Freshman-led Duke leads Coach K to milestone

Coack K On Milestone (2:07)

Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about Duke's win over St. John's for his 1,000th career win. (2:07)

NEW YORK -- On Nov. 28, 1975, a young coach named Mike Krzyzewski led Army to a 58-29 win over Lehigh. It would take him five years to get win No. 74, the first of his Duke career. It would be another two seasons before he would win his 100th game. He would finish 38-47 in his first three years in Durham, North Carolina.

There was no hint then that this unknown Army kid, with his slight build and difficult surname, was embarking on an odyssey unlike any coach before him.

Thirty-eight years later, in November 2013, Chicago-born prep star Jahlil Okafor, the best player in another hyped recruiting class, explained to a televised audience why he decided to attend Duke. Even then, he knew exactly what lay ahead.

"Me, personally, getting a chance to help Coach K with his 1,000th game ... that was the tipping point for me," Okafor said during his televised recruiting announcement.

On Sunday, in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden, the same building where Krzyzewski became the sport's all-time winningest coach in 2011, Okafor followed through on his prep school projection, leading the Blue Devils to a 77-68 come-from-behind win that nudged his coach to a milestone unrivaled in the history of the sport.

"There will be others who will win more," Krzyzewski said. "But it's kind of neat to be the first one to 1,000. To do it this way, to win here at all, but to win the 1,000th here, you've got to be a lucky guy. This is a magical place."

Sunday wasn't always so magical. For parts of the first half and much of the second, St. John's looked distinctly uninterested in becoming a historical footnote. Sir'Dominic Pointer was too physical and aggressive for the Blue Devils to match. Phil Greene IV was making every little floater and pull-up he could see. Duke, shredded by NC State and Miami two weeks ago, was facing the same issues in New York: It couldn't stop penetration on the perimeter, couldn't get back on fast breaks, couldn't get stops.

But Okafor couldn't be stopped, either. He was great all game -- finishing with his typically efficient 17 points and 10 rebounds on 11 shots -- but never more so than during Duke's second-half run. His three-point play with 6:35 left cut St. John's previous 10-point lead to just 61-60. He muscled Chris Obekpa under the rim for an easy bucket. And with less than two minutes left and Duke up four, Okafor swatted Rysheed Jordan's layup and grabbed the rebound, adding defense to Okafor's already massive contribution.

Fellow freshman Tyus Jones was arguably even more important. His own three-point play cut SJU's lead to four with 7:12 left. Ten of Jones' points came at the free throw line, several of which buried the victory in the second half. His 22 points, six assists and four rebounds marked his best performance since Duke's November win at Wisconsin.

"You can't even describe it," Jones said, of the furious run that would seal Duke's win. "It's an unbelievable rush that you're feeling. And you're out there just pouring everything into the game and for your teammates and for Coach. You're giving it your all."

Okafor and Jones also gave the occasion its fitting narrative.

Krzyzewski's win total is, without question, the most impressive of the man's accomplishments, although that list is predictably ridiculous: 12 ACC regular-season titles, 13 ACC tournament titles, 12 coach of the year awards, 30 NCAA tournament appearances. Two gold medals with USA Basketball. Four national titles. His 82 tourney wins are the most in college hoops history. So are his 13 30-win seasons. It goes on and on.

But 1,000 wins is something more than a number, more than the raw accumulation of success. Instead, it's a testament to a career that spans eras and a man who figured out a way to win in each of them.

In 1975, college basketball was still in the pre-Bird and Magic era, when one coach could take the nation's best talent and win 11 national titles in 12 seasons. Talent was less diffuse. Television was still a shaky proposition. On the court, the game would be almost unrecognizable to today's teenagers: different rules, different standards, different styles of play. The idea of players leaving for the pros early seemed silly; they had to get off the junior varsity team first. Freshmen rarely saw the court.

In the 1980s, college basketball exploded. In the 1990s, Nike became a cultural force. By the 2000s, many of the nation's best high school players were skipping college entirely, not always wisely heading straight to a league that would pay them in exchange for their performance. Now the first decade of the one-and-done era, when would-be NBA rookies dominate the sport every year, is nearly at an end.

Different players in different environments playing different systems: Coach K stacked conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances through it all. In the 1980s, in the shadow of the old Big East and North Carolina legend Dean Smith. In the 1990s, when Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley became symbols. In the 2000s, with a team of future NBA stars. In 2010, with none.

And now, with the nation's best freshman (Okafor) and one of its best freshman guards (Jones) -- playing a spread-hybrid offense Krzyzewski adapted from his 2008 Team USA staff and a zone his mentor (Bob Knight) would scoff at -- the Blue Devils are hunting for a national title again.

How many offensive styles stop working? How many recruiting habits get outdated? How many great coaches have seen the game pass them by?

Krzyzewski's latest milestone is a product of remarkable longevity, sure. But it is also a mark of tactical and philosophical flexibility. A willingness to keep learning, keep changing, keep improving -- to, somehow, 40 years later, keep locating that special internal joy that hooked you from the start.

"As long as you do your job, you bring energy, right?" Krzyzewski said. "Energy is not a matter of age, it's a matter of your position, it's what you do. As long as I'm doing it, I'm going to bring energy, and I hope -- I want -- people around me to give me energy, too.

"Today, they did. It was beautiful, really, to see them fight and win."