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In the unavoidable twilight of Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke career, the Blue Devils start from scratch, again

Coach K: ‘I’m in the best health I’ve been in about 10 years. I’ve had every body part replaced.’

Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski, 71, said he's "in the best health he's been in in about 10 years" and jokes about all of the replacement body parts he's had replaced.
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Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski, 71, said he's "in the best health he's been in in about 10 years" and jokes about all of the replacement body parts he's had replaced.

Once more, Mike Krzyzewski will try to conjure a team out of nowhere in the space of a few months, starting basically from scratch, and maybe not even he knows how many chances he really has left.

There’s always pressure at Duke, pressure not only to win but to dominate, on the court and in recruiting, even on social media, and in these days and times that means bringing in extraordinary talent and trying to find a way to get it all to mesh by March.

It worked wonderfully once four years ago and has failed to come together several other times and now, in the unavoidable twilight of Krzyzewski’s career, there’s a building pressure to get it to work again before Krzyzewski steps away, however far off that may be.

He’s now even willing to openly entertain the idea that his time at Duke will someday come to an end, even as he is finally pain-free, months and years removed from the series of surgeries that left him in untold agony the past few seasons, threatening to demonstrate how spry he is at 71.

“You want me to do a cartwheel?” Krzyzewski said, before adding: “I have no plans for leaving. I will leave at some time, but I’m not ready to do that yet.”

Yet there are hints that the Krzyzewski era is winding down, with Jeff Capel making his return to head-coaching at Pittsburgh and Mike Cragg, Krzyzewski’s consigliere for decades at Duke, leaving to become the athletic director at St. John’s. Duke had gone a curiously long time before landing its first recruit for 2019, something that just happened last week. But it’s also possible to read too much into such developments; both Capel and Cragg had been sounding out opportunities for years, and the timing may indeed be coincidental.

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Still, the mere fact that Krzyzewski is willing to acknowledge that a temporal boundary exists to his tenure suggests it is on the visible horizon, somewhere out there, in the haze.

That only puts more of an onus on this team to figure out what its immediate predecessors have not, which is how to become more than a collection of individual parts under circumstances – a radically compressed time frame amid all the distractions of campus life – decidedly unfavorable to the task. The situation was so dire last season that Krzyzewski switched to a zone, going against decades of man-to-man orthodoxy in a desperate grasp for a solution.

It nearly worked, too, and if Grayson Allen’s layup hadn’t rolled off the rim it might have.

But it did not.

Five players from that team departed, as has now become routine in the hallways of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and this team has a few advantages it did not have even as Duke prepares to start four freshmen alongside junior forward Javin DeLaurier, a bit player so far in his Duke career. The summer trip to Canada will be a head-start on the team-building process, and if Tre Jones is any resemblance to his older brother, the Blue Devils will have the point guard they have lacked since … Tyus Jones.

There are issues to work out, with no established veteran leader and the most likely candidate to fill the role, DeLaurier, missing practice time with a foot injury. It will be interesting to see how the three star freshmen – R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson – work together since all three essentially play the same position, a conundrum the Krzyzewski’s new NBA-derived five-out offense is designed to solve.

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski responds to question about FBI's NCAA investigation during season opening press conference on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018.

As has been the case the past few years, it will be fascinating to see if this assemblage of basketball talent can become something greater than its individual parts.

One thing is for certain: The zone has been relegated to the Boeheim File in Krzyzewski’s office. It might have been the only answer last season, but it also had the sense of a cop-out, no more so than when Grant Hill – Grant Hill! – seemed to mock the Blue Devils for it on television.

That won’t happen again. However many seasons Krzyzewski has left, and it may still be a handful, he’s not going to finish his time at Duke that way.

“Our primary defense is man-to-man,” Krzyzewski said, and whatever else happens, this team will play the kind of defense that made Duke famous in the first place, trying to win that way maybe not for the last time, but for one of the last times.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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