Sports Nut

Where Have You Gone, Coach K?

The Final Four has witnessed the death of the college basketball coach as we have known him. At the two semifinal games, the hyperactive guys in neckties might as well have been doing handstands with the cheerleaders as their players put on a pure playground spectacle. The purists dislike this, but at a very high level, like Duke vs. Maryland, it’s a million times more riveting than old-style Hoosiers ball ever was. Yes, the rapid-fire, up-and-down action resembled a high-school all-star game at times. But that, in a sense, is what big-time college basketball has become.

The ever-expanding pool of teen-age basketball talent, combined with recruiting systems that scour the globe for players, has left schools in the major conferences with an embarrassment of riches. Coaches no longer have to carefully balance the strengths and weaknesses of their players. They’ve got 6-foot-10-inch bruisers who can drain three-pointers and 6-foot-3-inch slashers who can sky for boards. The role player, a guy who can do only one or two things well, is a vanishing breed at the top level.

And so is the college coach as a micromanaging game tactician. On Saturday, there were two significant halftime coaching maneuvers. In the Michigan State-Arizona game, it was MSU coach Tom Izzo tightening the screws on his team in the locker room. The Spartans played sloppy, nerve-racked ball in the first half, and Izzo tried to implement a more defined offensive set to start the second. It looked as if he wanted to pass the ball into the high post and then work it into the paint to get some better looks at the basket. The Arizona defenders reacted as if they’d been in that locker room with the Spartans and seen Izzo draw up the X’s and O’s. The Wildcats leapt right into the passing lanes and forced turnovers, including two consecutive fast-break dunks off identical passes to the high post. It was a disaster, and Michigan State never recovered. Izzo’s attempt to get his team to play a more disciplined style of basketball backfired completely, and a less talented team running a wide open offense with little discernible pattern escaped with an easy victory.

Contrast that with Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke team. In the first half, the Blue Devils shot poorly and played uncharacteristically tight. But at halftime, Coach K loosened the reins. He told his team to stop calling plays and instead “follow their instincts.” Coming from a guy who counts himself as a friend and disciple of Bob Knight, this was nothing short of radical. And it was stunning to watch on the court. On several consecutive possessions, point guard Jason Williams did not give the ball to his teammates once. He just scored on a series of impossible jumpers and breathtaking drives to the basket. Eventually, a couple of other Duke players got involved and scored key baskets, but it was Williams’ insane, one-on-five plays that changed the game.

We have reached the point where college basketball and pro basketball are almost indistinguishable. That means that pressure-cooker, ball-busting coaches—exactly what Krzyzewski himself used to be—have to change their ways to be effective, just like pro coaches have. They have to find ways to relieve the pressure on their players, not add to it. Coach K, for his part, still doesn’t look the part of a laid-back guy. He is as pinched and pointy-faced as ever. But in one essential way, Krzyzewski has become the college basketball equivalent of Phil Jackson: He has accepted the idea that great coaches need great players more than the other way around, and he coaches his team accordingly.

In the finals, Coach K will go up against Lute Olson of Arizona. For years, Olson presided over talented teams that were notorious for choking in big games. He seemed to lack the intensity of his coaching peers, and his teams never seemed as prepared or as disciplined as their top-ranked opponents did. Under pressure, the Wildcats failed to execute. Interestingly, Arizona has stopped choking so much in recent years. Olson’s recruiting is still top-notch, and now his softer touch is an asset. Not that it will help him much against Duke. The Blue Devils have more talent than Arizona, and barring a catastrophic performance from Jason Williams, they will crush the Wildcats tonight.