Coach K won in all different ways, and his final team could be one of his best

ByJohn Gasaway ESPN logo
Thursday, June 3, 2021

When Mike Krzyzewski steps down as Duke head coach after the 2021-22 season, he will have won more than 1,100 career games and at least five national titles. The bottom-line numbers will defy belief, and Coach K will quite rightly be hailed for his remarkable and, in many cases, unequalled quantitative excellence.

Yet it's possible that Krzyzewski's most indelible accomplishment will be that he achieved all of his incredible numbers without tying himself to any one particular playing "style" or system. Duke has shown many different looks over the coach's 41 years in Durham. The common denominator is that (almost) all of his differing schemes and preferences put the Blue Devils in contention for a national title.

In fact, it may well be the case that there is no single Coach K "style." (Well, with the possible exception of slapping the floor on defense.) Duke's won national titles while playing fast and by going slow, by never shooting 3s and by attempting them quite frequently and, of course, with teams that were notably experienced and with others that were a bit younger.

A brief review of the coach's national title teams, as well as a glance at one or two of his near-misses, suggests just how flexible Krzyzewski's been over the course of his storied career. His teams have demonstrated beyond a doubt that there's more than one path to the top in college basketball -- and his distinctively talented 2021-22 squad will have to chart its own course as well.

A decade of building

The beginnings of this legendary coaching career are, by now, familiar enough. Krzyzewski won a respectable 55% of his games in five years at Army, but he was coming off a 9-17 season when he was, surprisingly, named the new coach at Duke on March 18, 1980. While Coach K struggled in his first three seasons in Durham, the recruiting class that arrived in the fall of 1982 made all the difference.

Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson won a total of 95 games in their four seasons together. That number would turn out to be modest compared to four-year win totals yet to come in Durham, but it marked a definite turning point in the career of Krzyzewski.

Conversely, Danny Ferry was on the floor for 117 victories in his four years as a Blue Devil. His career formed the bridge between Dawkins, Alarie, Bilas and Henderson on the one hand and Christian Laettner on the other.

Along with teammates like Thomas Hill, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Brian Davis, Laettner won back-to-back national championships in 1991 and 1992. These teams rarely shot 3s, even by the interior-oriented standards of the day, but they posed a challenge just the same by virtue of their versatility on offense.

While Laettner scored most of his points in the paint, defenses were still stretched because the Duke star and two or more of his teammates were perfectly capable of hitting outside shots. The Blue Devils carved those defenses up with deft passing, strong finishes at the rim and, if rivals were to be believed, an occasional foul call on the opposing team.

The title that got away

If the Laettner teams of the early 1990s were skilled and subsequently renowned, the version of Duke that opponents saw in 1998-99 was downright frightening. Coach K's team played at one of the fastest tempos in the country, outscored its opponents by nearly 25 points per contest and entered the national championship game with a 37-1 record. Whether your metric of choice is adjusted efficiency margin at KenPom or Simple Rating System at, the collection of Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, William Avery and Corey Maggette stands out as forming one of the strongest D-I teams of the last quarter-century.

But the Blue Devils didn't win the title that year; Connecticut did. Two years later, veterans from that Duke team like Avery and Shane Battier were determined to seize their moment.

Duke in 2001 stood out as far and away Krzyzewski's most perimeter-oriented team up to that time. The primary threats from the perimeter that season were Jay Williams and Shane Battier, who drained 132 and 124 3-point shots, respectively. Even the smaller number would have set a new program record, and the Blue Devils won it all that April thanks to a 10-point victory in the title game over Arizona.

The Blue Devils earned four No. 1 seeds in the five seasons following the 2001 title, yet reached "just" one Final Four over that span. By the time Duke returned to the top seed line in 2010, the team was viewed with some skepticism. It was said that Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Miles and Mason Plumlee just weren't "athletic" enough.

No Blue Devil would be selected in the first round of the ensuing 2010 NBA draft. This particular team is still the slowest-paced one Coach K's ever had in the KenPom era.

Never underestimate Brian Zoubek -- or one-and-dones

What observers failed to price in with this team, however, was that it was outstanding at securing second chances -- particularly off of missed 3s. Brian Zoubek may not have been setting NBA scouts' hearts aflame, but he was dominant under the basket as a senior. Zoubek grabbed six offensive boards in the title game against Butler. That, plus a rather famous last-second miss by the Bulldogs' Gordon Hayward, proved to be enough for a 61-59 win.

Having won a fourth title with a rotation heavy on juniors and seniors, Duke would capture a fifth with three stellar freshmen. After previously landing one-and-done players including Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker, Coach K managed to assemble that kind of talent in bulk with his 2014-15 team.

Freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones (along with classmate Grayson Allen) teamed with veterans Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson and won it all. Duke has alternated with Kentucky for the honor of having either the best or second-best recruiting class in the country in every year since 2014.

This reliance on freshmen was seen as plain common sense when the spectacular Zion Williamson carried the Blue Devils to within a basket of the 2019 Final Four. Fashions change quickly in college hoops, however, and this same reliance was branded as ill-advised when Duke posted a 13-11 record in 2020-21.

One last season

Krzyzewski isn't through coaching just yet, and no one should be foolhardy enough to speak of the 74-year-old coach in the past tense. His 2021-22 team is likely to be ranked in the preseason top 25 or even, possibly, the top 10.

Wendell Moore Jr, and Jeremy Roach will return, as will Mark Williams. (As a freshman, Williams appeared to be on the brink of leading Duke to an improbable at-large bid before the coronavirus forced his team to withdraw from the ACC tournament.) The veterans will be joined by Marquette grad transfer Theo John and freshman Paolo Banchero, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft.

We don't yet know which adjustments, if any, Mike Krzyzewski will make with this latest Duke team, but his record makes one thing clear even now. The man who's won more national titles than anyone not named Wooden, has styles for every opponent, situation and era. They are styles that will have won more than 1,100 times before he is done with them.

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