(Feel free to discount everything I say in this post, as I am an embittered UNC fan and I *always* root against Duke. Actually, it’s not really a whiny anti-Duke post).
Coach K’s greatness as a coach is simply undeniable. He’s obviously an all-time great. In celebrating the latest line on his historic resume – a fifth national championship, putting him alone in second place behind the legendary John Wooden in Men’s Division I basketball – the narrative quickly took hold last night and this morning that Coach K had “adapted.” Specifically, he won with a freshmen-heavy team, a concession to this benighted era of the one-and-done, AAU basketball and all the other factors that are alleging ruining college basketball and the culture more broadly.
So, let’s talk about that from a couple of different angles.
Greenie has been making much this morning of a stat he keeps repeating – that last night, Duke freshmen scored 60 of the 68 points Duke scored. By contrast, he has dramatically intoned, the previous four Duke championship teams received a *combined* 23 points from freshman. Put another way, only three freshmen total scored points in all previous Duke championship games before last night.
That sounds indicative of a profound change, but what does it really mean? In 2001, Duke won the national championship with a sophomore-dominated team. Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer, all sophomores, scored 49 of the team’s 82 points. Chris Duhon, a freshmen, scored another nine. Yes, Shane Battier was a senior leader. But last night notwithstanding, Quinn Cook served very well in that capacity on the 2015 squad.
Let’s go back even a little further. Coach K’s 1998-99 team was a juggernaut – undefeated in the ACC and overwhelming favorites to win the national championship. They ended up losing in the finals that year, but the ’99 team is widely considered one of Coach K’s greatest. And it was loaded with young superstars, including Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette. Brand and Avery were sophomores and Maggette was a freshman. All left for the NBA immediately after that season and were drafted in the first round. Maggette wasn’t called a “one-and-done” because that phrase hadn’t entered the sports lexicon yet, but that’s what he was.
The 2015 team was Coach K’s youngest, by contribution of freshmen. Coach K has, however, for many years been recruiting great players who, it could safely be assumed, were not planning to stay for four (or even three) years, including Jabari Parker (who left after one year in 2014) and Kyrie Irving (2011). And we’re only talking now about guys who ended up at Duke. Coach K has recruited plenty of other players who there was no reason to believe planned to stick around, but ended up elsewhere, including Shaun Livingston a 2004 Duke signee who bolted straight to the NBA rather than play college ball (before the imposition of the stupid age rule).
In sum, there is less than meets the eye to the assertion that he’s adapted to the times, at least insofar as that’s understood as profound philosophical shift. Coach K is finding great players, bringing them to Durham and coaching them into championship caliber teams, which he does better than anyone alive. It so happens that he had an especially talented group of first year players this year, including an absolute monster in Jahlil Okafor, the consensus No. 1 player in the country coming out of high school. Coach K may yet win another championship, and that team might look much more like the 2010 team that was dominated by upperclassmen.
Regardless, his goal will always be to bring great players to campus, coach ’em up and win a lot of games. The premise of the Coach-K-adapts narrative is that he’s making concessions to a reality that violates his more deeply held principles as a coach, mentor and educator.
Give the guy credit for what he is manifestly great at, which is coaching basketball. As for that premise – the allegedly larger lesson in all this – forgive me for being unmoved by it.