Mike Krzyzyewski will be back on the sideline Saturday against Pittsburgh, ending a seven-game absence following back surgery. Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel has been filling in, guiding the Blue Devils to a 4-3 record and apparently turning the corner, recently knocking off Notre Dame in South Bend.
Even though he has been sidelined, Coach K has not been absent. On his SiriusXM radio show, Krzyzewski said he has been "doing stuff every day" with the program. The role of running Duke basketball is similar to a CEO, so the off-court stuff isn't that surprising, but a team meeting at his house made headlines with a reported punishment -- locker room access and Duke gear privileges removed -- handed down after a home loss to NC State.
Krzyzewski's return date was undetermined -- he was going to miss at least four weeks, and Saturday will be one month since his last game. Duke is at the perfect midpoint of its ACC season, with nine games left and the conference tournament remaining to work on getting right before the NCAA Tournament.
Until the Notre Dame game, Duke hadn't put together 40 good minutes of basketball. Eight of 11 players have missed practice time and game action. This group is still getting to know each other, and it was never going to gel perfectly until Coach K was back on the sideline. Duke is probably out of the running for a No. 1 seed with its 17-5 record, but it can still wind up with a favorable draw in the NCAA Tournament with a strong finish.
And ultimately, that's all that matters with this group. Duke started the season as the No. 1 team in the country and all that will matter eventually is when and how the Blue Devils finish their season. Given the talent on the roster it's expected they can bid for title contention, but so far there have been stretches where Duke hasn't looked right. There are nine regular-season games left to figure it out, six against top-50 teams but three in a row at home, starting Saturday with Coach K's return.
Key stretch ahead will be telling for Duke's postseason chances
Duke will face Pitt on Saturday, a game you can see on CBS, and then host North Carolina the following Thursday in the first edition of this season's rivalry series. Getting Coach K back in the game routine at least once before that high-pressure game in Cameron Indoor Stadium is good for everyone, including the Hall of Famer.
Less than a week after that Duke goes to Virginia, and by the end of this stretch we will have finally seen the Blue Devils at full strength -- on the court and and on the sideline -- against quality opponents.
Duke's best win right now is Florida, with the road win against Notre Dame probably a close second. The talent and potential is there but there is only a handful of top-50 wins. The opportunities are ahead (more on that below) but right now the seeding predictions are mostly based on speculation.
Biggest coaching-related decisions ahead? Rotations
Luke Kennard and Matt Jones are the only regular contributors who haven't missed time because of injury or other tripping-related reasons. That has resulted in a fluid starting lineup and a clunky adjustment period once the team got close to full strength in January.
Duke has a couple different groups that have worked well on the floor together in the past couple of games. One particularly dangerous lineup has 6-foot-8 freshman Jayson Tatum matching up against power forwards, breaking them down with his versatile offensive game. Capel found something there against Notre Dame, and while it won't work against every opponent it's in the game plan now. Coach K has been breaking down tape and offering advice, so he certainly has his own opinions about how to get the most out of this team, and now he'll have his chance.
Ultimate impact of Coach K's absence
Don't let Duke overload keep you from noting that Coach K being gone matters. How much it matters will never be known by those outside the program, but it matters. Every lineup decision, every opportunity to communicate a message to this hyper-talented team; those decisions were made by Capel, not winningest coach ever Mike Krzyzewski. Capel is the rock of this staff, comprised of former Duke players, but he is not Coach K. The Grayson Allen saga has been dealt with mostly by Capel, not Krzyzewski. These tough lineup choices with future lottery picks slowly being worked into the rotation? Capel, not Krzyzewski.
Now Krzyzewski is back, and he has a unique test ahead: Get this team together for a run so maybe it can finish the season playing the dominant style of basketball so many expected given the collected talent on the roster.