How Duke basketball finally became cool

Mike Rutherford | SB Nation | Source: MSN Sports

For the better part of the past three decades, no team has been more synonymous with college basketball than the Duke Blue Devils.

When the average fan thinks about the sport, some of the first images that are liable to come to mind are that of Coach K or the Cameron Crazies or the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. Said fan may loathe his or herself for having those thoughts so closely associated with college hoops, but they will still pop to the surface all the same.

In the era of the 64-team NCAA tournament, no program has won more national titles than Duke. Over that same time span, no head coach has been more consistently successful than Mike Krzyzewski.

Yet, for all the program’s titles and accomplishments, there’s always one thing Duke has failed to be: Cool.

Now some people will read that and think to themselves, “well winning and being committed to playing tough-nosed defense and slapping the floor is cool.” These people were also rooting for Kevin Bacon’s frat in Animal House.

Since 1986, Duke has been to 23 Sweet 16s and won five national championships despite being — by a healthy majority of modern definitions — decidedly uncool. The program has taken top-tier talent from all areas of the country, thrown them into the Blue Devil grinder, and churned out years and years of team success and mostly indistinguishable All-Americans.

Like the snobby fraternity mentioned previously, Krzyzewski’s “pod people” method of success is the type that leaves outsiders angry over both the general framework of what’s happening, and that they can’t be a part of it. Both mindsets have resulted in “Duke” becoming one of America’s favorite four-letter words.

Throughout ESPN’s 2011 documentary “The Fab Five,” Michigan’s famous group of early ‘90s stars reveals the deep-seeded feelings of ill-will they harbored towards Duke. Sure, the Blue Devils were the reigning national champions and the team that beat them twice — including by 20 in the 1992 national title game — during their first collegiate season, but the disdain was more cavernous than that.

“I hated Duke,” Jalen Rose says during the doc. “For me it was personal. Duke didn’t recruit players like me … They recruited white players and black players that came from stable families. They recruited the people who had what I wanted.”

Fair or not, Rose’s description of “private school basketball” sums up what has long been a majority opinion on Duke. They get friendly whistles at home, they take charges, they work the shot clock, they don’t necessarily have the most success at the next level, but they sure win a whole hell of a lot in college. Not everyone who suits up for the Devils looks like Steve Wojciechowski or one of the Plumlees, but they all play like them.

If you haven’t been paying attention, the times are changing in Durham.

In an era where longevity and top-tier success tend not to go hand-in-hand with one another, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils have been one of the most glaring exceptions. One of the biggest reasons for that has been Coach K’s willingness to adapt and change with the times. Perhaps he saw some of his predecessors — including mentor Bob Knight — do the opposite and took note of the results. Whatever the reason, Mike Krzyzewski at age 70 is still the seemingly unstoppable force that he was at age 60 and age 50.

Coach K’s most recent self re-invention has resulted in Duke becoming the landing spot for America’s top “one and done” talent. Once a program notorious for freshmen having to wait their turn — Krzyzewski didn’t have a single player declare early for the NBA Draftbefore Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette all did so in 1999 — Duke has now fully embraced the notion of leaning on teenagers who arrive on campus knowing full well that their stay is only going to be eight months long. This is essentially Notre Dame football morphing into early 2000s (or early ‘90s) Miami.

The sample size is limited, but the early returns indicate that the new system might be just as successful as the old one.

In 2014-15, the one and done trio of Jahlil OkaforTyus Jones and Justise Winslow captured the program’s fifth national title. Last season, Jayson Tatum was a star on a Blue Devil team that won the ACC tournament and earned a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance. Coach K’s current squad, which starts a record four freshmen, just improved to 18-2 and is the No. 4 team in the country.

The most staggering evidence of the culture overhaul at Duke comes when you look at the 2018 recruiting rankings. The No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 8 players in the class of 2018 (according to 247 Sports) have all pledged their allegiance to Coach K. The most recent member of that group is Zion Williamson, unquestionably the most famous high school basketball player in the world, and one who shocked everyone when he pulled a Duke hatout of a bag during a press conference that was televised nationally by ESPN.

Williamson, for those unaware, is a 6’7 freak of nature. He has 1.2 million followers on Instagram, and his ridiculous YouTube highlight reels have made the 17-year-old more well-known to the general public than a healthy chunk of the players in the NBA. He is raw, he is athletic, and he is undeniably cool. Basically, he is the type of player who would have never considered Duke in the past.

Five years ago, Williamson would have been an easy get for Kentucky. Ten years ago he would have been an easy get for North Carolina. His commitment to the Blue Devils made undeniable a fact that had already mostly revealed itself over the past three years: Duke was always going to be good, but now Duke is cool. How everyone, including the Blue Devils themselves, handles this new world is going to be mighty interesting.

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