Are we witnessing the end of the Coach K era?
At some point, the Duke University men's basketball team turned into a one-and-done factory, and the funny thing about is that Mike Krzyzewski—by any measure one of the two or three greatest coaches in men's college basketball history, and by wins the absolute best—fell neatly into John Calipari's slipstream and never really took any heat for it. While Calipari was the sport's arch-villain to the purists, transforming college basketball into something transactional and grotesque (as though the prevailing system of indentured servitude wasn't already grotesque), Coach K mostly escaped criticism by doing the same exact thing, but later. He too decided that there was no better way forward than to assemble as many great freshmen as you could get, year after year, and try your best to foster some chemistry in a short time span before they left. It yielded a national championship exactly once, just like it did for Calipari, when those freshmen were a little more special than most years, and it came up short the rest of the time when the task of creating a juggernaut in a handful of months was too much. Even with talent like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett on the court, at the same time, Duke failed to reach the Final Four.
Now, even the Zion team feels like ancient history. These are boom times for Duke haters. Like other legendary programs, the Blue Devils are struggling mightily in 2021, and just fell below .500 for the first time since 1999. Even that stat is deceiving—in '99, they started 0-2, but finished the year 29-5. This year, we're into mid-February and the team is 7-8. Coach K is frustrated, to the point that he's getting chippy with student reporters for innocuous questions, and the NBA-caliber talent he's once again assembled looks pedestrian on the court. Throw in the complications of COVID-19, which has resulted in six games being canceled or postponed, and you've got the ingredients of a rotten year. Only the infamous '94-95 season, when Coach K left halfway through, rivals it for pure misery.
In a strange way, though, it felt like this year has been coming for some time, like a storm on the horizon just waiting to make its final rush. In 2019, a senior class graduated at Duke without having seen a Final Four appearance, it'll happen again this year, and the constant pipeline of freshman talent is yielding dubious returns since the brilliant Okafaor-Winslow-Jones-Allen year. Coach K is 73, and while it seems like a young 73, a season like 2020-21 has a way of aging someone and making him ask the bigger questions, like: Is this really worth it?
The one-and-done rule looked vulnerable for a while, and looks less so now, but with the G League path beginning to grow in popularity—at least you can get paid—even Duke's questionable tactic of reloading freshmen year after year might become more difficult, or at least yield diminishing returns. Which leaves us with a few questions. First, how much longer does Coach K actually want to do this? Second, are we at long last watching his powers diminish? Other famous coaches, like his mentor Bobby Knight, were already dinosaurs by their 70s, and the fact that Krzyzewski remains at or near the top of his sport shows what a unique leader he is. Even this, though, has to fade sometime, and it's hard not to see 2021 as the beginning of a potential decline.
Or maybe this is just a bad year. But continuing to win at the highest level will require some amount of transformation, and transformation requires the will. Coach K has always been adaptable, but it's a big ask for a legend at the end of his career. Whether he has the energy or desire to pull it off is, for the first time in his life, a legitimate question.