Greg Koubek: The Fight for Minutes

koubekYou’ve got to believe that every player who’s recruited by Mike Krzyzewski believes he is going to play big minutes at Duke. Krzyzewski only goes after some of the most elite, sought-after high school players in the nation. Do they all get to start at Duke? No. In fact, some don’t even play significant minutes in a four-year career.

Greg Koubek was a McDonald’s All-American. In 1987 his team won a New York State basketball championship, and as a senior he tied for Mr. New York Basketball. He entered Duke as a 6’6” 205 pound forward and surely he expected to continue as a star in college.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. He averaged 10.2 minutes of playing time as a freshman and his minutes increased only fractionally with the years. Even as a senior, he only averaged 15.8 minutes per game. Throughout his career at Duke he’d always believed he could be a starter. As the years passed, he was still a role player with limited minutes. The pressure built to a crescendo, and just after Christmas break during his senior year, Koubek went to Coach K and said he was contemplating quitting the team.

Coach went down the roster with him: Brian Davis—he was playing better than Greg. Thomas Hill was playing better. Billy McCaffrey was playing better. Greg had to admit it was true. Duke’s team was stacked with stars and he didn’t quite merit being first team. Coach said, “We’re going to need you so get your head on straight and start focusing on competing in practice.” The basic message was: Quit feeling sorry for yourself and go out and earn more playing time.

Koubek decided to stay. It was only a few weeks later that Koubek proved his value big time in a tough game at Georgia Tech on January 30, 1991. With seconds left, Thomas Hill missed a possible game winning free throw, and Laettner attempted a rebound, slapping the ball toward the out-of-bounds line. Koubek dived at the ball, grabbed it and passed it to Hurley. Hurley hit Hill for the winning lay-in—Duke won 77-75. Post-game, Hill said that Koubek’s dive was the game winner, and Coach K said, “I don’t remember too much about games after we’ve played them, but I’ll always remember Greg getting that loose ball.”

Well, Koubek only ended up with 717 points at Duke, 364 rebounds, 104 assists, 12 blocks, and 68 steals. But he also achieved some things he surely didn’t start out aiming at. He played in 147 career games at Duke, a record only exceeded by Christian Laettner at 148. He was also the first player in the NCAA to play in four Final Fours, with a national championship in 1991. Duke needs the Greg Koubeks as much as it needs the Thomas Hills.

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