DURHAM — There are bad losses, and then there are losses that send you to the history books.
The Duke Blue Devils suffered the latter type of loss when they went to NC State last Wednesday, trailing wire-to-wire and losing 88-66 in Raleigh.
It was Duke’s worst defeat since losing by 22 to Louisville in March 2013, and the worst ACC loss by the Blue Devils since Jan. 23, 2013, by 27 in Miami. It was Duke’s worst loss to an unranked foe since January 1978 (74-50 at NC State) and its worst loss as a ranked team to an unranked opponent since March 18, 1968, when St. Peter’s beat the No. 10 Blue Devils 100-71.
Faced with his team’s most significant blowout in more than a half-century, Mike Krzyzewski pulled no punches postgame, saying his team “was not competitive tonight,” claiming that NC State was hungrier, and his team was unprepared to play. “Our team obviously felt tonight,” he charged, “that they didn’t need a win.”
“I was angry,” Krzyzewski said later. “I was angry at them.”
The team laid an egg at the worst possible time. With the regular season winding down, Duke’s hopes of a top NCAA seed and a long run in the tournament depend on the Blue Devils being at their best. The team that lost in Raleigh seemed as far from its peak as it was possible to get. Duke’s next game was less than 72 hours away, Saturday against a Virginia Tech team that led Duke by double digits in the first matchup.
Fans and observers on press row often joke after a poor Duke effort about the fate in store for the Blue Devils when Krzyzewski gets them behind closed doors. “I’d hate to be a fly on the wall in that locker room,” an announcer will say as the team heads to halftime after a rough first 20 minutes. Krzyzewski is known for a temper that has broken watches, clipboards and, at times, spirits.
Krzyzewski needed to find a way to get his team past the humiliating loss and ready to play again on Saturday. The question wasn’t “What happened?” but “What do we do now?”
Coach K offered a rare glimpse inside the locker room and practice gym doors to explain what happened over the next two days, as Duke tried to recover from a loss that could have torpedoed its season.
The game’s not over
Krzyzewski was angry, but that wasn’t sufficient.
“In order to change,” he said, “you have to be angry at yourself.”
He set about finding evidence that would get the players angry with themselves.
“These kids need to see,” he said. “If you just tell them, they never have the depth that their visual will give them, along with what you say.”
So he scheduled a film session.
“After State, we got in late, had a short meeting and came back the next day,” he said. “For every one of our games, we give … the game’s not over until you get feedback.”
Those expecting a paint-peeling tirade from Krzyzewski as he went through the players’ mistakes, however, will be let down.
“I showed a lot,” he said. “But what I did was have each of my assistants take different aspects of it. So they heard it from different voices. Sometimes, they express things better than I would. But they have to see.”
It was more than bad passes, ill-advised shots and missed assignments on defense.
“We showed bench shots,” Krzyzewski said. “Where they were comatose. If you told them that, not that they wouldn’t believe you, but they wouldn’t believe you to the depth. It’s not a matter of busting their chops. It’s a matter of being honest with them.”
This is us
The message from the film session was unmistakable.
“This is who we are,” he said. “We’re going to go on the court now.”
The practice court: where for generations, coaches have exacted their pound of flesh from underachieving teams. Krzyzewski again took a different tack, however.
“There’s not going to be animal drills or anything like that — crazy-ass things,” he said. “What there’s going to be are things we need to improve on. We had a really good, hard practice (on Thursday). We couldn’t have the same practice on Friday or else we’d be dead (for the game). So on Friday, we talked about attitude and belief.”
Krzyzewski had come up with four keys to turning around the team following the loss.
“Whenever there’s adversity, the single greatest gift that God has given to you is attitude,” he said. “You are in control of attitude. No one else. It’s on you. So, in order to change things around, you have to have attitude.
“The second thing you have to have is belief. You have to believe in yourself and your group,” he added. “On that day, we talked about attitude and (told them) we believe in them. You have to believe in each other. The third thing is preparation. So now, we’re going to go on the court, and we’re going to prepare.”
After a light practice that Vernon Carey later described as “not too bad at all,” it was time for Krzyzewski’s fourth component.
“The final is (game day) — it’s execution — and you turn adversity or something that was bad into an opportunity that makes you better.”
Tell the truth and move on
Duke went out on Saturday and quickly dispatched Virginia Tech, winning 88-64 in a game that was never close. Would they have turned in a similar result if Krzyzewski had chosen to vent his anger and punish the team? Perhaps. We’ll never know. Although down the road, when things aren’t going well in a win-or-go-home tournament game, it’s possible this week’s approach may pay dividends, as the team can apply the lessons learned to adjust its attitude and belief on the fly.
“I think we grew as a group this week,” Krzyzewski said. “Sometimes you get punched and knocked out, but then you get up and figure out why. Hopefully, we don’t get knocked out again, but if we do, we’re going to do the same thing. We’re not going to throw them under the bus, say they’re not good, say we don’t believe (in) them or that they’re idiots. We’re going to tell them the truth and move on.”