History was made during the 2011-12 season when Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski cemented his legacy as one of the greatest coaches of all-time. Krzyzewski, in his 32nd season at Duke, became college basketball's all-time wins leader when he led the Blue Devils to a 74-69 win over eventual NCAA No. 1 seed Michigan State. Krzyzewski did so in the presence of his mentor and former college coach Bob Knight, who was on hand to see his protégé break a record that Knight himself had held since 2008.
Krzyzewski's record-breaking 903rd win came on one of basketball's biggest stages in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15. Junior Andre Dawkins exploded for 26 points in the win, and the celebration began when Krzyzewski and Knight embraced at mid-court shortly after the final buzzer. Said Krzyzewski of the post-game meeting with his mentor, "Well I just told [Knight], I said, 'Coach, I'm not sure people tell you this, but I love you and I love what you've done for me, and thank you.' And he says, 'Boy, you've done pretty good for a kid who couldn't shoot.' I think that meant he loves me too. I'm going to take it as that."
The milestone win came in just Duke's third game of the year and set the tone for one of the best coaching performances of Krzyzewski's 36-year coaching career. With a roster that had lost its top three scorers from 2010-11 and brought back just one senior, Krzyzewski coached Duke to 27 victories, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and had the Blue Devils in the running to win the ACC Regular Season Championship until the season's final game.
Having said goodbye to four-year standouts Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith and star rookie and No. 1 NBA Draft Pick Kyrie Irving after the 2010-11 season, Duke was left with a roster that featured a number of talented, but unproven role players. The Blue Devils had plenty of size with forwards Ryan Kelly and brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee and a sharp-shooting back court featuring guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, but even with those five returnees and hyped freshman guard Austin Rivers, Duke lacked a clear-cut scorer and an established point guard. It took an entire team effort every game with scoring coming from a different player every night, but Krzyzewski led the Blue Devils to a 27-7 overall record and their 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. The wins did not come easy, as the Blue Devils won 16 games by 10 points or less for the second most such victories in school history.
Even more impressive is that Duke won those 27 games against the second most difficult schedule in the country. Among Duke's victories were wins over eventual NCAA No. 1 seeds Michigan State and North Carolina, No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 3 seed Florida State and No. 4 seed Michigan and a total of eight wins over teams that went on to win their respective conferences. The wins over Kansas and Michigan both came at the Maui Invitational, which Duke won thanks to an MVP effort from Kelly and an all-tournament performance from Rivers.
Freshman Rivers Makes his Mark
Both Plumlees, Kelly, Curry and Dawkins all improved in their more prominent roles, but it was the freshman Rivers who emerged as Duke's most dangerous and consistent scorer. The son of Boston Celtics head coach Doccame to Duke as a scorer with an impressive high school resume and did not disappoint. He became just the third Duke player to lead the team in scoring, was the unanimous ACC Rookie of the Year and became the first Duke freshman in school history to earn All-America honors. He scored in double figures in 30 of Duke's 34 games, including a career-high 29 points in an epic battle against rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill in which he sank the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to lead Duke to 85-84 win.
Rivers declared less than one week ago that he would enter his name in the NBA Draft pool in hopes of fulfilling his lifelong dream of playing professional basketball. He joins a list of three other Duke greats who declared for the draft after just one year in a Duke uniform: Corey Maggette (1st Round, 13th Overall, 1999), Luol Deng (1st Round, 7th Overall, 2004) and Kyrie Irving (1st Round, 1st Overall, 2011).
While Rivers will be missed next season, he left Duke fans with a lengthy highlight reel that included what will surely become one of the most famous shots in the history of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. He leaves his mark on the Duke freshman record books, ranking among the top 10 in scoring average (3rd), field goals made (6th), 3-point field goals made (5th), 3-point field goal percentage (t-8th), free throws made (1st), minutes per game (9th), double-figure scoring games (t-3rd) and 20-point games (t-5th).
Plumlee Duo Controls the Paint
While Rivers provided Duke with over 15 points per game, Duke's 27 victories would not have come without the emergence of the Plumlee brothers. With both brothers standing at 6-10 and possessing Duke's two highest vertical leaps, they gave Duke a dominant defensive and rebounding presence when on the floor. They combined to lead the team in rebounding in all but two games and amassed 15 of the team's 17 double-doubles.
Mason, a junior, became a consistent double-double threat, averaging 11.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game while earning All-ACC third team and NABC All-District honors. He recorded 12 double-doubles, including a 19-point, 12-rebound effort against Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament, and set Duke's single-season record with 60 dunks. He was also named a CoSIDA Academic All-America selection in 2012.
While Mason had a natural progression from his sophomore season, his older brother Miles exploded down the stretch to put together the best season of his career. On Feb. 11 against Maryland, Miles grabbed a Coach K-era record 22 rebounds, breaking the previous record of 21 held by Elton Brand. That game sparked a dominant 10-game run for Miles in which he became Duke's leading rebounder and a dominant presence on the boards. Miles would go on to set career highs in points per game, rebounds per game, blocks, field goals made, assists and offensive rebounds. His 99 offensive boards were also a team-high.
Curry Improves After Time at the Point
Following the loss of Irving after 2010-11, Duke entered this season with the starting point guard job up for grabs. Krzyzewski opted to give Curry, primarily a shooting guard, a chance to run the point. While Curry eventually handed the job over to Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook, his time running the offense paid off late in the season as his improved ball-handling and understanding of the offense allowed him emerge as Duke's second leading scorer and earn All-ACC third team honors.
Curry transferred to Duke from Liberty prior to the 2009-10 NCAA Championship season and was lauded for his three-point shooting. He averaged 9.0 points per game in his first full season as a Blue Devil in 2010-11 while shooting over 43.0 percent from three-point range. He improved his scoring average by more than five points in 2011-12 after creating more shots off the dribble and giving Duke another dribble-penetration threat from the perimeter. Curry went on to lead Duke in assists and was one of Duke's most consistent scorers, scoring in double figures 22 times while averaging over 30 minutes per game.
Success on the Road
The 2011-12 edition of the Blue Devils made a perfect 8-0 run through its ACC road schedule as well, becoming only the 13th team in the ACC's 58-year history to post an unblemished conference road record and only the fourth to go 8-0. Duke was 14-4 outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium on the year, winning 11 of those games by 10 points or less.
"Over the years we've always felt that, if you're going to win anything or be any good, you have to win away from home," Krzyzewski said. "We've taken a lot of pride in that, and I think over the years we've had a really good road record."
Krzyzewski certainly spoke the truth when he noted Duke's historically good record on the road as three of the past four ACC teams to post an undefeated conference road record were Duke teams (1998-99, 1999-2000 and 2011-12).
When the Duke coaching staff decided to shift Curry from the point back to his natural position at the two, Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook were left to split the point guard duties. While Cook provided the Blue Devils with some big games and amassed an impressive 3.50:1 assist-to-turnover ratio for the season, Thornton became the glue that held the Blue Devils together and eventually ran away with the starting job. What Thornton lacked in scoring ability, he made up for in hustle points, tough-as-nails defense and leadership.
Krzyzewski foreshadowed Thornton's impact in the preseason when, following an exhibition win over Bellarmine in which Thornton scored five points in 24 minutes, he said, "When [Tyler's] in the ballgame, we just play better. He doesn't have to hit a shot. We just play better when Tyler's in the basketball game."
Thornton worked his way into the starting lineup in early February and started the final 13 games. He committed more than two turnovers in a game just once during that stretch and even improved his scoring average during the final stretch when he averaged 8.0 points over the last six games and hit a three-pointer in all of those contests.
Thornton's improved play at the point had effects in other areas of the court, most notably on Curry who averaged 14.9 points per game and shot 40.8 percent from three-point range after Thornton took over the starting job.
Kelly Takes Over at The Four
Since Krzyzewski was named Duke's head coach in 1980, Duke has produced a number of versatile big men who create mismatches by mixing an inside post game with accurate shooting from the perimeter. Among the most notable players who filled the position that Coach K refers to as the "Stretch 4" are Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Mike Dunleavy, Shane Battier and Luol Deng. Having such a talent has allowed Duke to spread the floor and either open up the inside lane for easier dribble penetration or get open looks from three-point range.
The most recent in that long line of talented big men is Kelly, who stepped into the role that 6-8 forward Kyle Singler filled over the previous four seasons. Kelly, a 6-11 junior who owned just a 30.7 three-point shooting percentage entering 2011-12, took a major step forward when thrust into that role. Before an untimely foot injury sidelined him for the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, Kelly had become one of Duke's top scoring threats averaging 11.8 points per game while shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range on 98 attempts. He finished the year as Duke's leader in three-point percentage while also setting career highs with 5.4 rebounds per game, 18 double-figure scoring games and 12 dunks.
Losing Kelly just days before the ACC Tournament was a big blow to the Blue Devils. While Duke missed his double-digit scoring, Krzyzewski and his staff had built the offensive gameplan around Kelly's versatility and had to make do without his 6-11 frame and 40-percent three-point shooting. Said Krzyzewski after Kelly's injury, "With (Kelly) out, you can load up better on the three. You can hedge better or step in better on ball screens because you can protect the lane and you're not worried about two or three guys. You might be worried about one other guy and you can match up with him. Quite frankly, you become an easier team to defend."
Also the MVP of the Maui Invitational, Kelly has undergone successful surgery on his foot and will be healthy for his senior season in 2012-13.
For all the success of the 2011-12 season, the year ended with one misstep in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. An inspired Lehigh team coming off of a Patriot League Championship handed Duke only its fourth first round NCAA upset in 28 trips under Krzyzewski. Mountain Hawks guard C.J. McCollum poured in 30 points, including 18 in the second half, in a heroic performance that erased a pair of 19-point efforts from Mason Plumlee and Rivers.
"The game is a great game," said Krzyzewski after the game. "I've been in it for 37 years, and it takes you to incredible highs. And it also takes you to incredible lows. And tonight's one of those lows. But it wasn't just our doing, [Lehigh] played that well. They played that well. And again my hat's off to them."
The loss was an especially bitter pill to swallow for senior Miles Plumlee in his final game. Despite the loss, however, Miles offered some advice for future Blue Devils who will follow in his footsteps: "First, I would tell them you're becoming part of a family and we've got the best coaches, best staff, I mean, just the best everything. And you've got to make the most of it. You've got to bond with your teammates, then they become your brothers on the court and just never let anyone down and you're going to have a great time."
While things were uncertain for Duke heading into this season, the Blue Devils will have a much more established roster coming into 2012-13. With the only losses expected to be Miles Plumlee and Rivers, Duke will return 10 players including four of the top five scorers from this season.