talking about returning to the Final Four. It has been a remarkably fast round-trip to basketball hell.
Krzyzewski, now the dean (lowercase) of ACC coaches, is reinvigorated by the scent of the hunt, and he's not soft-pedaling Duke's chances. "We're there," he says. "I know you can get beat at any time, but I would rather have my team know that, yes, we are capable of winning it all."
The Blue Devils surprised themselves last year by winning the ACC regular-season championship. Krzyzewski conjured a seven-game winning streak down the stretch by employing a three-guard offense, some smoke and a mirror or two. The success of that gimmicky lineup proved to be an illusion, though. Duke had no inside game, as its minus-6.8 rebounding margin in league games proved, and that was the Blue Devils' undoing in a 98-87 second-round loss to Providence in the NCAA tournament.
The inside game is no longer a problem, nor is the lack of depth that forced guards Steve Wojciechowski and Trajan Langdon to average 34 and 32 minutes, respectively, in ACC play. The reason: Krzyzewski signed the best quartet of freshmen in the nation—6'2" guard William Avery, 6'8" forward Shane Battier, 6'8" forward Elton Brand and 6'11" center Chris Burgess.
The freshman who has made the biggest impression since school began is Brand, a 260-pound bruiser with arms longer than a World Series game. "If I had Brand's arms, I could pick something off the floor without bending over," says the 5'10" Wojciechowski. Langdon has been impressed with Brand's game too. "You wouldn't think somebody with hands that big would have a touch like that," Langdon says. "From 10 to 12 feet, the basket just swallows his shot."
That's high praise, coming from someone who made 44.5% of his threes and 89.7% of his free throws last season. Langdon averaged 14.3 points and made first-team All-ACC despite getting off to a slow start while recuperating from knee surgery that sidelined him for the 1995-96 season. Langdon, who says it will be a few months before he fully regains the moves he had before the injury, spent last summer hitting .189 for the Idaho Falls Braves, San Diego's Class A affiliate. Three or four mornings a week, he spent an hour working on shooting and defensive drills at a local rec center. "It cost me $1.25 every time," he says. "I couldn't get a deal with them."
Krzyzewski believes he can get more out of Langdon by playing him less. "He shot 29% in our last six games," Coach K says. This season, with a front line that will go seven deep when senior Ricky Price returns from academic suspension next month, Langdon no longer has to guard the opponents' best scorer, regardless of size.
"I want to devise a defensive system that makes use of our depth," Krzyzewski says. "We're going to be playing more full-court basketball, especially defensively. We shot 135 more three-pointers than anybody else in the league last year. I don't think we'll shoot as many this year. Our defense will create a style that lends itself to more exchanges, more turnovers. Kind of like our teams in the early '90s, when we hardly ever ran our half-court offense."
The style Krzyzewski has in mind depends a great deal on Wojciechowski, who has few peers in pressuring the ball or annoying opposing fans. "I like getting on people's nerves," Wojciechowski says. "Some guys can really shoot it. Some guys are tremendous athletes. I'm a pest. You have to play to your strength."
Krzyzewski will spend the first half of the season figuring out who plays best with whom, and the second half gearing up for the NCAAs. "I'm going to bring this team along like I brought some of my old teams along," he says. "I couldn't do that for the last two years. I just want us to know that we can compete at that level. If I do that, we might win again. The whole thing. Maybe more than once. I do believe the talent level is there."