Coach K, Duke matter again

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

DURHAM, N.C. – Per NCAA rules, no one here could discuss anything that happened there.

Word had arrived, though, that during a live ESPNU interview in New York, Kyrie Irving, one of America's top high school basketball recruits, had chosen the Blue Devils.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski can't comment until Irving signs a letter of intent next month. His smile Thursday evening, looking as if he planned to crack a fine bottle of celebratory wine, said enough.

Irving, 6-foot-2 out of Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick High School, might be the best point-guard prospect ever to come out of Jersey, as some scouts have declared. It isn't overstating things, however, to say he's the most important recruit in Duke's recent history.

The Blue Devils haven't made a Final Four since 2004, a streak that wouldn't be worth mentioning at nearly any other school in America. Krzyzewski, however, has led the program to 10 such appearances, including three national titles. The coach and his team have been a rite of spring going on three decades.

Yet Duke's in a five-year drought where it's rarely looked like a legitimate challenger. It has lacked the game-breaking stars who used to flow through this place.

With Krzyzewski hitting 62, an age at which rebirth can be difficult for coaches, there was speculation that the program's slip from great to very good might be permanent.

It doesn't help that, 8 miles down the road, archrival North Carolina is still celebrating its second national title in five seasons.

And then Kyrie Irving chose Duke on Thursday, giving the Blue Devils that athletic, true point guard they've needed for a few seasons.

The player Irving is most compared to is, coincidentally, Jason "Jay" Williams, a Jersey native who led Duke to the 2001 NCAA title as a sophomore and was the national player of the year as a junior.

Irving is only one part of what might be a monster recruiting haul for Duke. Already sitting out as a transfer is Seth Curry, the younger brother of former Davidson star Stephen who may be his brother's equal as a dead-on shooter. Two other highly regarded recruits – forward Joshua Hairston and guard Tyler Thornton, both from the D.C. area – have already pledged.

There could be more. Arriving on campus Thursday night for an official visit was Harrison Barnes, a 6-6 small forward from Ames (Iowa) who is a consensus top-five recruit and another potential game-changer.

And Duke is involved with nearly half of the top 10 juniors in the country, including in-state big man Quincy Miller.

A team that's been plagued by a lack of pure athletic talent could quickly be awash in it if the recruiting dominoes continue to fall K's way.

"This is how you get to 10 Final Fours," Krzyzewski said Thursday, sweeping his arm across a row of pictures hanging in Duke's sparkling new practice facility.

The line of plaques celebrated the 14 former Blue Devils who are currently in the NBA – Hill, Battier, Boozer, Maggette, Deng, Redick and so on. That doesn't even include previous collegiate stars such as Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Tommy Amaker, Johnny Dawkins and Danny Ferry.

"Players win," Krzyzewski said. "Coaches don't win games; players win games. A coach and his staff can set the stage for a great player to make great plays. But the player has to make them.

"We went to 10 Final Fours and in two of them Christian Laettner made a last-second shot. You can say we were lucky, but the ball was in his hands and he made a great play. Great players make you better.

"The more guys you get like that, the better I'm looked upon as a coach," he said with a laugh.

Thursday may have been the day that Duke officially turned the corner again. When Krzyzewski has big-time talent, Final Fours and national titles ensue. He's a master at maximizing his teams, but there are limitations.

"We went to 10 Final Fours because we had really good players," he said. "We've had seven national players of the year here. Well, with those guys you should go to some Final Fours.

"We feel if we can get that caliber of talent again, we've got a shot."

Contenders are constructed during recruiting. He doesn't shy away from the fact the program hasn't succeeded of late as it used to. Recruiting misses were the reason. He just feels bad the good players he does have aren't judged fairly.

"It's not their fault that Battier, Boozer and Williams were so damn good," he said. "The last two years we won 59 games without having that so-called breakdown guy or that guy who is going to do something spectacular for you.

"People say, 'What happened, you didn't go to a Final Four?' Well, what happened was pretty darn good."

He shrugs. Those are the expectations he's built here at this private school on Tobacco Road. Over the past 30 years, across 760 victories, Krzyzewski and Duke have been a near constant in the game – wildly celebrated by some, despised by others.

Regardless of how you felt, Duke mattered.

Now Krzyzewski is on the verge of making the Blue Devils matter again, big time. He believes this season's team, led by Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith, combines the skill and experience to "have a chance" at a Final Four.

He doesn't have to say that the way recruiting is going, that once again will be an annual prediction. The word from New York had brightened every mood in Durham. Duke is in the process of netting the kind of monster recruiting class to which it's accustomed.

Here in his 60s, closer and closer to retirement, Mike Krzyzewski is churning it up for another big run.