Matt Vautour: Uncertainty surrounds Duke as Coach K plans for back surgery

  • Kentucky head coach John Calipari gets his players' attention in the first half against Mississippi on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, at The Pavilion at Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. (Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS) Mark Cornelison

  • FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2016, file photo, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State in Durham, N.C. Krzyzewski said his team is “more in October mode than December” after having several key freshmen out with early injuries. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File) Gerry Broome

Published: 1/2/2017 8:54:07 PM

Going into the season, the idea of filling in for Mike Krzyzewski would have seemed like the dream temporary assignment for an assistant coach.

The Blue Devils boasted the consensus favorite for national player of the year in Grayson Allen and the guy many people thought would be the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick as well as national freshman of the year in Harry Giles.

But the announcement that Coach K will need back surgery that is expected to sideline him as least a month, puts Jeff Capel in charge under very different circumstances. Back injuries are tricky things. Krzyzewski could be back on time or even ahead of schedule, but Capel should be preparing like this is an indefinite assignment. If it was serious enough to require surgery there are no certainties.

The former Blue Devil star and ex-Oklahoma and VCU head coach takes over a Duke team amid some turmoil.

Allen is suspended indefinitely for his repeated tripping incidents. It’s hard to imagine, even from a hotel bed or a rehab center, that Krzyzewski won’t make the final decision on when Allen comes back. But it will be Capel who answers the questions from the national media when he does and it will be Capel who has to manage Allen psychologically when he does come back.

Giles is trying to rediscover his game after missing all of November and most of December with a knee injury, while at the same time get acclimated to being a college basketball player. That’s not easy in conference play. It’ll be Capel, within game situations, who determines how much to play him. Does he let him stay in while he makes mistakes and hopefully learns from them in the midst of a brutal ACC schedule?

On top of that, Capel takes over a team that took an 89-75 loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday. In a normal situation, losing to an underappreciated Hokies team in Blacksburg is hardly unforgivable. But VT dominated that game. With Allen and Coach K both out, there has to be some uncertainty on the roster.

GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS IN THE ATLANTIC 10 — It was never going to be an easy year for Saint Joseph’s after losing DeAndre Bembry and Isaiah Miles to the NBA and graduation, respectively. But the nonconference play of Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble gave were reason for optimism in the Atlantic 10.

But Newkirk, who’d been averaging 21.2 points per game, tore his ACL in the Hawks’ A-10 opener against George Washington, ending the junior point guard’s season.

Rhode Island’s fortunes are improving however. Hassan Martin, who has been out with a torn quad, is expected to return when URI hosts St. Joe’s, Tuesday.

MY TOP 10 — 1. Villanova; 2. Baylor; 3. UCLA; 4. Kansas; 5. Kentucky; 6. Gonzaga; 7. West Virginia; 8. Oregon; 9. Duke; 10. Creighton.

I picked Oregon (actual rank No. 15) higher than most voters, but I feel good about it. The Ducks have won 11 straight, including the last two over previously unbeatens UCLA and USC.

They have just two losses, one to now-No. 2 Baylor without Dillon Brooks, their best player, and the other to Georgetown in Brooks’ first game back when he played just 13 minutes. Since he’s returned they’ve been terrific.

For the rest of my Top 25, visit the College Hoop Week Guide on’s UMass Sports Blog.


No. 1 Villanova at No. 18 Butler, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. FS1 — The Wildcats looked great at Creighton, Saturday. The Bulldogs will present a similar challenge.

No. 21 Virginia Tech at No. 12 Florida State, Saturday 2 p.m. — In taking down Duke and Virginia, respectively, the Hokies and Seminoles each earned national attention. The winner will be in great shape.

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: Rhode Island at Dayton, Friday, 7 p.m. ESPN2 — The league’s top two teams in the preseason will square off to grab an early lead in league standings.

BUZZER BEATER — Give the folks at Ole Miss some credit for clever chop-busting.

In 2013, John Calipari was quoted in the Jackson Clarion Ledger complaining about the Tad Smith Coliseum, the Rebels’ old arena:

“The locker room we’re in there’s squirrels in there,” Calipari said “You’ve got to be kidding me. This campus is gorgeous ... this campus is like none other. This is one of the nicest college campus in this country except for this building.”

Well, the Tad Pad has been replaced by the beautiful Pavilion at Ole Miss, which welcomed Calipari with a gift, a stuffed squirrel. He tweeted out a picture of the taxidermied trinket with the following message:

“This was waiting for me when I arrived at the arena a few minutes ago. Happy to help. LOL. Beautiful arena.”

Someone should have given him a similar gift when he left the Cage for the Mullins Center, although squirrel hunters are harder to come by in Massachusetts.

Matt Vautour can be reached at Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at

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