CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s been nearly two decades since Chris Collins’ and Steve Wojciechowski’s voice has been absent from a Duke basketball practice.
With those two longtime Duke assistant coaches having moved on to head coaching jobs of their own, Jeff Capel and Nate James are doing their best to fill the void.
“Capel, he’s been tough on us,” Duke senior guard Quinn Cook said Wednesday.
With the new season approaching and Duke considered a national championship contender once again, change is the prevalent theme in a program renowned for its consistency.
Yes, Mike Krzyzewski is entering his 35th season as head coach and the Blue Devils are well stocked for both their 18th consecutive 20-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance this season.
But last season’s 78-71 upset loss to Mercer in the NCAA Tournament, combined with Collins departure to Northwestern in April 2013 and Wojciechowski’s ascension to Marquette’s head coach last spring, have meant a change in the atmosphere around Duke.
Speaking at the ACC’s Operation Basketball event, Cook said Krzyzewski is as dialed in as he’s seen in his four seasons. Duke junior forward Amile Jefferson agrees there’s a different vibe.
“Not only him, our entire Duke staff,” Jefferson said. “Everyone has a new excitement, a new vigor to him. It’s really good. It’s helping our guys be dialed in. When you see Coach K, Coach Capel really fired up and really at it, it gets you riled up and ready to play. It has really helped, especially our young guys because that’s what they know now. They know that level of our coaches and they know that our coaches are going to expect that from them each day and every time they practice.”
Capel, like Collins and Wojciechowski before him and current assistants James and Jon Scheyer, is a former Duke captain under Krzyzewski. With head coaching experience of his own at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma, Capel has moved into a more important role at Duke this season. Krzyzewski promoted him to associate head coach, which puts Capel a step above James and Scheyer.
“It’s a little bit of a tier right now other than people being the same,” Krzyzewski said. “So our practices have been a little different as a result of that.”
Capel routinely moves from one end of the court to the other during practice while Scheyer and James put their groups of players through work at either basket. His job is to oversee everything just as Krzyzewski does.
When Duke starts playing games on Nov. 14, Capel will have full responsibility for scouting and game preparation. In the past, Collins and Wojciechowski would alternate games.
“Because we were together for so long,” Krzyzewski said, “their voice was kind of like one voice. Now I’m going to have Jeff do that primarily with Jon and Nate helping out so that we have a consistent voice and an experienced voice doing that along with mine.”
Speaking earlier this summer, Capel said he could already sense that the new arrangement had created a freshness to the Blue Devils’ approach.
“As a coach, sometimes a staff change can be good,” Capel said. “It gives you a jolt of energy. It gives you a different idea, a different way of seeing things.”
That said, Krzyzewski said Wednesday he’d welcome working alongside Collins and Wojciechowski, who played for him in the 1990s and coached the entire first decade and more of the 2000s at Duke.
“I’d love to have Chris and Wojo with me all the time,” Krzyzewski said before also said he liked the new arrangement too.
Capel said the natural progression of Duke, which usually happens when young players grow into veteran leader, has also happened with the coaching staff.
“Steve and Chris were both very good here and they are going to be very good at Northwestern and Marquette,” Capel said. “So, it’s like players. It’s your turn to step up. You look at Jon when he was a freshman here and you look when he was a senior. He was ready because of what he had been through. Jon will be ready. Nate will do a good job and hopefully I will do a good job for the program and for coach.”
Capel’s experience as a player at Duke and a head coach means his voice, louder and more prominent than in the past, resonates with the Blue Devils.
“He’s been successful in college basketball as a head coach,” Cook said. “When you have a guy like that that’s really getting after you guys respond. It’s been really good for us.”