Coach K will return to the sidelines on Saturday for Duke to try and salvage this frustrating, yet still promising season. While the next two months will scribe what’s forever remembered about this team, the month prior deserves its own footnote …
“Jeff Capel did a great job”
Replacing Mike Krzyzewski is going to be the most difficult job in the history of college basketball. Legends have been replaced at blue-blood programs before, but none of those transitions of power were broadcast worldwide in high definition or universally scrutinized in real time via social media. And none of them happened at Duke, which, like it or not, is unarguably a situation like no other in college sports.
Now imagine taking on that task mid-season with a disappointing group who most predicted would waltz through the season towards the school’s 6th NCAA championship. Those are the expectations that Capel inherited on January 4th when Coach K left Cameron and headed towards back surgery hours after beating a possible NCAA tournament team by 53 points.
But it was all going to be fun. Duke was back. The freshman trio of Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Jayson Tatum were all back. The pre-season player of the year Grayson Allen was back too, and playing great in his new, controlled “facilitator” role. Coach K was leaving Capel the keys to the best roster in basketball and Duke fans would hardly even know he was gone.
Just 12 minutes into Capel’s first game, Duke was up 35-18 on Boston College, and everything was going to plan until 5th year senior captain Amile Jefferson came down awkwardly on his foot. Jefferson would go on to miss the next two games, both of them losses on the road against top 15 opponents. During that same stretch, the Grayson Allen talk from the national media shifted from “Allen’s getting what he deserves” to something far beyond. Allen became a prop for ratings, page views and retweets across all forms and all levels of media, prompting coaches from Louisville and Florida State to feel the need to chime in with “give him a break” pleas.
The pressure looked too much for Capel towards the end of the first half against Miami. Even being back at home in Cameron, and even with Jefferson back on the floor, Duke trailed by double-digits against with seconds remaining in the first half. Their interim head coach sat down in his chair, and leaned backwards with a look on his face that can best be described as “shell shock.” His boss always talks about “having a good face” and showing positive body language even when things are tough, but in all of the thoughts going through Capel’s head in that moment, that certainly wasn’t one of them.
He may not have even been thinking about basketball at all. Last week, Capel wrote a remarkable story about his father’s recent ALS diagnosis and the impact that it’s had on his family, a family deeply rooted in North Carolina’s basketball culture. From his words in that Players’ Tribune piece, maybe he was thinking about his dad’s advice to him as a college player on the verge of transferring from Duke … “Man, shut the fuck up. Stop calling home and complaining. And just play.”
I asked Frank Jackson afterwards what was said at halftime that sparked Duke to a 45-22 2nd half beat down, and Jackson just said “Not much. We were all just kind of sick of losing.” After reading the story of Capel Sr.’s advice and putting two and two together, I’m sure “Shut the fuck up and just play” was a central theme of that halftime talk. But it wasn’t just an attitude adjustment. Capel made a change that Coach K probably never makes, and it won the game for the Blue Devils. Capel sat Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard to make way for a defensive lineup of Frank Jackson, Matt Jones, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson and Marques Bolden. For whatever reason, that lineup worked like a charm. And Duke was back. Again.
Until they weren’t.
Even with nearly everyone healthy, and even with the Grayson Allen backlash starting to grow its own backlash, Duke is far from perfect. Their two most glaring weaknesses were on display during the thrilling 2 point loss to NC State at home … defense, and selfishness. Dennis Smith Jr. carved up Duke’s perimeter and weak-side help defense for 40 minutes (State had 29 made field goals on just 9 assists), and Jayson Tatum and Grayson Allen both tried and failed to match him on the other end (they combined to shoot 11-27 from the floor, 42% of Duke’s shots).
After dealing with otherworldly expectations, unprecedented scrutiny/bullying, and a list of injuries unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, dealing with attitudes is right in Capel’s wheelhouse. And during his brief time as interim head coach, it was fascinating to watch him work. First, he didn’t hold back on speaking out sternly and publicly against ESPN in support of Grayson Allen. Next, he sternly and publicly refused to speak out against Allen and Tatum following the NC State loss when asked a pointed question about shot selection. And lastly, Capel had some thoughts on his “disappointment” that news of a private “Come to Jesus” meeting took place with Coach K, that culminated in the team being grounded from the amenities that come with being a Duke basketball player. Anyone who knows Duke basketball knows that NOTHING leaks unintentionally and no detail is left to chance, so chalk all three up as examples of how Jeff Capel, head basketball coach, motivates publicly.
The renewed commitment to defense was evident against Wake Forest, although it manifested itself in the form of 32 free throw attempts for the Deacs. The quickness and anticipation wasn’t quite there, but the effort was. And it paid off against Notre Dame as Duke held the Irish to 25 first half points while out-rebounding Notre Dame 38-26. Duke’s offense got better too by recognizing the mismatch and riding the hot hand instead of watching the preseason superstars trying to do too much at all times. Against Wake Forest, it was Luke Kennard scoring 34 points including the game-winner on a play that was designed for him, and against Notre Dame it was Tatum and Allen combining for 40.
After a 4-3 stint in the interim role, Duke still isn’t “back”, and it’s likely that they’ll never reach what they were supposed to be as the overwhelming pre-season number 1. But it’s undeniable that Duke is in a better place now than they were a few weeks ago. This segment of the season was never going to make or break Kevin White’s impending decision on Jeff Capel as Duke’s future coach. This wasn’t a job interview. Just look up and down Duke’s roster and the list of Duke players in the NBA and you’ll see what Capel means to the Blue Devils.
The risk was never “What if Capel can’t do this job?” Under these extreme circumstances unlike anything anywhere else in college basketball, the risk became “What if Capel doesn’t want this job?”
In that moment in the first half against Miami, that was very much in question. Down 1 with 15 seconds left in Winston-Salem, the court surrounded by Wake Forest fans ready to celebrate, there was a different look. Capel stood in the huddle with his whiteboard and pen, surrounded by his Duke team, and had the look of a man who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. If you asked every coach in America to describe the most stressful, dramatic 7 game stretch of their career, few could have a story to top Capel’s. And he survived it.
It’s going to take a special kind of person to be able to survive following Krzyzewski. It’s going require a heavy dose of “Shut the fuck up. Stop calling home and complaining. And just play.” He’ll never be another Coach K because, like Dean Smith, and John Wooden, and Adolph Rupp, we’re only lucky enough to get one of those. But he did a hell of a job, and it likely won’t be the last time we say that about Jeff Capel on the Duke sideline.