DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Mike Krzyzewski has lamented this as a season of interruptions so far for No. 8 Duke — and the latest one has to do with Coach K himself.
The Hall of Fame coach’s upcoming leave of absence to have back surgery is the latest blow to a Blue Devils team that began the season ranked No. 1. Duke has shown flashes of playing like a top-ranked team, but not consistently.
It hasn’t helped that three immediate-impact freshmen were injured to start the season. They got healthy just in time for their preseason AP All-America guard to earn an indefinite suspension and be stripped of his team captaincy for tripping yet another opponent.
All that adversity has Duke’s season at an apparent tipping point. It could rip the Blue Devils apart.
But ESPN analyst Jay Williams, a former Duke guard, believes it could bring them together.
“When you look at where this team will be in February, they’ll be better for it,” Williams said Tuesday.
Krzyzewski will coach the Blue Devils (12-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) for one more game — Wednesday night against Georgia Tech — before having surgery Friday to remove a fragment of a herniated disk from his lower back.
Associate head coach Jeff Capel will take over in his absence, with his first game coming Saturday against Boston College.
In the wake of that development, Krzyzewski’s most recent public comments — after Duke’s 89-75 loss at Virginia Tech last Saturday in the first game of guard Grayson Allen’s suspension — come across in a different light.
“It’s unfortunate for any team that you have interruptions, and sometimes you have no control of them, like an injury or sickness or whatever, and sometimes something like this happens,” Krzyzewski said, referring to Allen’s suspension. “But we’ve had a lot of interruptions. We have to stop having interruptions.”
This will be the fifth surgery since the end of last season for the soon-to-be 70-year-old, who previously had his left knee replaced, had a hernia repaired and underwent two procedures to fix his left ankle. In a statement announcing Krzyzewski’s upcoming leave, school officials said he tried several treatment options before deciding on surgery.
In an interview with The Associated Press in October , Krzyzewski said he was “raring to go” with his health issues from last season taken care of.
Now comes another problem with his back, though this one doesn’t seem nearly as serious as the one that kept him out for the final 19 games of the 1994-95 season — the last time the Blue Devils missed the NCAA Tournament.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins said Duke is better equipped to handle Krzyzewski’s absence.
Collins, a junior guard on that 1994-95 Duke team who went on to join Krzyzewski’s staff, said his former coach now delegates more responsibilities to his assistants than he used to.
“Coach would be the first to tell you, I think, he micromanaged a lot more during that time,” Collins said. “He’s given his staff more responsibility to do more things, and it’s probably something he learned going through that. During that time, it was really difficult because he was Mr. Everything to everyone.”
Duke expects him back soon, with the school’s four-week timeline placing his return in early February — just in time for the annual visit from archrival North Carolina.
“I actually think this might be a great thing for him to actually get some well-deserved rest for a minute,” Williams said. “He is the epitome of a 24-7 coach. ... That switch never turns off, and sometimes it takes your body to give you a sign that you need to turn off for a minute in order to be successful in the long run.”
If nothing else, the man taking over the team in Krzyzewski’s upcoming absence has experience in these situations.
Like Collins, Capel was a guard at Duke the year Krzyzewski took his previous extended absence. Capel went 175-110 in nine years at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma before returning to his alma mater and becoming Krzyzewski’s right-hand man.
When Krzyzewski missed last season’s trip to Georgia Tech with high blood pressure and dehydration, Capel took over and led the team to an 80-71 victory .
“Coach K allows his assistants amazing opportunities ... to be involved in everything in the program, so it’s not going to be that big of an adjustment,” Collins said. “Although it’s not going to be great to not have the ultimate leader out there, I think from the standpoint of hearing Jeff’s voice, it’s not going to be as different.”
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