It’s possible Jan. 10 could go down as one of the most important days in what will be Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season as the Blue Devils coach.
“We did all of our changes,” Krzyzewski said.
At 7 a.m. that day, the coaches and players met for around an hour and 15 minutes of serious, frank discussion. A practice followed in the afternoon.
That night, the players had their own conversation, with team co-captain Wendell Moore speaking up.
“Wendell talked to us,” Duke freshman guard Trevor Keels said. “We all said what we had to say. Let’s play team basketball from there.”
In the midst of all that, the first starting lineup change of the season was decided upon.
And, that night, a non-COVID virus began impacting Krzyzewski so harshly he didn’t run the team’s practice the following day or coach the team in a win at Wake Forest the next night.
That’s a lot of turmoil for a team that had experienced enough success to be considered a Final Four contender.
But Duke had lost 76-74 at home to unranked Miami on Jan. 8. Rare as they are, losses at Cameron Indoor Stadium usually spur the type of discussions and moves that occurred last week.
“We’re changing a little bit of the identity,” Krzyzewski said, “while we’re getting better.”
Through all that, Duke posted a 76-64 win at Wake Forest on Wednesday, with associate head coach Jon Scheyer leading the team in Krzyzewski’s absence, followed by an 88-73 victory over N.C. State at Cameron on Saturday with Krzyzewski back on the bench.
Changes for the better, for sure.
As No. 6 Duke prepares to play at Florida State on Tuesday night, consider Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton impressed with the Blue Devils’ cohesiveness while changing on the fly.
“This team, in my opinion, is one of the most connected teams I’ve seen Duke have,” Hamilton said Monday. “I’ve never seen them any better in terms of the execution, the effort and how committed they are.”
That commitment faced a true test coming off the loss to Miami. Because of final exam schedules that all teams face in early December, the Blue Devils experienced shorter practices early in the month. A COVID-19 outbreak on the team and staff kept them away from each other after the Christmas holiday and into the first days of the new year.
The strong team bonds built through the offseason began to atrophy from simply being apart.
Duke had its worst shooting night (37.3%) while beating Georgia Tech, 69-57, in its first game of 2022 on Jan. 4. The loss to Miami, where the Blue Devils had but squandered a three-point lead in the final 30 seconds, followed.
The NCAA mandates athletes get one full day off from any team activities per week, so that occurred on Jan. 9.
By early the next morning, the Blue Devils began shoring up any issues that had begun to take hold during a one hour, 15 minute meeting with the coaches.
“A kind of come to Jesus type of thing on how we were going to change and all that,” Krzyzewski said. “And then, we had a really good practice that afternoon.”
But that wasn’t enough. The players, sensing the importance of the moment, had their own discussion to get things out in the open.
The combination of all those talks put Duke back on track for the next two games.
“It definitely helped the team,” Banchero said. “Those were conversations that needed to be had. Us not playing hard. Us not communicating well as a team. All stuff we had to fix. So the meeting really helped because it brought our problems to light and gave us a real opportunity to fix them.”
Freshman AJ Griffin replaced sophomore guard Jeremy Roach in the starting lineup at Wake Forest and scored a season-best 22 points. Roach, coming off the bench against Wake and N.C. State, played a combined 42 minutes without turning the ball over once.
Even when Griffin had a tough shooting day, hitting just 1 of 6 shots to score three points against N.C. State, the Blue Devils won handily because sophomore center Mark Williams produced a season-high 19 points while grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking a career-best eight shots.
Steady as a rock, Banchero scored 24 points against Wake and 21 more against N.C. State.
Krzyzewski said Monday he’s happy Moore, a team captain along with senior reserve Joey Baker, regained his voice on the court to keep the communication strong.
Well-connected on offense, Duke produced 23 assists on its 35 made field goals against the Wolfpack.
Defensively, the Blue Devils limited N.C. State to 41.3% shooting, including 5 of 19 (26.2%) on 3-pointers.
A Duke team that relied more on a superior transition game while beating Kentucky and Gonzaga in November is now becoming the all-around team Krzyzewski seeks.
“Before we were really running and we will still run,” Krzyzewski said. “But I think we can be a better half court offensive team, and a better half court defensive team.”
It’s the kind of team Duke will have to be to reach the Final Four and deliver one last NCAA championship before Krzyzewski retires at season’s end.
It’s just what all the changes and conversations on Jan. 10 were all about.
“We’re definitely trending in the right direction as a team,” Banchero said. “We’re playing a lot more together, we’re communicating better on offense and defense, and we’re holding each other accountable, just as a team, and everybody listens to each other. Nobody’s stubborn. Nobody doesn’t listen. Everyone takes what someone has to say and puts it to use, so we’re definitely taking good steps.”