by Eric Martin
“Look, we have a new team…There is no definitive time for Ryan when we say he is going to be back at this time, so we have to move on.” - Coach K, 1/17/13
At the beginning of each season, the college coach spends those first weeks of practice throwing open his larder and inventorying his prized ingredients - some new, some old, some changed. Coach K started the season deliciously, with the great centerpiece roast of Mason Plumlee, an aged bittersweet Seth Curry, fresh buttery Quinn Cook, and the new sharp and slashing tang of Rasheed Sulaimon, with a dash of starch from the bench to fill you up. And then there was senior Ryan Kelly, that strange and wonderful 6’11” gravy that held everything together.
From his freshman days as a long and spectral, seldom-playing, quick-fouling machine, by the fall of 2012 Kelly had become the indispensible Renaissance Man of the Duke team. A shooter. A passer. Decent rebounder, turnover- free. A measured spokesman, on the court, in the locker room, and in public. He executed plays perfectly and could be relied on to inbound the ball, break presses, make free throws, create space, and save at-risk possessions with the calm high-low post pass or the timely pick-and-pop. Now in his senior year, as the season began it was clear he’d overcome his weakest link by adding vexing defense. He’d stopped fouling. He not only blocked shots but often blocked them to a teammate. He rotated onto the penetrating guards that so plagued the Blue Devils last year, changed shots, gave his teammates time to recover. He stymied dangerous 6’ 8” forwards, disrupted passing lanes, redirected cutters, and generally got in the way.
Now Kelly is hurt, with no word on when or if he’s coming back, and Coach K is back in the kitchen.
No iron chef triumphs by cooking with the ingredients he wants but rather by being creative with what he has, and with a track record like Krzyzewski’s, there’s plenty of examples to look at over the last four decades. There the optimistic 2001, when Carlos Boozer broke his foot in late February and Coach K transformed an efficient half-court team into a running, gunning nightmare for all comers, fueled by freshman Chris Duhon and a relay team of Casey Sanders, Reggie Love and Matt Christensen as a sprinting 3-headed center. There’s 2010, when K traded in the uptempo-ish Nolan Smith-run offense into a ponderous and brutally efficient half-court set, with long-necked Jon Scheyer playing errorless point guard in slow motion while Zoubek rebounded and fed 3-point gunners like a ball-boy in pre-game shoot around. Both re-inventions won him championships.
On the less sanguine side, there’s 2011, when Kyrie Irving’s tragic toe pushed K to dial down the breakneck style of the future NBA star for something more deliberate; the long bench and frequent substitution style of 1988 after Elton Brand broke his foot; the brief point guard experiment of Sean Dockery, Daniel Ewing and DeMarcus Nelson in 2005. Duke still won a lot, those seasons, as they always do, but failed gravely in post-season.
So what will K cook up with as he replaces Kelly with big hearted defensive gnat Tyler Thornton, the large foul happy Josh Hairston, and an inexperienced youth brigade of the rebounding Amile Jefferson, overeager Marshall Plumlee, and a mercurial Alex Murphy?
Perhaps they’ll speed it up. In the second half of the Georgia Tech game last Wednesday night, the Blue Devils emerged from the locker room determined to break out of their poor shooting and badly executed offense of the first half. And they did so by running. They weren’t many fast break points, exactly, but the team pushed the ball and shot much quicker in the offense, using an average of 15 seconds of the shot clock for the first seven possessions of the 2nd half (as opposed to an average of 20 seconds per possession for the last seven possessions of the 1st half). Kelly is not a fast person, after all, and Jefferson and Sulaimon both run well, as does Mason Plumlee, while for his part Quinn Cook often has looked like a cheetah born into a family of camels, working hard amid the desert of flawless half court execution but longing for the grassy fast break of the savannah. So run they did, for a while.
But Curry can’t run. Not fast, not for long. He is a superstar trapped in a barely functioning body, stepping onto the court every game like a wounded snake, damaged yet still capable of deadly lightning strikes. So perhaps they’ll slow it down. Spread it out, let Curry and Plumlee try a little two-man pick n’ roll/pop game, cut down on the number of passes and try to minimize mistakes. Turns out they tried that too, later in the Georgia Tech second half, protecting the lead but growing stagnant, predictable and defendable as time went on.
That’s why Coach K will probably do both. Play fast for spurts, then slow it down, then fast again, and slow, and fast, some new and strange contrasting multi-course meal worthy of the most winningest iron chef in NCAA history, catering every game, every half, every possession to the particulars of his opponent. For fans of basketball, Duke friendly or not, Wednesday’s away game against a slow-paced and savagely defensive Miami team stands as a chance to see another Coach K recipe—a keeper, a stinker, or something in between.