The Blue Devils' season was supposed to be sublime, but injuries and suspensions have slowed the team's ascent.
Duke will be without Mike Krzyzewski for up to a month following back surgery this Friday, as a nagging herniated disc wasn’t healing after weeks of non-surgical remedies. It’s somewhat odd to think that the program Coach K built is, in many ways, built for life without Coach K. His top lieutenant has been a head coach before. He has kited off for extended Olympic-related absences and left the preparation and improvement of his players, not to mention the day-to-day business of running the operation, to his assistants in Durham. And the 2016–17 version of the Blue Devils certainly seems to have enough talent to cope with this interruption.
As ubiquitous and empowering a presence as Krzyzewski is, his team is built to forge ahead without him. But a back problem isn’t Duke’s only problem.
This is a spectacularly talented team, yet the head coach taking leave is another dose of uncertainty injected into a season that has wobbled along already. A trio of vaunted freshmen—Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles—have logged a combined 239 minutes in 14 games due to injuries. An All-America junior guard, Grayson Allen, was stripped of his captaincy and is serving a team-imposed indefinite suspension for tripping an opponent for the third time. The Blue Devils, once a presumed Final Four favorite, haven’t yet achieved the dominant form everyone expected from them. A team that should be able to beat anyone hasn’t had a chance to play together consistently through the first third of the season. And now that Krzyzewski departs just as ACC play begins, it is fair to wonder: How much tumult is too much?
Here we will acknowledge some important factors: Duke has won 12 of its 14 games anyway, and the raw ability up and down the roster is still the envy of hundreds of programs, no matter who signals in plays. The Blue Devils do not need to be a finished product in early January. They will still have a chance to be dominant in March.
But to come together, they need to be together. Assuming the timetable for Krzyzewski’s recovery matches expectations—“up to four weeks,” according to Duke’s news release—the Blue Devils will have a month to coalesce into top form. At the beginning of the year, Duke no doubt thought it would be able to gel for 30-plus games before make a championship charge. Instead, Coach K may only get eight or nine games with a healthy roster prior to the postseason.
In the meantime, no one should expect interim coach Jeff Capel—who has been at Krzyzewski’s hip since 2011 following head coaching stints at VCU (2002 to ’06) and Oklahoma (2006 to ’11)—to alter the overall plan for the season. The good news for the Blue Devils is that their ACC schedule is back loaded, but Capel will still have to guide the team through road trips to Florida State and Louisville and Notre Dame.
Capel’s reign shouldn’t cause problems for veterans like Allen and Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones and even sophomore Luke Kennard, who are all eminently familiar with their assistant coaches’ voices. But how much more comfortable would Tatum, Bolden and Giles be by March if they were listening to Krzyzewski in live-game situations from now till March? How jarring an adjustment is this for a freshman entering the most onerous portion of the season, regardless of how gifted that freshman is?
It’s possible that this won’t affect the Blue Devils at all. It’s possible that one month is more than enough time for all the important parts to reconnect and establish a rhythm and identity. The issue for Duke is indeed that this is even a question—that the inevitability of November gave way to uncertainty and urgency in January—and that the program will not have a great deal of time to muster its answers.