Photo: Vernon Carey
Duke’s first game against Pitt and former Blue Devils assistant Jeff Capel on Tuesday brought up a touchy subject with Mike Krzyzewski. Capel’s surprise move to Pitt had generated speculation that Duke recruiting might suffer.
Try telling Michigan State coach Tom Izzo that Coach K is suddenly struggling to land one-and-done prospects.
Michigan State was strongly in the running for the nation’s No. 1-recruit, Vernon Carey. The 6-foot-10 center had high praise for Izzo right up to the end, including a Nov. 10 visit to East Lansing. He wore a Michigan State sweatshirt and sat on the bench with Izzo before the game.
But when Carey made his choice between Duke, Michigan State and North Carolina – one so anticipated it was broadcast on Dec. 6 on ESPN -- his explanation had nothing to do with Jeff Capel.
“The reason why I chose Duke was coach K and just the recruiting class they're bringing in this year (with) Wendell Moore and Boogie Ellis," said Carey on Sports Center.
Capel had accepted the Pitt job on March 27, 2018. He was long gone to the Steel City by the time Carey committed. And 10 days before Carey, Duke landed 5-star small forward Wendell Moore and 4-star point guard Boogie Ellis. Carey is from Florida, Moore from Concord, N.C., and Ellis is arriving from across the country, San Diego.
Following Duke’s win at Pitt, Krzyzewski might have come off a little testy in the post-game media session, but he made his point when asked about Capel.
“You know, we don’t have a point man,” he said in a quote from the News & Observer’s Steve Wiseman. “I’m the point man in recruiting. All of us are good recruiters. There wasn’t one guy that was responsible for anybody.”
But the players say "one guy" mattered. They say they came to play to play for the best coach in the country – meaning the head coach. I remember Shane Battier telling me that 19 years ago.
In my San Diego Union-Tribune days, I had the opportunity visit Duke during NCAA Tournament time. Battier, who was from Detroit Country Day, was made available early in the week for a media session on campus.
“When the best coach in the country calls you at home and asks you to play for him, you say, ‘Yes,’ ” he told me and another writer he gave some extra time.
Although the quote was 19 years ago, the thought behind the commitment dates 22 years to his high school senior year. At that time, Capel was a Duke senior.
Joining Battier in the 1997 recruiting class were future early first-rounders Elton Brand and William Avery. Battier stayed four years (he was the Associated Press Player of the Year in 2001), but Brand and Avery declared for the NBA Draft after their sophomore season. Also on the 1999 roster was freshman Corey Magette, who was Coach K’s first one-and-done. Capel was playing in Europe when Magette arrived. He didn't return to Duke as Coach K's right-hand man until the 2011-12 season.
More 21st century Duke NBA first-rounders have included Jay Williams in the 2000 recruiting class; J.J. Reddick, 2002; Luol Deng, 2003; Shaun Livingston was due to arrive in 2003, but he jumped from high school to the NBA; Gerald Henderson, 2006; Kyrie Irving, 2010; Austin Rivers, 2011; Jabari Parker, 2013; and then the first lottery class in 2014 with three one-and-dones, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.
The 2014 class started the recent trend of Duke one-and-done lottery picks by the bundle. By then, Izzo wasn’t the only coach losing out to Coach K’s Mt. Rushmore image among high school kids. Kentucky coach John Calipari, who started the NBA combine recruiting class business, complained in 2014 that Krzyzewski had an unfair recruiting advantage as the USA Basketball coach.
Coach K bristled at Calipari's comment, too. Duke men's basketball can be haughty -- and it was overly protective of Grayson Allen as a dirty player -- but Coach K doesn't get snappy as frequently as his mentor, Bobby Knight. He also doesn't stoop to bully tactics, as was common for Knight, or misdirect his anger. Knight stopped talking to Krzyzewski for awhile over perceived slights in the national media that Coach K had surpassed him. In contrast, Coach K continues to highly praise Capel and express their close relationship.
Comparing Krzyzewski and Knight reminds me of a quote from former Michigan State coach Gus Ganakas, who passed away earlier this month. A few years ago I asked him about Indiana's game at Michigan State in the 1974-75 season.
Krzyzewski, who played for Knight at Army, was in his first year as a Knight assistant after fulfilling his Army commitment. I wondered if Coach K observed how Knight had supported Ganakas that fateful afternoon Michigan State's black players walked out on him over starting a white freshmen forward, Jeff Tropf.
"I didn’t know Mike much that year he was with Knight,” said Ganakas. "But I have followed his career as a fan. I’ve always thought of him as a milder Bobby Knight. He was under more control emotionally, but he was very thorough with everything just like Bobby.”
The legend of Capel’s recruiting prowess gained legs in 2014 with three one-and-dones and with each succeeding class, but a better explanation is Capel’s arrival conflated with the NBA era of free agency super teams trickling down to college. High school kids look around for ways to stack the deck. It’s a drastic departure from how we used to grow up playing sports on the playground, trying to balance out the teams.
Before Capel, during Capel and after Capel, elite recruits continue to pick Duke for its head coach -- just as Vernon Carey reminded us.
Coach K still bestrides the college basketball world.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."