COLUMBIA, S.C. — Zion Williamson and Tacko Fall will garner the lion’s share of attention when No. 1 Duke and No. 9 Central Florida play Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and it’s with good reason. The two athletic specimens are unlike anything many have ever seen.
But there’s a different Duke-UCF matchup that predates both Williamson and Fall. In just his third season as head coach at Central Florida, Johnny Dawkins has the Knights on the rise after their first-ever NCAA Tournament win on Friday over VCU.
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Turning around college basketball teams is nothing new for Dawkins, though. Without him, there may never have been a top-seeded Duke squad this year — or five national championships spread throughout the program’s illustrious history.
“We’d rather not play each other, of course,” Johnny Dawkins said of facing Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We’re friends. I played for him. I’ve worked for him for over a decade. It’s not something you look forward to doing… We’re all competitors. We do what we have to do, but it’s not something we would pick.”
As both a former Blue Devil player (1982-86) and assistant coach (1998-2008), Dawkins has spent nearly five times as many years in Cameron Indoor Stadium as he has on the sidelines with UCF. Before he ever donned the now-retired No. 24 Duke jersey, Dawkins saw Krzyzewski as a coach just looking to survive a cacophony of fans and boosters clamoring to have him fired after accumulating a 38-47 record during his first three seasons.
“Back then, I still had a belief in who I thought he could become,” Dawkins said. “He painted a really good vision for us as a team, what he thought we could do. He painted a great vision for me, what he thought my career could be like. So that trust in him, that person was important.”
Success was in no way immediate when Dawkins committed to play for Coach K, going just 11-17 his freshman season. But by his senior year, a 37-3 Duke team featuring Tommy Amaker and Jay Bilas advanced all the way to the national championship game. Dawkins won the Naismith College Player of the Year Award, averaging 20.2 points per game.
Three-plus decades and 11 Final Fours later, and two of the biggest architects of the Duke dynasty are now in the awkward predicament of facing off for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.
It’s an old story but in the minds of Jay Blias, Tommy Amaker & Coach K himself, there might not be a Duke dynasty without the commitment of Johnny Dawkins to the Blue Devils in 1982. The hoops world comes full circle Sunday.
“No one looks forward to this type of situation,” Dawkins said. “It’s something that happens because we’re in the tournament, and it means we’ve done well because we’re all moving forward, but it’s not something you look forward to.”
Coach K typically likes to avoid battling former players, but his coaching tree makes it inevitable.
This year, the Blue Devils easily defeated Pitt, coached by former Duke player and longtime assistant Jeff Capel. That will surely happen again with the Panthers in the ACC. Krzyzewski and Dawkins have already faced off once before in 2014, when Dawkins was the coach of Stanford in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament championship game. Duke beat the Cardinal, 70-59, and went on to win that season’s national title.
“Why would you want to [go against former players]?” Krzyzewski said. “They’re family. If you don’t have to play against him, I’m not going to do it. But this presents an opportunity for both of us in a great setting. So both teams are winners.”
And if the personal ties of Dawkins and Krzyzewski weren’t already enough, Dawkins’ 23-year-old son, Aubrey, who was born and raised shooting a basketball in Cameron, is a redshirt junior on UCF averaging the second-most points (15.1) for the Knights. He now must help his father defeat a program that he once helped start, a program that he idolized growing up.
“I can’t believe it,” Aubrey Dawkins said. “I never thought it would happen. But it’s here. We’ve just got to play basketball and not make the game bigger than it is.”
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