How Lessons From Coach K Can Help You Pick College Basketball Winners

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski and Wendell Moore Jr. #0 of the Duke Blue Devils set the offense. Grant Halverson/Getty Images/AFP.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is retiring this year, after 42 years and more than 1100 wins leading the Blue Devils.

Over all that time, Coach K has tended to repeat the same themes in his press conferences and interviews. Here are some of his most repeated phrases and how they can help you be a winner while picking games.

As Coach K takes his team on their road schedule this season, each venue he visits for the last time has some type of farewell tour gift for the departing Hall of Famer, whether it’s a framed photo, a donation to a charity, or a personalized bottle of bourbon from Louisville. We prefer to focus on the gift Krzyzewski is leaving for all of us, however—advice on winning basketball games.

While picking winners may not seem quite the same as coaching a team to victory, Krzyzewski’s rules to live by help provide insights into how teams work over a long season and what goes into wins and losses that may not show up on the stat sheet.

Here’s a look at some of Coach K’s oft-repeated phrases and the lessons we can take from them for our college basketball picks.

It’s a Tough Week for Us

Every year, Duke seems to struggle with an opponent that seems overmatched on paper in either December or early January. This phenomenon isn’t unique to the Blue Devils. Just this season alone, Gonzaga was upset by Alabama on Dec. 4, Alabama turned around and lost to Davidson two weeks later. Villanova suffered back-to-back 20-point losses in mid-December.

The problem has nothing to do with a team’s shooting, rebounding, or ball-handling ability. Instead, it’s due to the calendar.

These are college students, not professionals, and keeping an eye on the college calendar is critical to gamblers. December is when final exams take place, leading to distractions for the students playing the games.

“This has been a very unusual couple of weeks for us,” Krzyzewski said after one December clunker, where Duke escaped against an inferior foe. (but didn’t cover) “We didn’t practice for six days for exams.”

Immediately after exams, students go home for the holidays, returning some time in mid-January. That means that the home court will be radically different. Student sections will be empty. The band, mascot, and cheerleaders will likely be missing. Visitors in even the harshest arenas will find the home court advantage drastically reduced.

And then there’s human nature. If you’ve ever been in an office the last day before a long break for the holidays, you know that the temptation to give less effort—with “one foot out the door” can be great. Teams playing their last game before going home for Christmas have the same temptation.

Law of Conservation of Energy

Another popular Coach K-ism sounds a little new agey. After the Blue Devils suffer an unexpected loss to end a long winning streak, he’ll start talking about the energy cycles of a season.

When Duke was blown out by Ohio State for its first loss this year, Krzyzewski explained what he meant.
“We put together a very ambitious schedule,” he said. “You start out with Kentucky, you have Gonzaga, you have Ohio State and you have five pretty good teams in between in a 22-day period. That’s a lot. We have a young team. Those guys are really good, but they’re young and they have not gone through anything like this, so it’s a period of time – I call it an energy cycle. The season has different energy cycles. We knew that we were at the end of this one. We tried on Sunday and Monday to get our team refreshed.”

Basically, it means a team cannot be “up” for every game on the schedule. And after a long period of playing at the top of their games, the team is due to come back to earth. It’s an emotional regression to the mean.

Coach K is one of college basketball’s top motivators, and he’s saying that there are times in a season when he simply can’t get his team to step up their games. So look for a prolonged period of “big” games and try to find a team that’s reaching the end of their energy cycle. That’s where the upsets live.

All Is Not Right With the World

Then there’s the opposite of an energy cycle: The team that’s been doing it with mirrors for a few games.
“It’s not like we have not had close games,” Krzyzewski said after a recent loss. “We’ve just been able to win them, and as a result, the reality sometimes doesn’t set in that you’re weak in certain areas or you’re not doing certain things well. When you win, sometimes it overshadows a poor performance.”

Maybe a winning team has seen its turnover rate increase in recent games, or its edge in rebounding slowly erode, or opponents are better able to drive and score inside. Teams that lose look to make changes. Teams that win sometimes ignore signs of trouble on the horizon, or take what a coach is telling them with a grain of salt. Look for a team that’s been coasting to eventually pay the price. Similarly, immediately after a loss like that, look for the team to make its long-needed adjustments and bounce back. There’s a reason Duke historically has one of the best records in the country immediately following a loss.

Learning From the Best

Coach K is known for connecting with players and reading a team’s psychology. It’s why he’s been able to win over all the massive changes in the sport over the last four decades. Trying to get a grip on that psychology can help you identify which teams are ripe for an upset.