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Coach K And The Kyrie Irving Conundrum: Can Duke Basketball Have It Both Ways?

Mike Kryzewski has a freshman superstar (Kyrie Irving) and a consummate college point guard (Nolan Smith). It's the best of both worlds in college basketball. But can Duke win without choosing one or the other?

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With Mike Krzyzewski, Nolan Smith, and Kyrie Irving on board, Duke enters the Sweet 16 with the best coach, the best point guard, and the best pro prospect of anyone left in the field. They should win, right?

On paper, the Blue Devils were title contenders before the tournament began, and before Irving surprised everyone by returning from an injury that'd sidelined him since December. With a superstar added to the mix, they could only be that much better, right? Eh... Maybe.

Mind you, any talk of Duke comes with a gigantic asterisk coming from me—I hate Duke. Hate them in an irrational, ugly way. Their success makes me bitter and sarcastic, their pain makes me happy.

But for today, that's beside the point. The point is, when it was first reported that Kyrie Irving would be playing in the NCAA Tournament, it scared the crap out of Duke haters the world over. Now, though, it's oddly comforting to see Kryie playing for the Blue Devils.

Maybe this is just an elaborate rationalization to keep myself from jumping off a building, but after watching Duke vs. Michigan, it's not a matter of "if" Kyrie will hurt the Devils, but when.

Don't get me wrong, Irving's unreal. You can get sarcastic about Duke "stars" like Kyle Singler, but let there be no doubt when talking about Irving—he's a bad motherf***er. A Chris Paul clone that plays so under control, you forget he's the quickest player on the court at all times. His ability to slice through the defense creates open threes and/or easy lay-ups, and makes Duke a different team.

But not necessarily a better team, which is where things get interesting.


After Shaun Livingston skipped out on Duke to go pro in 2004, Coach K stopped recruiting high school superstars for a few years. It's not to say recruiting fell off, exactly, but Duke stopped going after the can't-miss guys that had NBA scouts sharing the stands with college coaches.

Instead of Shaun Livingston, there would be more guys like Greg Paulus. From 2005 to 2009, the list of recruits reads like the lineup for a D-League tryout:

  • Greg Paulus
  • Josh McRoberts
  • Eric Boateng
  • Jon Scheyer
  • Lance Thomas
  • Gerald Henderson
  • Brian Zoubek
  • Kyle Singler
  • Nolan Smith
  • Taylor King
  • Elliot Williams
  • Miles Plumlee
  • Olek Czyz
  • Ryan Kelly
  • Andre Dawkins
  • Mason Plumlee

Of that group, how many were can't-miss NBA prospects in high school? McRoberts? He committed in 2003, before Shaun Livingston went to the NBA. After that, you have a bunch of good-but-not-great prospects that Coach K could count on to stay in school for at least three years.

This all got lost in last week's ridiculous Uncle Tom debate between Jalen Rose and Grant Hill, but Jalen was absolutely right about one thing: Duke does recruit a certain type of player.

They did in the 1990s, and after getting burned by guys like William Avery, Corey Maggettee, and then Shaun Livingston, Duke went back to what they did best. Recruit guys that'll stay in school. It's ignorant to call them a bunch of Uncle Toms for this, but it's also fair to say that there's a certain pattern to the type of guys that Duke has traditionally recruited. And Kyrie Irving doesn't fit that pattern.


You can choose between two extremes for success as a big time basketball program in 2011. There's Option #1, which we'll call the The Calipari Way, and Option #2, The Duke Way.

With The Calipari Way, you recruit NBA talent to play college basketball. There's zero chance stars that enroll as freshmen will ever stick around to become upperclassmen, but even as freshmen and (maybe) sophomores, you have the benefit of playing with the most talented players in the country.

It's worked for Calipari at Memphis and Kentucky, but he's still yet to win a National title this way, and there are two key drawbacks. First, you never know when one of these NBA prospects will run into eligibility issues the way Kentucky's Enes Kanter did this season. A lot of people watching UK this weekend may ask themselves, "What is that big awkward center (Josh Harrelson) doing on the court with the rest of these guys?"

The answer: that big awkward center was supposed to be a dominant Turkish center named Enes Kanter, but the NCAA deemed him ineligible for having accepted improper benefits while playing overseas. Because when you recruit pro talent, sometimes, the talent's getting paid.

But more importantly, regardless of how talented they are, depending on 19-year-olds is still a risky proposition. It's like trying to harness nuclear energy; there's more potential than you'd find elsewhere, but it's more unstable, and it can self-combust at any point. 

As for The Duke Way, rather than build a program based on the unstable elements that populate the Top 10 of the NBA Draft every year, you go for something safer and more reliable. Guys that won't necessarily set the world on fire as underclassmen, but who'll conform to a system and evolve into a solid, cohesive whole that beats a collection of more explosive parts.

Last year it worked by default. Duke never had to play Calipari's dominant Kentucky team because the 'Cats flamed out on their own. The most explosive team Duke faced was Baylor, and after surviving that test, they rode Coach K's disciplined, unrelenting style all the way to the title. The team they beat to win it all was Butler, a collection of role players, built around an superstar talent in Gordon Hayward.

And that brings us to the third model for success; the team that builds with role players, and recruits a superstar to carry them. That's Ohio State this year, with Jon Diebler and David Lighty orbiting around Jared Sullinger. That's North Carolina with Harrison Barnes. It was Kansas' hope for Josh Selby. It's the happy medium between the two extremes.

And it's probably what Duke envisioned for Kyrie Irving; a compromise between superstar and system. They just haven't realized that with the superstar compromise, the system might get compromised.


It's one thing to recruit a superstar and build a team around that player. That's what Ohio State did this year, and it's made them best team in the country. But when you try to fit a player like Kyrie Irving into a larger system, it gets more complicated. None of this occurred to me until Michigan tested Duke on Sunday, but then the problem became clear.

Is it Nolan Smith's team, or Kyrie Irving's? Duke players and Krzyzewski would tell you it's Nolan's, as he evolved into the team's unquestioned leader while Irving was injured and carried Duke to a number one seed. But with Kyrie back on the floor, it's hard to justify putting the ball in anyone else's hands. And with the Sweet 16 upon us, it's not a good time to be having identity issues.

It's a sign of things to come, and a microcosm of the larger paradox facing big time programs like Duke. Coach K may have conceded that to compete in 2011, he'll have to recruit superstars like Kyrie Irving and next year's freshman sensation, Austin Rivers. But it remains to be seen whether he'll actually build his team around guys like that. Living and dying with a freshman doesn't seem like K's style. If he doesn't, Duke might as well give up recruiting superstars (again).

It's the problem with relying on freshmen in general; they're so good you can't help but build around them, but building around them comes with a serious risk. Like, Kyrie Irving's good enough to command control of Duke, but not necessarily consistent enough to carry them.

So it's not that Kyrie and Nolan Smith can't share, but that Duke's probably better if they don't. At any level, the best basketball teams have a clear identity. BYU is Jimmer Freddette's team. Ohio State is Jared Sullinger's. UConn has a bunch of quality role players and Kemba Walker, who takes them to another level. Arizona will ride Derrick Williams are far as he can take them. Kansas revolves around the Morris twins.

For years, Duke's identity hasn't been a player. It's been Coach K. He's allowed the rest of the country to take their chances with NBA talent, and focused his program's energy on cultivating a system that wins. The problem is, some players are so talented, that relying on the system—or products of the system, like Nolan Smith—becomes irrational.

Now, Duke has the best of both worlds. They have the consummate college star and the future NBA superstar. Both models for college hoops success, side-by-side. But if things get tight, what's their identity? When everyone looks to Nolan and Kyrie to carry the Blue Devils, the question becomes unavoidable: Can a team win without choosing one or the other?

That's what's in play Thursday and beyond, and maybe Duke can have their cake and eat it too, and make fools out skeptics like me. But for the record, with every biased bone in my body, if things get close Thursday, give me the Arizona team that knows exactly who bakes the cake in crunch time.

Kryie Irving's a bad motherf***er, but Derrick Williams is too, and he doesn't have to share.