With all the unpredictability and uncertainty of this year’s NCAA Tournament one constant has remained the same, great coaching prevails over great players, which forms a traditional base for those to call home.
Case in point: Kentucky has three-to-five first round draft picks on their roster, not to mention almost certainly the top two out of three in this year’s NBA draft with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. However, the Wildcats' season ended prematurely Saturday when West Virginia knocked them off of their high horse meaning there will be a couple of one-and-dones as far as college careers go.
Don’t get me wrong, talent is a must in order to go far in the NCAA Tournament, but that talent must be managed and directed appropriately by one who has the knack to get the best out of his players. That talent must be groomed, allowed to mature, and given the chance to bloom like a springtime flower. That is why I believe Duke takes home this year’s crown. Mike Krzyzewski gives his players just that.
Heading into their match-up against West Virginia this weekend, Krzyzewski leads Duke to their 11th Final Four in his 29-year career at the respected institution. The West Point grad demands more from his players than a full-time employed wife does from her husband on the “honey-to-do list.” Coach K maximizes each player’s potential and his structured system has the propensity to elevate not only talent, but leadership and intelligent play-making ability.
At the 2007 NCAA Tournament, when sixth seeded Duke was upset by No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth, I asked Coach K what this team was lacking. His response, “These young men haven’t figured out the Duke tradition and the way we do things here. When they figure it out, we’re going to be alright.”
Duke’s love affair with the sport of basketball goes back to the first collegiate game played in the state of North Carolina in 1906 when it was referred to as Trinity College. Although Duke lost that initial game to Wake Forest 24-10, it was the birth of basketball tradition in diminutive Durham, North Carolina. It was and has been the tradition that Duke currently feeds off of and has propelled them as a national powerhouse.
That was 101 years before Duke’s freshmen class stepped foot on campus.
Fast forward four years later and I believe these young men have figured out the “Duke tradition,” and how things are done in Durham. The young men Coach K was referring to (minus Gerald Henderson)—Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas, and Brian Zoubek—have figured it out.
Scheyer transformed his game from sharp shooter to just plain sharp. Out of Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois, Scheyer was known as a pure shooter. But if you look at his productivity this season he has improved on all statistical categories. The Senior leads the team in minutes played with 36.7 per game, points per game with 18.2, and assists per game at 4.8 which is two more per game than he averaged last season. His leadership isn’t only described by numbers. He’s the first one in and the last one out of the gym on a daily basis, which explains his 2.90-1 assists to turnover ratio.
Thomas came to Duke from New Jersey’s St. Benedict’s Prep where he was coached by Danny Hurley. Although his numbers aren’t eye-popping, Thomas does the little things that don’t show up in the stat box. The 6-8 forward crashes the boards with reckless abandon, sets a mean pick, and often defends the opposition’s best post player.
Then there’s Zoubek, the seven-footer who has constantly gotten better as the season has progressed. His inside presence often forces opposing teams to shoot from outside the paint. Although he doesn’t account for many blocks, he alters shot after shot.
In four years, Coach K has developed these athletes into national title contenders and they are two wins away from winning it all. Tradition has caught up with Duke’s three seniors and they hope to leave their own fingerprint on the school’s record books.
Although they may not be selected in the NBA lottery, they look to carry away something from their college career Wall or Cousins won’t—a national title and a college degree. Now, that’s tradition that started over a century ago from that 14-point defeat to Wake Forest.