DURHAM, N.C. – It wasn’t a wedding, but that didn’t stop Duke from using the "four somethings" tradition to help give Mike Krzyzewski his 999th win, a 79-65 result over Pittsburgh that never seemed in doubt on Monday night.
Cameron Indoor provided a suitable "something old." Good passing from freshman Jahlil Okafor and the emergence of Tyus Jones felt like "something new." Duke’s continued recent use of the zone was "something borrowed." And there was a whole lot of "something blue" donned by the Duke faithful.
When asked about the impact of No. 999 heading into an opportunity for 1,000, Coach K delivered a quintessentially Coach K answer.
"It means we’re 16-2," Krzyzewski said. "That’s exactly what that means. And hopefully we can be 17-2 the next game we play. That’s the way we approach everything, and we’ll continue to approach it that way."
His players echoed that sentiment to some extent, but admitted it was pretty incredible to be a part of something like this.
"This is an amazing, amazing, amazing accomplishment for Coach K and our guys are a little bit fired up,” junior forward Amile Jefferson said, "but this is going to be a win our team needs to keep our season going. We’re playing for that 1,000th win, but that’s probably not what we’re going to be focused on because it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen at some point and it’s going to be an amazing achievement for an amazing coach, probably one of the greatest coaches to ever coach in the world."
Freshman guard Tyus Jones echoed those sentiments. "It’s crazy to think about a coach that’s about to win his 1,000th game," Jones said. "It’s unheard of. It really just shows how great of a coach he is and what he means to basketball. It’s an honor to be able to play for him."
The 999th win likely won’t be included in longform on any highlight tapes, with the team giving up some easy looks off the zone in the second half and allowing Pittsburgh to cut what was once a 21 point lead to 73-63 with 3:09 to play, but it showed some of why Krzyzewski continues to be one of the most innovative coaches in college basketball.
You don’t get to that many wins without being able to adapt. From folding in one-and-dones to using his Team USA experience as a recruiting chip, Coach K, who turns 68 in February, has not only been able to stay ahead of the times, but he’s continuing to pioneer how other coaches at multiple levels teach the game.
Duke has showed multiple offensive looks in recent years, and Krzyzewski finds ways to fit the system to his players rather than his players to a particular system. If K suddenly decided he wanted to run a version of VCU’s Havoc, it’d probably work -- and work well.
Sure, Duke gets the Burger Boys, but he’s not trying to force those All-American players into being something they’re not. Rather, Krzyzewski finds ways to maximize their abilities and consistently gets them in a position to move onto the NBA. High schoolers with their pick of schools take notice of that.
"It’s always nice playing for Coach [K],” guard Quinn Cook said. "It’s always some record that he’s done. It’s always something going on with him. That’s what happens when you’re the greatest. It’s great to be a part of the whole journey."
The Blue Devils switched up looks defensively in the second half, mixing up some zone, some man-to-man and some pressure to try and keep the Panthers off balance. Eventually Pittsburgh was able to exploit the zone and turn defense into offense, forcing Duke into bad shots late in the shot clock and pushing the ball with Blue Devils defenders’ backs turned to get easy opportunities. It could all be an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t work, and the fact that K is willing to experiment at all, much less in a conference game against a team that was 13-5 coming in, means something.
The two-game losing streak isn’t quite in the rearview mirror, but that’s two straight solid performances after the back-to-back losses. The team is starting to take something away from it.
"It’s a young team," Krzyzewski said. "We have to be careful. They can be fragile in that regard. They have great attitudes. I love my team. I loved them even when they lost those two games. They’re just trying to grow up and we have to help them grow up."
One of those players growing up this season is Jones, who had 10 points in the first half, right above his season average of 9.4 points coming into the night. He showed confidence and looked for his shot, which was a good sign with Justise Winslow on the bench for an extended period of time during the first half nursing his right shoulder. Winslow re-injured it diving for a loose ball on defense near midcourt with just over seven and a half minutes into the game. Winslow took a shot to the midsection on defense in the second half and later headed to the locker room.
Jones finished with 22 points and four assists, and Okafor (14 points) set a new career high in assists with five. A dominating big man, Okafor played a good chunk of the first half with two fouls and played in control, avoiding being whistled for his third until the second half. He had to be less aggressive on the boards though, and was limited to just one rebound in the opening period and three on the night.
It’s only fitting that Krzyzewski will go for 1,000 against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The Garden was also the site where K got win 903, a 74-69 win over Michigan State on Nov. 16 2011 in the Champions Classic. The game won’t be a gimme, so the mentality that starts with Krzyzewski and filters down through every player that the team is just trying to be 17-2 is probably apt.
The Red Storm are just 1-4 in Big East play but are 12-5 overall under Steve Lavin and were 33rd in the KenPom ratings entering Monday night’s games. St. John’s shoots just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc, in the bottom half of the country, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Duke go zone some more and continue to try and practice the that look.
"Zone makes us communicate more," Jones said. "You have to be in sync and in rhythm. You have to in man-to-man as well, but it’s just working for us right now. It’s a different look that teams don’t really expect from us."
Even with the different looks, it’s the same coach on the sideline who has been there for 35 seasons. And pretty soon that coach is going to have 1,000 wins.