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The clapbacks, jokes and criticisms were so obvious that even Mike Krzyzewski saw them coming.
The Duke coach understood that raising the question of whether college basketball should consider pausing the season and pushing back the NCAA tournament now that COVID-19 vaccines are being administered was going to sound bad in the wake of the Blue Devils’ 83-68 loss to Illinois that dropped them to 2-2 on the season.
“Anything I say, someone can say, ‘Well, he’s saying that because he got his butt beat,’” Coach K said Tuesday. He later added, “I know somebody will take what I’m saying tonight and make it like I’m making excuses.”
Indeed, rival fans, media and lots of social media posts did just that. Of course they did. Bagging on other coaches is part of the sport. This is an entertainment business and Coach K is well compensated for starring in it.
It’s just no one expected another college basketball coach to say it.
Enter Alabama coach Nate Oats.
Who? Yeah, well, that’s part of the fun here too.
Oats was asked Wednesday by Birmingham television reporter Christina Chambers about Krzyzewski’s comments.
“Let me ask you something,” Oats said to Chambers. “Do you think if Coach K hadn’t lost the two non-conference games at home that he’d still be saying that?”
“Probably not,” Chambers said.
“OK. I just wanted you to say it, not me,” Oats said.
That distinction will not matter much in Durham, where the 73-year-old Krzyzewski sits as the king of the sport. He’s won 1,159 games (the most of all time) and delivered five national titles to Duke. He’s also coached the Team USA basketball team to three Olympic gold medals.
A West Point grad who played for Bob Knight, the Hall of Famer is one of the most iconic coaches in all of sports, not just college hoops.
Nate Oats, meanwhile, is a 46-year-old former Michigan high school coach now in his second season at Alabama. He owns two NCAA tournament victories, both from his previous stop at Buffalo.
He’s a very good, young coach. He slung a shot at Goliath.
There are plenty of fans who like to root against Duke. Oats is now their second-favorite coach (behind the guy who coaches their team).
Fans, however, don’t ever have to play Duke, interact with Krzyzewski or deal with the vast tentacles of his empire (his allies range from the highest levels of Nike, to LeBron James and Zion Williamson, to hundreds of high school and AAU coaches who have sent him their players through the decades).
College coaches are not strangers to arguments. It’s the salt that spices the sport.
You’ll rarely see someone punch that far above their weight class though. Coach K was sort of a made man at this point. Maybe North Carolina’s Roy Williams could poke him a little, but that’s about it.
It’s worth noting that other than the opening to the exchange, nothing Oats said was particularly controversial. When asked his opinion, he gave it.
“We 100 percent should be playing basketball,” Oats said. “Humans aren’t made to sit alone in isolation for weeks and weeks on end. We’ve got to be careful about how we do life, but you’ve still got to do life. A huge part of life for all these guys I’m coaching is being in the gym playing basketball. So I think their mental health is in a much better spot playing basketball … so, no, I don’t agree with them at all.”
He also criticized college coaches for failing to wear masks properly on the sideline.
Oats clearly is of one school of thought. There are coaches who firmly agree with him.
Other coaches have backed Krzyzewski. About 20 percent of the games have been canceled or postponed so far — including last weekend’s matchup between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor. Others worry about the impact strict protocols and isolation from family and friends is having on players. (Duke reportedly canceled the rest of its non-conference slate late Thursday.)
If we are going to be fair, all Coach K was saying is that maybe the NCAA should relook at the current schedule because when it was originally laid out, vaccine breakthroughs had not yet been made public. He didn’t state anything should happen.
“I would just like, just for the safety, the mental health and the physical health of our players and staff, for [the NCAA] to assess where we are at,” Krzyzewski said.
Very few people are going to be fair, of course. Either to Krzyzewski or Oats.
This is a decent little scrap and, truly, one that doesn’t have any victims. They are grownups. If this is the worst thing that happens to them, they’ll be all right.
Oats has a bit of a history of talking big, with mixed results. Coaching Buffalo against Arizona in the 2018 NCAA tournament, he said during a CBS halftime interview that, “We think we’re the better team.” He was correct, Buffalo won by 19.
Then, before a game against Kentucky, he said Wildcats coach John Calipari had been “whining” about UK’s lack of experience. Oats later “clarified” that he “meant no disrespect.” Kentucky beat Buffalo by 20.
Again, nothing too inflammatory, just a guy who isn’t afraid to speak his mind or didn’t care too much that he was coaching a Mid-American Conference team, not some big-name program.
Krzyzewki has never backed down from anyone either, of course.
For a sport that needs more excitement and rivalries and fewer canned quotes and faux deference, this is all a welcome addition.
Now, can we get a Duke-Alabama game in the NCAA tournament?
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