The last 13 months saw far too many surgeries for Duke basketball to be at its best.
The last two months saw a dramatic turnover of the Blue Devils roster.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had five of the surgeries, including a back procedure that caused him to miss seven games last season.
On Wednesday, though, the 70-year-old Krzyzewski declared himself fit and his program ready to put in the work to remain among the nation’s elite teams.
“It’s good to feel good,” Krzyzewski said. “I feel great.”
Throughout his health issues, his Blue Devils began last season as the nation’s No. 1 team. Injuries to a host of Duke’s core players, from freshmen Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles to veterans Amile Jefferson and Grayson Allen, kept Duke from playing up to that potential.
The Blue Devils played their best in March, winning four games in four days to claim the program’s 20th ACC championship.
Eight days after winning the conference tournament, an 88-81 loss to South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament ended the season earlier than Krzyzewski or his players liked at 28-9.
Since then, Duke lost eight players to graduation, transfer or early NBA declarations. Six incoming freshman will arrive on campus in June, including three players rated as the top players at their positions, as Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils reload.
“We really take a good look at our program,” Krzyzewski said. “I think it’s important to always critique your program in every way. Critique doesn’t mean wrong. It’s what’s right. What should we continue. That’s what I’ve been doing and we’re still doing it. I feel it’s moving along well.”
For the first time in 12 years, Krzyzewski doesn’t have any offseason USA Basketball responsibilities vying for his time and attention. The national team’s head coach since 2005, Krzyzewski completed that job after leading the Americans to a third consecutive gold medal at the Rio Olympics last summer and handed the reins to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
So, preparing for his 38th season as Duke’s coach, his main focus is getting the Blue Devils ready to compete for ACC and NCAA championships.
“We wouldn’t have won 28 games (last season) if I wasn’t in touch,” Krzyzewski said. “We could have been 17-17 and we were close to that. But the main thing is to be in touch with the group you have and make sure that everybody who touches them is in touch.”
The new group will be his youngest in terms of players returning with game experience. Allen is the lone Blue Devil back who played in 30 games last season.
Sophomore center Marques Bolden started one game and played in 24. He played 157 minutes, second-most behind Allen of the returning players.
That puts Allen, an all-American as a sophomore whose injuries and on-court tripping controversies limited him as a junior, in a lonely leadership position. He was a captain last season before that title was stripped when he was suspended for one game for tripping Elon player Steven Santa Ana.
“It’s not as much a burden as it is an opportunity,” Krzyzewski said of Allen. “I think anyone who has been a really good leader for us has been a great player. I think a burden would be if he had that and all the ballhandling and running of the team. I’d like for him to do that at times but for him to be more who he naturally is. He can score the ball.”
To help with that, Duke has brought in freshman point guard Trevon Duval, a five-star recruit and the No.1 point guard in the class of 2017. Unlike past seasons when multiple players could bring the ball up the court and get Duke into its offense, Duval will be asked to be the main distributor.
“We try to personalize it to the people we have,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know what our offense will be right now. I do know that Trevon is going to have the ball and he knows what to do with it. Will he have it all the time? No he shouldn’t have it all the time. Will he have it a lot? Yeah.”
Another benefit of Krzyzewski’s USA Basketball commitments having ended is the chance for Duke to take a foreign trip this summer.
The NCAA allows teams to take one every four years and Duke is finalizing plans to head to the Dominican Republic in August. That also allows the Blue Devils to practice up to 10 times on campus before leaving the country to play exhibition games.
For a team that’s seen its roster turned over, such a trip comes at the perfect time.
“It’s really important,” Krzyzewski said. “We have so many new guys. I think that’s how we will be from now on. Hopefully that means we have a lot of guys who are going to be NBA players too. It gives Grayson a chance to be a leader. It gives Antonio (Vrankovic) and Javin (DeLaurier), guys who didn’t play as much, a chance to assert themselves and give our freshmen a chance to see what it’s like to play against really good competition.”
Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC
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