2001 NCB Preview

Jay Bilas

Message Board
Thursday, October 11
Coach K's way back to title works

By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com

Duke may very well win the national championship this season. Of course, the Blue Devils very well may not, because winning a championship is a difficult task in any year. That is especially true in a year in which the word "repeat" is used.

Repeating requires not only an outstanding team, but also good health and some opportune conditions along the way. For this task, to guide a team through a season of great expectation and anticipation, Mike Krzyzewski is the ideal coach to handle it. I say this not simply because he has done it before, but because of the manner in which he approached it then, and the manner in which he is approaching it now.

I was on Mike Krzyzewski's coaching staff in 1991 when Duke pulled a huge upset over previously unbeaten UNLV, improbably leading to Krzyzewski's first national championship. In 1992, Duke had almost everybody back, including Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Thomas Hill and Brian Davis. As a result, the 1992 team had the tools to be better than the 1991 version.

Duke '92
His 1992 Duke team followed Mike Krzyzewski's blueprint to winning back-to-back national championships.

At the start of the next school year, the talk began of a repeat title, and the feat no team had accomplished since John Wooden's UCLA teams won seven straight titles from 1967-73 was being discussed everywhere around us, including in the Duke locker room. It was inescapable, and the talk was not going to go away, and there was no getting away from it.

The issue for Krzyzewski was dealing with the talk in a positive manner, and not letting the inevitable talk distract the players and coaches.

As he does with many things pertaining to the makeup of his teams, Krzyzewski gave the issue a lot of thought.

Duke not the 'Defending Champs'
Krzyzewski understood, perhaps better than anyone, that words have value and consequence, and can often be used by people without regard to what those words actually mean. Specifically, a word such as "defending."

In his first official team meeting with the 1992 Duke team, Krzyzewski stood before the players in the locker room and discussed a few issues pertaining to the team and the upcoming season. One of the first, and most important, issues Krzyzewski discussed was the concept of being the "defending" national champion.

Krzyzewski said that this team would not be "defending" anything, because there was nothing to defend. The 1991 title banner was hanging in Cameron, and the trophy was put away in its case, and nothing could be done to change that. That championship is over, and it can no longer be won, lost, defended or surrendered.

He also told the 1992 team that it was a very different team than the year before. There were new personnel, and the returning players would not truly be the same. Each would be older and more experienced and could either be better or worse, but not the same. So Krzyzewski told his "different" team that instead of defending the 1991 title, it was "pursuing" the 1992 title, one it would have a very good chance to win.

Krzyzewski didn't want his team taking an attitude of trying to "hang on" to something. Rather, he wanted his players to go out and "take," and to embrace the challenge of going after something.

The Next Play
From the time I began playing for him, Krzyzewski always considered the most important game of the season to be the next one, and paid little attention to games beyond his immediate horizon. He used to say that the way you find yourself in "big games" is to treat every game as a big game, and to live in the present. By doing that, you would build a record to demand that your games be considered "big," and you would have prepared yourself to play in those big games.

He even took this concept within the game itself with a saying he has used millions of times over the years, the concept of the "next play."

Krzyzewski has always said, and says today, that the most important play of a game is the next play. Basketball is too fast a game to focus on what just happened, because of what will or could happen next. It is not like football where there is a huddle after every play. There is no time to analyze mistakes and celebrate successes, that is for later. If you make a bad play and turn the ball over, there is no time to lament that miscue because you may find yourself unprepared to make a defensive play on the next possession that may lead to a three-point play. Similarly, if you make a great play, concentrating on it may keep you from making a play you should have made quickly thereafter.

This is why Krzyzewski is always saying "next play" to his team during the course of a practice, a scrimmage or a game as if he were saying "let's go." His players understand it.

To Krzyzewski, trying to follow a national championship with a second title the next year is the ultimate "next play." That is exactly what he told his team this year in it's first meeting of the new season. Krzyzewski knows that his 2002 Duke team is the only team in the country that has the chance to repeat right now, the only team that can achieve that truly special feat. To him, that is exciting and energizing, and he wants it to be for his players, too. It is not a burden to be borne, but an opportunity to do something extraordinary.

The Title is the 'Destination,' Not the 'Goal'
As preparation for April, Krzyzewski wants his team to concentrate completely on today. He doesn't want it dreaming now about winning it all in Atlanta, rather, he wants his players to dream about the Blue-White scrimmage, then the Maui Classic, and to love the process of preparing in practice every day.

When the players embrace the process and make that kind of preparation a habit, Krzyzewski believes they can truly play their very best. Because, Krzyzewski believes, in order to do something well under the stress of a championship atmosphere, it has to be a habit.

Lastly, Krzyzewski doesn't want the national championship or repeating to be the "goal" for his players, but rather the "destination." The goal is to get better and closer as a team each day, in every practice, every weight workout, every conditioning or film session. If that is the goal, then the team will maximize its potential to reach its destination. They may not ultimately reach that destination, but they will have made the journey the best it could possibly be.

Krzyzewski's way certainly isn't the only way to do things and do them right, and his way may not be the best way. But he believes his way is the only way and the best way for him and his team, and his players seem to truly believe in him and his way. The power of that true belief is perhaps more vital to the cause than the concepts themselves.

Jay Bilas was a four-year starter at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski from 1983-1986, and was an integral part of Duke's 1986 team that went 37-2 before falling to Louisville in the NCAA Championship Game. After playing professionally in Italy and Spain, Bilas was an assistant coach on Krzyzewski's staff for three years, from 1990-1992, over which time Duke played in three straight NCAA Championship Games and won back to back titles in 1991 and 1992.

 More from ESPN...
Battier breakdown: Duke 'more dangerous'
Shane Battier breaks down ...

Pitfalls of repeating
Coaches reveal why it's so ...

Jay Bilas Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story