LOUISVILLE -- Jim Boeheim managed to persuade his good buddy Mike Krzyzewski to play zone one time during a USA Basketball partnership that dated all the way back to 1990.
It was during a game against Spain in 2010, a friendly -- or another word for "it didn’t count," so what’s the big deal?
Krzyzewski is as faithful (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) when it comes to his man-to-man defense as Boeheim is to his beloved zone. Only 42 teams of the 351 in Division I basketball have played less zone this season than Duke, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and before their Saturday tip against Louisville, the Blue Devils had retreated from their man-to-man for all of 3.7 percent of the 840 minutes in their 16 games.
You would be more likely, in other words, to find a swath of gray hair on Krzyzewski’s charcoal black head than to see the man actually tip off a game and drop back into a zone.
Yet, there were the Blue Devils against the Cards, crouched in their defensive position, arms extended, guarding the space instead of their man.
"Desperation!" Boeheim texted back when asked if this was his doing.
The Syracuse coach was joking, but he really wasn’t far off. It’s not that Duke was desperate because it lost two games. In college football, two losses equates to a death spiral; in college basketball, we call it January.
No, the Blue Devils were desperate for confidence, that flimsy thing that is hard-won and easily lost.
Of course it worked, with the Blue Devils dusting off Louisville with surprising ease 63-52.
Look, it doesn’t take a mastermind to decide to play a zone defense against the Cards. It might take Louisville 50 attempts to beat an elementary school team in a game of H-O-R-S-E (or P-I-G for that matter).
On Friday before the game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was asked what it might take for his average shooters to become good. "Be reincarnated," he quipped. No doubt the coach is calling up Shirley MacLaine for tips right now. Louisville shot 29.5 percent for the game, forced outside the paint to the tune of 6-for-37.
It seemed worse.
No, the brilliance wasn’t that Krzyzewski went zone against a cruddy shooting team. A man who has now won 998 games might stumble over that idea.
The brilliance was that he was willing to do it at all. The Blue Devils needed a shake -- to get out of the clouds and get back to the team that looked so good against Wisconsin in early December. Krzyzewski changed up more than the defense. He added new offensive wrinkles, Amile Jefferson said, and even new inbounds plays. He’s a tinkerer by nature, not a system guy, so changes aren’t unusual, but a wholesale swap from one defense to another, and an offensive rejiggering? That, you might say, caught the team’s attention.
"Coach said a lot," Quinn Cook said with a smirk, not willing to add details, when asked what Krzyzewski’s in-practice message was. "I haven’t seen him this intense in a long time. He’s always intense, but this week, even before we lost to NC State, after the Wake Forest game, practice was intense. He warned us we weren’t playing our best basketball."
Krzyzewski could see the problem mushrooming like a cloud before his eyes: a young team that started the season with an edge, becoming a little too pleased with itself, thinking this winning thing was easy. He told them, but kids are kids, and they listened but didn’t really believe him. It was, he said, like a parent telling a child to avoid a bad situation only to have the child insist on trying it anyway.
The Blue Devils, like kids everywhere, eventually learned daddy is always right, first at NC State and then at Miami.
Cook said the game stopped being fun about a month ago, even as the Devils were winning, and Krzyzewski wondered if that might have something to do with him. He’s in pursuit of his 1,000th win, in case you haven’t heard, an albatross around his neck, but also around his players', he believes. He worries that people expect perfection of them, not because of who they are, but because of what he’s accomplished over 35 years.
"How many wins do you have? Where’s Coach K right now?" Krzyzewski said. "I wish I could be Coach W right now."
No one is going to have a pity party for Duke. Poor Devils, having to play under the tutelage of arguably the greatest active coach, it must be rough.
It’s a reality, much like putting on the Duke uniform -- or Kentucky’s, or Kansas’ or North Carolina’s. The challenge is to handle both the burden of expectation and the aroma of success with equal grace.
Duke had not done that.
"The beginning of season we had a chip on our shoulder," Cook said. "We got tired of hearing about certain teams. We got tired of hearing about certain players, and thought we had something to prove. But with the success that came, winning all those games, we lost that edge."
Whether the edge is back for good, of course, is to be determined. The brutal ACC does not allow for many guarantees. There is, though, much to be taken out of all of this for the Devils. The whole notion that losing is good for a team really is a bunch of hooey, said naturally by teams that unexpectedly lose.
So it’s not that, not that at all.
For starters, Duke can play a zone now, play it relatively effectively, and if the Devils come upon another poor-shooting team or a team with just one good shooter, don’t think they won’t go back to it again (and don’t think the Kentucky staff isn’t stockpiling this game tape for March, or maybe April).
And more, they learned -- players and even more, the coach -- of that change can be good, even at win No. 998.
"We needed to do something new, we needed a fresh start after those two losses," Jefferson said. "We said we were 0-0, and we weren’t going to worry about what happened and just start over. We did a lot differently, and it really helped us."