Mike Krzyzewski has been doing this coaching thing a LONG time. 48 years to be exact. But during a critical moment in Duke’s 78-73 Sweet 16 victory over Texas Tech, the winningest coach in college basketball history listened to his players.
In an attempt to limit the easy paths to the basket the Red Raiders benefited from in the 1st and early 2nd half, Duke switched to a zone defense with about 16:00 minutes remaining in the contest. The adjustment threw Texas Tech off. After hitting a couple of shots, the Red Raiders missed their next five attempts – allowing Duke to cut into a six point deficit and tie the game with 13:05 remaining.
“We practiced it a little bit during the year where our guys just know to keep the wings high and whatever,” Krzyzewski said when asked if the zone was something the Blue Devils practiced in preparation for Thursday night’s game. “Today during our walk-through we just mentioned it. Like, look, there’s a chance we’ll use it, but you really couldn’t practice it in the walk-through. These guys are smart players. They were able to do it. It kept out the amount of physicality, because they were wearing us down. The zone gave us a chance to kind of dance around the ring a little bit instead of being in a corner.”
While the switch allowed the Blue Devils to claw their way back into the game, the Red Raiders refused to go away. There would be eleven lead changes and five ties in the final 11:35 of the 2nd half before Duke took the lead for good 2:55 remaining.
“It went back and forth,” Coach K said. “One team scored and the other team. I thought when we went zone that helped us, but these guys with a few minutes left said, ‘Coach, we want to go back man.’ They were playing so well, I figured I would listen to them.”
The adjustment back to man was enough to alter the Red Raiders’ offense…again. Mark Williams made a crucial block and Paolo Banchero got a steal that helped put the game away. That switch was key, but the most impressive part is that with all the experience Coach K has; with all of the banners he’s hung; with all of the wins and all of the accolades, he listened to his 18, 19 and 20 year old players when it counted most.
“With this team they’re so young and they’re still growing. Whenever they can own something, they’re going to do it better than if we just run it. When they said that, I felt they’re going to own it. They’ll make it work, and that’s probably more important than strategy during that time.”
That’s it. Listening sounds like a simple concept, but it isn’t always the easiest thing, especially when the have the years of experience under your belt that K does. But in that moment, at that time, that’s exactly what he did and that’s why he has over 1,200 wins. That’s why he has five National Championships. That’s why he has three Gold Medals. That’s why he’s the GOAT.