Two months ago, there seemed no way that Duke had a strong enough team to win the title. Duke’s starters had everything it took to be the best. Sure, they would be competitive with an MVP-candidate in Jahlil Okafor, another smooth offensive big man in Amille Jefferson, a veteran scorer in Quinn Cook, a do-it-all swingman in Justise Winslow, and a clutch man in Tyus Jones. Unfortunately for head coach Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K, however great that starting lineup could do, there would be no bench to back it up.
At the beginning of the season, the only two players Krzyzewski threw in the game off the bench consistently were Matt Jones and Marshall Plumlee. Jones could provide efficient scoring and tough defense, and Plumlee could step in as a solid post defender, but was a complete liability on offense.
Things especially started to look bad for the Blue Devils when they dropped two straight games to unranked teams, NC State and Miami. After another loss to top ranked Notre Dame, it was clear something needed to change; however, it was unclear what it would be and when it would happen. Would Marshall Plumlee be inserted in the starting lineup to provide rim protection, sliding Okafor to the four?
Krzyzewski does love those Plumlees. Maybe Quinn Cook would be moved to a sixth man scorer role, while Matt Jones could add better perimeter defense to the starting five. If a change was going to made, Krzyzewski did not seem to have a ton of options with only a seven man rotation.
On February 25th, in a game against Virginia Tech, the Hall of Fame coach pulled the trigger on the move that would save Duke’s season, but not a move anyone expected. It was no secret that Duke heavily lacked rim protection and post defense, and Krzyzewski fixed the problem in the most unexpected way: making Justise Winslow, a probable NBA shooting guard at 6’6, the defensive anchor at the power forward spot.
Anytime a coach switches a perimeter guy to a big man, it is a bold move. It is even bolder when the switch is made with postseason looming. And even bolder when that player is just a freshman, but that is the genius of Mike Krzyzewski. Duke never looked the same after that. Matt Jones came into the starting lineup and filled Winslow’s old role of a perimeter defender, while simultaneously putting up points in an efficient manner. Jefferson went to the bench, and added some much needed second unit scoring.
This change got Duke to take the leap. They went from a pretty good team to a great team, and they looked like they had a pretty good shot at challenging either Kentucky or Wisconsin for the national title. Krzyzewski lead this team to the final four, his 12th all time, but it became clear that this team had one more problem that needed to be fixed before they could become national champions. A seven-man rotation would not cut it. Krzyzewski needed to add depth, and once again he looked at an unlikely savior.
Grayson Allen had shown promise all season. He received inconsistent minutes all season long, and when Jefferson was moved to the bench, he started to see more time as a reserve guard, but nothing major. Allen even led the team to a victory over Wake Forest by scoring 27 points, and then the next game only received 11 minutes of playing time. The freshman probably never expected to come into the Final Four and all the sudden have Krzyzewski counting on him as the key offensive player coming off the bench.
For Krzyzewski to do that, it takes guts, but he knew the player he had in Allen. It didn’t matter that he was a freshman, it didn’t matter that his biggest minutes this tournament was 12 in a blowout against Robert Morris, it didn’t matter that he had collected a whopping total of 9 points this whole tournament, Krzyzewski was ready to throw him in the ring, and this team would swim or sink depending on Grayson Allen.
And who would have guessed that Allen was just what the doctor ordered. He matched his tournament total with 9 points against Michigan State in the semifinals, including a thunderous dunk off his own missed three. Then in the championship game, it was an 8-0 run, all buckets by Allen, that shifted the game in Duke’s favor.
Krzyzewski came into this season with four five star recruits, and all four of them came together in perfect harmony in the final game to knock off Wisconsin. Okafor and Tyus Jones played like smooth jazz, dominating each game in a calm and beautiful fashion. If Okafor and Jones are jazz, then Winslow and Allen are rock and roll. Every possession one or the other was diving on the floor for a loose ball, challenging the opposition at the rim, or barreling down the lane with zero regard for human safety.
At the end of the game, it was Okafor and Jones who clinched the title, but Duke would have never had a shot if it was not for Allen going absolutely nuts for his 8-0 run, and neither Okafor nor Jones would have been able to get their game clinching buckets if it wasn’t for Winslow’s clutch, albeit controversial, baseline save to Okafor and his late game rebound that the officials decided was pushed out of bounds by Wisconsin point guard Bronson Koenig. With these four freshman working as a well oiled machine, Duke was unstoppable, and they would have never came together if it was not for the bold moves by the legendary coach Krzyzewski.