January 22 loomed large on Pittsburgh and Duke’s basketball schedules for its oddness.
For months, Jeff Capel and Mike Krzyzewski knew they’d be pitting their basketball minds against one another for the first time.
The fact they’ve grown close, like a father and son, over the last three decades has to be set aside.
But can it?
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“It will probably be weird, especially with coach,” Capel said Monday. “Here’s a man that means so much to me, has meant so much to my life and still does. It’s a guy that I’ve had a relationship with since I was 16 years old. With the exception with my dad and my grandfather, there’s been no person who has had a greater influence on me than coach. So it will be weird.”
In his first season as Pittsburgh’s head coach, Capel, 43, leads the Panthers against No. 2-ranked Duke on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. at Pitt’s Peterson Events Center.
Krzyzewski, 71, maintains a high level of respect for his former assistant coach and player. But he’ll turn to a mental trick to help make Tuesday night’s game a little less, well, weird.
“What I try not to do when we are playing against a friend or someone from our family,” Krzyzewski said, “You don’t pay attention to the coach and you compete against the team. I’ve known Jeff since was 18 years old. He’s part of our family and I’m part of his. I love him and he’s doing a great job there which is not unexpected. He did a great job for us for a number of years.”
Four seasons at Duke
Capel and Krzyzewski grew close when Capel starred at Fayetteville’s South View High School and Krzyzewski recruited him to Duke.
Capel played four seasons for Krzyzewski with the Blue Devils, including the 1994 season that ended in the Final Four when Arkansas edged Duke, 76-72 in the national title game at Charlotte.
After head coaching stops at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma, Capel returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach for Krzyzewski in 2011. Together they returned to the Final Four in 2015, winning Duke’s fifth NCAA championship.
Early in that 2014-15 season, Duke met Stanford in the Coaches Vs. Cancer tournament final at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Johnny Dawkins, who played for Krzyzewski and was an assistant coach for him at Duke from 1998-2008, was coaching Stanford.
The Blue Devils won 70-59 in the most recent time Krzyzewski coached against a team coached by one of his former Duke players.
That changes on Tuesday night because, after declining opportunities to return to head coaching at places like Arizona State and Georgia Tech in recent years, Capel took over a Pitt program that had gone winless in the ACC last season.
The Panthers are already improved with a 12-6 overall record, including 2-3 in the ACC.
‘We have to fight’
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team beat Pitt 74-63 on Saturday, has high praise for what Capel has already accomplished at Pitt.
“There are a lot of good coaches in this league but I think he’s done the best job in the league at this stage,” Boeheim said Monday. “He has his guys playing at a very high level on offense and defense.
“He’s changed the whole culture and attitude of the basketball team in a very short period of time. That’s very difficult to do. He’s just done an outstanding job.”
Krzyzewski, of course, isn’t surprised.
“Nothing surprises me about what Jeff has done,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s done a terrific job. He has selected a terrific staff. He embraced Pittsburgh, not just the school but the city.
“He reignited the brand while doing his stuff too, bringing up the past and introducing the future of what his plan would be.”
Both men know they and their teams are in for a battle tonight. That’s something Capel said he learned from Krzyzewski and something Krzyzewski already sees in Capel’s Panthers.
“We have to fight,” Capel said. “That’s what this thing is about. You have to fight. It’s how you show up and do it every day. People look at the Duke program and they look at the unparalleled success that Coach K has had. The wins, the championships and all those things. It’s glamorous and all those things. But at the end of the day it comes down to fighting. There’s no better fighter than him and what he’s instilled in the program. So that’s what I think and I’ve tried to apply that in our program. It’s just not going to happen just because we are here. We have to fight our way out of it. We have to earn our way out of it. I think that’s probably the greatest lesson.”