The two simple strategies that Coach K often uses for Duke, but most college coaches do not
For some reason, many college coaches don't follow Mike Krzyzewski's lead on these two things
LAIHAINA, Hawaii -- It was the final minute of Duke's opening half in its opening game in last week's Maui Invitational, and San Diego State's Devin Watson had just turned the ball over with 46.2 seconds remaining. Suddenly, the Blue Devils had a perfect two-for-one opportunity. And, just like always, Mike Krzyzewski wanted to take advantage of it. So Tre Jones rushed the ball up the court in a way that made it obvious Duke would be attempting a quick shot in an effort to drastically increase the likelihood that it would get the ball back once more before halftime. The freshman point guard then completed a dribble hand-off to RJ Barrett, who sank a 3-pointer with 40.8 seconds remaining.
It guaranteed Duke would have at least one more possession in the first 20 minutes as long as San Diego State didn't get an offensive rebound on the subsequent possession. San Diego State didn't. So the Blue Devils, after an SDSU free throw, inbounded the ball with 20.9 seconds left. Then Cam Reddish sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer that turned what was a 12-point lead 41 seconds earlier into a 17-point lead at the half.
"I thought the end of the half was crucial," Krzyzewski said after what ended up being a 90-64 victory for his star-studded team. "We got a perfect two-for-one."
If this had been an NBA game, or an international game, a perfect two-for-one wouldn't even be worth pointing out because NBA coaches, and international coaches, largely try to take advantage of those opportunities whenever they exist. But, for reasons that have never made much sense, college coaches largely don't. (Kansas coach Bill Self didn't at the end of the first half in Friday's win over Tennessee, as Jeff Eisenberg noted on Twitter.) And this is actually one of two things Krzyzewski does that lots of other college coaches don't do that I made note of last week while watching his Blue Devils on three consecutive days.
The other: He allows players to play with two first-half fouls.
So my question to Coach K was a simple question: If the winningest coach in Division I men's basketball history realizes that taking advantage of two-for-one opportunities, and not auto-benching players with two first-half fouls, are proper approaches, why don't more college coaches also realize it?
What followed was a diplomatic response.
"I think there's so many ways to coach, so many different systems, and all of them, at some time, have won," Krzyzewski said. "So there's not a perfect way of doing it. I think you just have to do what you believe is right. And so for my whole career I've played guys with two fouls [in the first half]. And if I'm playing against a coach that doesn't, then I try to go at that guy at different times during the half because that's the best way to play defense on them. But again, sometimes when we have done that, in the second half, that coach has beaten me. So it's not a perfect thing. But we have always gone two-for-one. And I think the international stuff that I've done helps me in that regard because that's what those guys do. They do it just naturally -- and it's beautiful when you get it done."
Again, that's a diplomatic response. Privately, I imagine Krzyzewski would say something like, "I have no idea why more college coaches don't go two-for-one and play players with two first-half fouls. But bless them for making my job easier."
Either way, the most interesting thing Krzyzewski said, I thought, was that he's very aware of which coaches auto-bench players with two first-half fouls, and that sometimes it leads to him attacking a certain player possession after possession because he knows the opposing coach will voluntarily remove said player from the game once he's whistled twice in the first half. That alone is reason enough to not have a hard-and-fast rule about sitting players with two first-half fouls. But the main reason it's a nonsensical approach is because when coaches auto-bench players with two first-half fouls, it prevents them from maximizing the playing time of their best players and lineup combinations. I mean, how many times have you seen a starter get benched after two fouls in the opening six minutes, sit the next 14, then finish the game with four fouls?
Answer: A lot.
So if college coaches don't want to take it from me and number-nerds on Twitter, take it from Coach K. If you have a two-for-one opportunity, you should probably try to make the most of it. And if your star gets two early fouls, don't automatically remove him from the game without first considering all options and the circumstances of the situation.
These are obvious things for NBA coaches.
These are obvious things for the GOAT.
That means they should probably be obvious things for everybody -- college coaches included.
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