Commentary

Ghosts of successful past bedevil the Blue Devils of present

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:19 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- Mike Krzyzewski isn't going to get a lot of sympathy for this one.

[+] EnlargeGreg Paulus
AP Photo/Susan WalshSenior Greg Paulus and Duke are intent on orchestrating a deeper run in the NCAA tournament this year.
During the offseason the Duke coach studied his team, trying to figure out what went wrong in March, the month when the Blue Devils usually blossom but in the past two years have wilted like a bunch of overexposed daisies.

There were obvious problems: no post player, crummy shooting, youth.

But Krzyzewski believes there was something more going on.

"I think your success can become your opponent at times," he said. "When you get into situations like an ACC Championship or an NCAA tournament game, you're not just competing against the other team. You're competing against your past."

That sound you heard was the noise created by thousands of smashed violins.

Too much success? What a pity.

But Krzyzewski just spent a summer seeing the difference between playing for now and playing for the past, and he believes the lessons he learned will pay huge dividends in Durham.

In Beijing, marketers, reporters and advertisers gobbled up the concept of the Redeem Team, a catchy phrase that simultaneously played off the Dream Team and summed up what this U.S. Olympic team needed to do.

Krzyzewski, the U.S. team's head coach, never used the word "redeem" -- not when he talked about his team, and not when he talked to his team.

It was a conscious decision based on Krzyzewski's assertion that nothing the 2008 team did could erase the 2004 team's futility and that adding those failures to the current team's responsibilities would only weigh everyone down.

"I said, 'This is now. Just be in the moment,'" he said. "When we won, at that moment I didn't feel relieved. I felt exhilarated because we were in the moment. That's what I haven't done a very good job of with my Duke team."

It's a tricky balance at a place like Duke, where the halls of Cameron practically breathe history and where success isn't measured by 20-win seasons but by the number of weekends in March your team plays.

It is at once both the lure and the albatross at Duke, the promise of achieving greatness with the pressure of continuing it.

"Tradition is one of the reasons people come to Duke, but sometimes you focus on that and you put a little too much pressure on yourself," senior Greg Paulus said. "Every shot is a bigger shot than it has to be."

It has been five seasons since Duke played in a regional final. That doesn't seem like much, particularly considering that year also ended up with a Final Four spot. Most teams, after all, judge themselves on the number of trips they make to the NCAA tournament.

But Duke is not most teams, and hasn't been since 1980, when a guy with a hard-to-spell, harder-to-pronounce last name turned the program on its ear. The Blue Devils' regular season has been merely a warm-up act for when the real show begins. Duke boasts the tourney's all-time top winning percentage, a gaudy 86-29 (.748) record.

Yet the senior class of Paulus and David McClure are in danger of becoming the second consecutive Duke class since Krzyzewski took the Blue Devils to their first Final Four in 1986 to fail to make an Elite Eight in its four-year tenure.

This crew has gone Sweet 16, first round, second round.

"No one wants to be known as the team that didn't uphold the standards of the program," Gerald Henderson said.

Last season Duke rolled to a 22-1 start on its way to a 26-4 regular-season record, earned a No. 2 seed from the selection committee and then promptly laid its second consecutive March egg.

A year after being ousted in the first round by Virginia Commonwealth, the Blue Devils were one errant Belmont pass away from an epic first-round disaster. Two days later, West Virginia sent them home.

Critics will argue that there was a lot more than success plaguing the Devils.

Without a solid post presence, particularly after Brian Zoubek fractured his foot, Duke became a team of outside shooters, and when the outside shots didn't fall, the Blue Devils became a team easy to beat. Against Belmont, the Devils shot just 38 percent from the floor and 25 percent from the arc in the second half as they coughed up their 7-point halftime lead.

West Virginia held Duke in check to the tune of 19-for-50 from the floor and 5-of-22 from the 3-point line.

Mix in a 16-rebound differential in favor of the Mountaineers, and the ghost of Christian Laettner doesn't look nearly so culpable.

Krzyzewski admits there was more to his team's problems than the players' psyches, and that the fast start probably was a bit misleading considering the inexperience of his team.

But how else to explain, he argues, the complete turnaround from regular season to March season?

Back in the 1990s when Duke was cutting its teeth as a basketball powerhouse, there were no expectations to uphold. Every step forward was a better one than the program had ever taken before.

The players played with the levity and enjoyment of ignorance.

Pressure? What pressure?

That, even the players admit, hasn't been the case lately.

[+] EnlargeBrian Zoubek
AP Photo/Susan WalsThe Blue Devils hope a healthy Brian Zoubek translates into a stronger post presence this season.
"The fun has been missing around here a little bit," sophomore Jon Scheyer said. "We need to get that back."

So how do you do that? It's not like removing the Final Four banners, the national championship trophies and Krzyzewski's résumé will erase what Duke is.

Some bodies bigger than 6-foot-8 Kyle Singler will help. A healthy Zoubek, 6-10 rookie Miles Plumlee and an older, wiser Lance Thomas are candidates. The kind of play Henderson offered at the end of last season, when he single-handedly prevented the disastrous loss to Belmont, will go far. Quicker-footed Nolan Smith at the point will be an upgrade as well.

The rest? Krzyzewski puts the onus on himself. He believes he hasn't done a good enough job of easing the pressure, of reminding his players that they owe nothing to anyone but themselves and of showing them how to embrace their history without falling victim to it.

"I'm a Cubs fan and it's the same thing but opposite with them," he said. "You're down two games to zero and it's the seventh inning and all of a sudden, you're not facing that pitcher; you're facing 108 years of experiences. How do you not compete against that? That's what we have to stop doing. These kids have to play for themselves. They can't play for the past of Duke basketball, for Coach K, for Bobby Hurley. Play for now. Play for the moment."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball