For the last two seasons, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has had one of those problems that makes other people annoyed.
A few teams each year, Coach K would complain that the team had too many good players.
Not that he wanted more bad ones. Krzyzewski wanted a player or two to break away from the pack of good and become great.
“On any team, you’d hope there would be some level of separation,” Krzyzewski said in 2011. “Then people have to catch up. If you’re always together, you might have a socialistic type of team. But you’re not going to win. There has to be somebody who the other guys chase and who you can count on all the time.”
It seems strange that in a sport so reliant on teamwork, separation would be necessary to achieve success, but the Blue Devils have been too close for too long.
At first, it seems like this year’s team is going to be stricken by the same nice-to-have problem. Krzyzewski spent much of his press conference at the start of practice talking about how Duke wouldn’t play the classic positions.
“It’s going to be a team that has very good versatility. (Opponents) are going to have to be able to guard multiple positions,” Krzyzewski said. “The amount of playing time will count on how well you’re playing. No one is really pitted one-on-one against another guy. Our game is not like that.”
But if anyone is worried that Duke is going to be a team of interchangeable tweeners, they can fear not. The 2013 Blue Devils will have the separation that Krzyzewski has so desperately wanted.
There’s a clear dividing line on this year’s Duke team. There’s Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, and then there’s everyone else.
“Basically, you’re trying to blend,” Krzyzewski said. “The two guys you’re trying to blend with will be Rodney and Jabari.”
Separation had a much more negative meaning for Hood in 2012. The 6’8” sophomore had to sit out last year after transferring from Mississippi State, an NCAA decision that led to the rise of the #FreeRodneyHood hashtag last season and inspired some pointed barbs from Krzyzewski.
“He wasn’t on anyone’s list to promote last year,” Coach K said. “Some kids who transfer, all of a sudden, there’s a movement to get them eligible. He didn’t have that movement, which is either fair or unfair, depending.”
After being separated from his teammates on game days last year, Hood spent the offseason separating himself again.
“Many times, he was our best player,” Krzyzewski said. “But being the best player with a blue shirt (worn by the non-starters in practice) and no pressure ... we’ll see now with the white shirt and pressure on you.”
The team ratcheted up that pressure by naming Hood captain, despite having never having played meaningful minutes in a Blue Devils game that counted.
“I voted for him,” Krzyzewski said. “So I won.”
Hood will play alongside Parker, one of the most sought-after players in last year’s high-school senior class. Despite having combined for zero games in Duke blue, Krzyzewski has put them squarely in the spotlight for a team expected to be one of the nation’s best.
And there is no room in that spotlight for anyone else. Krzyzewski cut off a question about whether Quinn Cook or Rasheed Suilaimon could develop their game and give the Blue Devils a triumvirate of great players.
“I would not say that. I definitely wouldn’t say that.” Coach K said. “I wouldn’t say that,” he repeated.
“I think in Jabari and Rodney, you’ve got two guys that really have a chance to be outstanding,” Krzyzewski continued. “Then we have a group of players that has to learn to adjust to those two players. ...It’s not about three. It’s about those two. That doesn’t mean someone else can’t be a leading scorer. All I know is that when we’re playing someone, they’re going to look at stopping Rodney and Jabari. Certain guys on our team, when they’re on the court, they aren’t going to be covered by a man. They’ll be covered by a half a man, because Rodney and Jabari will be covered by a man and a half.”
The trouble with a few elite players separating themselves means that the rest of the pack gets left behind. This year, that includes Duke’s senior class. Hood was chosen captain ahead of seniors Andre Dawkins and Josh Hairston. And while Tyler Thornton will serve as captain alongside Hood, he’ll be playing a supporting role behind a sophomore and true freshman.
“You have to have seniors who understand their importance,” Krzyzewski said. “And that importance may not be based on minutes, starting, number of points, or recognition—All those things that a lot of people put as the main reasons they want to be a part of something. It means we have to have a very mature group of seniors. I think we do. I like my seniors.”
Krzyzewski may like his seniors, but what really gets him excited is the gap between them and the two players everyone will be watching.
“We have the opportunity to work with two talented kids,” Krzyzewski said, “and see how you use their talents. It’s a terrific opportunity.”