LOUISVILLE -- Duke trouble? What Duke trouble?
As one Louisville shot clanged away after another Saturday afternoon, the crisis in Durham eased. If there ever was one. The Blue Devils’ 63-52 win against the Cardinals will never be confused with a work of art, but it took grit and poise and a bold wrinkle from Mike Krzyzewski -- bring out the zone defense! And at the end, a No. 4 ranked team with consecutive defeats and growing questions had beaten a top-10 opponent on the road.
This is how an old coach begins to find some answers. This is how a young team begins to mature.
"Those two losses woke us up,"Jahlil Okafor said, after 18 points. "We came together as a family. We always talk about how close we are off the court. We wanted to see how close we were when things got a little rough."
Never mind the 87 and 90 points coughed up against North Carolina State and Miami (Fla.). It took Louisville nearly 34 minutes Saturday to break 40.
Never mind the specter of the first three-game losing streak in eight seasons, and only the fifth time in 20 years. Duke had this one in hand from early in the second half.Never mind the fact the Blue Devil offense still can creak. It’s not often a team goes the last eight minutes without a field goal and wins comfortably against a 15-2 powerhouse, but that’s what the Blue Devils just did.
Never mind how Krzyzewski’s march toward 1,000 victories had stalled at 997. The count has resumed, with No. 998.
That is how Duke’s long week ended; with a 15-2 record and maybe another layer of toughness in place.
"I think somewhat our team is put in a tough position with me coaching it, because of the accolades and whatever," Krzyzewski said. "Look, I’m one of the good guys and good coaches and all that, but there is no best coach. It is almost like we have to be perfect.
"I can’t allow my team that albatross ... I have to take that burden off them."
Indeed, to play for Duke lately, with the 1,000th victory near, has meant to hear a lot of Coach K this, Coach K that. "I wish," Krzyzewski said, "I was Coach W right now."
He thought his team had not truly played well since the victory against Wisconsin, nine games ago. He saw the struggles on offense and how that seemed to spread to the defense. He saw young players maybe not always at ease with the expectations of the four letters on the front of their uniforms.
"I was definitely down, and upset with myself and the way my team was playing," Okafor said. "Everybody else was down, too. We just wanted to respond to that."
Besides, they were getting ready to play in a dangerous place against a ranked team that has many qualities, but can’t shoot. Not a lick. So what to do?
"Giving them something a little bit new," Krzyzewski would say later Saturday afternoon, "where they had each other’s back."
In other words, play zone. He has done that occasionally before, but he noted that was by choice. This time, he felt he had to.
"That’s what I would have done if I was in his shoes," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
Krzyzewski dropped the Blue Devils’ point of pickup on defense to the top of the key, trying to cut down on the penetration and picks-and-rolls that had tormented them so against North Carolina State and Miami. He put his team in the mentality of all for one and one for all on defense. And then he sent them out to play the Cardinals. They would lead by as many as 21.
"It started today," guard Tyus Jones said of Duke’s second wind. "We knew it had to start today, on the defensive end."
Louisville helped by shooting only 29.5 percent, including missing a batch of open looks, and not looking to push into the paint until it was too late. "We just could not knock down shots. Sometimes it’s very simplistic," Pitino said. "We’re not Gonzaga. We’re not some of those great-shooting teams. We’re a little offensively challenged from the perimeter so we’ve got to be meticulous with our paint touches."
How much this cured Duke’s ills remains to be seen. This was not the most aesthetically attractive of games. Take away Okafor and Amile Jefferson’s 19 points, and the rest of the lineup shot 7-for-26. But the Blue Devils felt a lot better flying out of here than they did flying in.
"This was a confidence builder, whatever the hell offensively or defensively," Krzyzewski said. "We played our butts off today and we beat a really good team. You get confidence through accomplishment.
"Hopefully, we don’t have to go through losing as much to learn these lessons, but we might. We have a long road ahead of us. It’s a long journey. This was a nice stop for us; it’s still going to be a journey. I know it. Hopefully my team knows it."