LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Duke was sputtering, Louisville’s lead was growing, the KFC Yum! Center was roaring and, more than 400 miles away, Mike Krzyzewski was watching.
Which brings us to the guy in the blue tie Saturday, standing out on the court after calling timeout, gazing up at the scoreboard as he tried to think up some answers. Jeff Capel understood this would be a challenge. And there was the look of a man living it.Duke’s 78-69 loss to Louisville was the Blue Devils’ fourth of the season, third in the ACC and second in five days. It came with Krzyzewski’s seat kept symbolically empty on the bench and senior glue guy Amile Jefferson in his civvies with a bone bruise in his foot. It came with 18 Blue Devil turnovers and the Cardinals – ranked next to last in the ACC in shooting coming into the game – hitting 58.6 percent the second half. It left Duke 0-3 on the road in the conference by an average of 13 points a game and made for one fun afternoon for the Louisville crowd.
“We have to change this. Period,” Capel said after the game, his third as acting coach while Krzyzewski recuperates from back surgery. “We have to change it. That has to be our attitude going in. Being close is not good enough. Just merely fighting is not good enough.”
Once ranked No. 1, Duke is now 14-4 and will be no higher than fifth in the ACC when the weekend is over. Capel has inherited a challenge, all right. Consider the past 11 days:
Wednesday, Jan, 4
Krzyzewski coaches his last pre-surgery game, a 110-57 pounding of Georgia Tech. It’s his 983rd win at Duke. When he won his first, Capel was five years old.
“I won’t be in a hurry to come back until I’m ready, because I made that mistake in my younger days. I’m too old to renew that mistake,” Krzyzewski said of his impending operation. “I’m ready to have this taken care of.”
Jeff Capel, you’re on.
Thursday, Jan. 5
Capel has his first media teleconference as acting coach.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity already this year,” he said. “Throughout the season, guys have stepped up, and that’s what we have to do right now.”
About any heat he might be feeling, as a basketball vice-president temporarily replacing the commander-in-chief: “I don’t think of it as pressure. I think of everything as opportunity. It’s a different opportunity now for everyone. It’s not as difficult because of Coach. He has told me repeatedly to be myself, trust my instincts, go with what I see and what I feel. Certainly, I am going to elicit his input. Talk to him, go over things with him… It’s not like he’s going to be incoherent. He’s going to be watching the games, communicating. I’m definitely going to lean on him. But Coach gave me a lot of freedom the past two or three years. We have a special relationship. I think he trusts me.”
Capel is 41, having already been a head coach at VCU and Oklahoma. Some will portray this as an audition for the future. Krzyzewski will retire one day. Presumably.
“I haven’t thought about it because I can’t imagine it,” Capel said. “Since I started watching basketball, he’s the only coach I’ve known at Duke, so I haven’t thought about anything like that.”
Friday, Jan. 6
The word from the doctors is that Krzyzewski’s surgery went well. It’s exactly 22 years to the day he was admitted to the hospital in 1995. Assistant Pete Gaudet took over then, and the season imploded to a 13-18 record, which was the last time the Blue Devils didn’t make the NCAA Tournament and still the school record for most defeats in a season. Capel was a sophomore guard on that team.
GOOD NEWS: Our sources say Coach’s surgery went GREAT! And we have A1 sources. pic.twitter.com/ttxqwbiMdz— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) January 6, 2017
“I don’t think it’s close to back in ’95,” Capel said. “I think there was a lot of uncertainty back then. I’m not sure there was a plan. It certainly didn’t seem that way as a player that there was a plan. I also think he’s learned so much from ’95. Back in ’95 when that happened, everything fell apart, and I think maybe a big reason for that is he did everything. Everything kind of ran through him. I think Coach has delegated more since then. I think he learned a lot about himself.”
Saturday, Jan. 7
There’s a teleconference for Duke’s players before the Boston College game. Krzyzewski is on the line. “Coach is a strong guy,” freshman Jayson Tatum said later. “We knew he was going to have something to say.”
At tipoff, there is a vacancy on the Duke bench. Krzyzewski’s seat is kept empty and will remain that way.
“That’s his seat, he’s still here,” Capel said. “It’s not like he’s not coming back.”
The Blue Devils end up 93-82 winners, the only downer being Jefferson’s injured foot, seriousness unknown. It is listed as the 415th consecutive sellout at Cameron Indoor Stadium, though there are empty seats with a snowstorm raging outside.
“It was different. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Capel said. “It’s been a long week. It’s been emotional. It’s been all of those things. Coach always talks about energy cycles. We were at the end of an energy cycle. Now we need to move on.”
Any moments feel weird?
“Yeah, all of them.”
Sunday, Jan. 8
On an idle day, a factoid to notice. Capel is one of three former Duke team captains on the staff. Krzyzewski has had three every season since 1996.
Monday, Jan. 9
Duke’s roster merry-go-round never stops. Jefferson is out with a foot bruise and will certainly miss the Florida State trip Wednesday, possibly more. That’s a lot of defense, leadership and rebounding not to take to Tallahassee. And it guarantees the Blue Devils will be using their seventh different starting lineup in 17 games.
“I think this will be the eighth guy from our rotation that we’ve had out at some point this year,” Capel said on the ACC teleconference. “So we just deal with it.”
Yet another unforeseen wrinkle in a season that has had more of them than a rolled up cotton shirt. Hurting players, a hurting head coach. When will it stop?
“There’s no other choice but to do it that way,” Capel said. “We haven’t made an excuse all year, and we’re not going to start right now. We feel like what we have in the locker room is enough.”
Tuesday, Jan. 10
They don’t have enough in Tallahassee. Florida State rolls, 88-72, by dominating the paint, 56-28. The Blue Devils miss Jefferson. A lot. Besides, the Seminoles are one of the hottest teams in the nation with 12 wins in a row. This is not the program that came in 9-35 all-time against Duke.
Final. pic.twitter.com/JyvC8SL3F6— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) January 11, 2017
It is a particularly long night for Allen, who scores only nine points.
“I don’t think what other people say, chant or do wears on him that much,” Capel said. “The kid has been through a lot. He brought a lot of it on himself, but some of the things that have happened are just crazy.”
Wednesday, Jan 11
Up-to-date ACC stats are out, and Duke has only one player leading in anything – Jefferson owns the best field goal percentage and defensive rebound average in the conference. But he’s in a walking boot.
Thursday, Jan. 12
The tents go up outside Cameron for the long student vigil ahead of the North Carolina game on Feb. 9. P.S. It’s still called Krzyzewskiville, not Capelville.
Friday, Jan. 13
As the Blue Devils head for Louisville, history comes to mind. Two years ago when they visited, they were floundering with a two-game losing streak. Krzyzewski sent them out in a zone, and they upset the Cardinals by 11 points. From there, they won 20 of their last 22 games and the national championship.
Saturday, Jan. 14
One way Capel’s life has temporarily changed: When he walks on the court, there’s a police escort with him.
An early seven-point lead melts under the heat of the Louisville defense. The Blue Devils came in averaging only 11.6 turnovers. They pass that total with 13.5 minutes left in the game. That’s one problem. So is rebounding. So are 36 Louisville points in the paint, which gives Duke’s last two opponents 92.
“That has to be better,” Capel said. “That’s on everyone, that’s just not on our bigs.”
In the locker room, the Blue Devils talk of not having Jefferson.
“Missing a guy that has been part of the heart and soul of our team is tough,” Allen said. “We’re having to try to move forward without that.”
They talk of how bumpy and frustrating this ride has been, with all its detours.
“It’s no excuse, but it’s a lot,” Harry Giles. “We just have to learn from it.”
Final. pic.twitter.com/NHMMjModzB— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) January 14, 2017
They talk of the future.
“We’re going to get better. I can confidently say that,” Luke Kennard says. “Great teams have to overcome adversity. We’re fighting that right now.”
Allen mentions that the young roster is still learning the ways of the ACC, which requires savvy and smart play – “A lot of stuff that people don’t write down on their strengths and weaknesses in their recruiting profiles.”
That’s just another part of Duke’s narrative now. So is a missing head coach, Jefferson's boot and consecutive defeats. Capel talks of the need for more poise, more rebounding, more physical presence inside. And more practice. The next game is not for a week. Maybe there will be time to progress without further complication, in a season that has seldom offered Duke that chance.