- Wayne Drehs
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- For those who think Duke is down, who think that without superstar talent like Elton Brand, Jay Williams or Mike Dunleavy, the Blue Devils are an easy bounce in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, freshman sharpshooter J.J. Redick has a message for you.
"Sure we've had an up-and-down season," Redick concedes, "but it's March. This is Duke. And we'll be right here waiting for you."
After watching the flurry of uppercuts Redick landed on N.C. State in Sunday's ACC championship, few would argue. The true freshman hit four second-half threes to help convert a 15-point deficit into a seven-point Duke win, 84-77.
The aftermath in the N.C. State locker room was an ugly one. Despite playing a near-perfect basketball game for three quarters Sunday, the Wolfpack lost. After the game, one by one, they each admitted they were in a state of shock.
"I'm stunned, man. Absolutely stunned," junior Marcus Melvin said. "I look up at one point and we up -- big time. I look up a couple minutes later, after Redick hit like 15 threes and a bunch of free throws and we're done."
It's a familiar feeling for a Duke opponent in March. Sitting in a locker room, season nearly over, wondering just what went wrong. An ACC-record five straight years the Blue Devils have come to the conference tournament -- as everything from an overwhelming favorite to an under appreciated also-ran -- and walked away with the title.
And though they won't be a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997, when Duke was a (gasp!) No. 2 seed, overlooking this group of youngsters as a No. 3 seed in the West could potentially be a season-ending offense.
"If you think they're done, or down or anything like that, you're in for a surprise," said N.C. State guard Scooter Sherrill, another of the stunned bunch, that went from the bubble to a No. 9 seed in the East. "As long as they have that same guy on the sidelines, they aren't going to be easy to put away."
That "guy" is Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Call it the Coach K factor. And with a team like this -- which the Devils themselves will admit is not as talented as years past -- the factor shines through.
Whether its preparing his team for an unfamiliar look or calming them in-game during a trying situation, there's a certain air of confidence that Krzyzewski brings to the table come March.
"This is when he's at his best," senior center Casey Sanders said. "I'll tell you right now -- nobody in the country does a better job of getting his guys ready to play. And nobody is better at scouting a team on a quick turnaround. The players come and the players go, but there's that same guy sitting on the bench giving the orders. And nobody can compete with that."
After Saturday's emotional payback victory over rival North Carolina, it meant limiting how much he let his team celebrate. It meant making sure everybody had a good meal. Got a good night's sleep. And on Sunday morning, fully understood the game plan for the Wolfpack.
In game, there were the subtle adjustments, such as during a timeout late in the second half, with Duke up by three and 30 seconds left. The Blue Devils were struggling to beat N.C. State's fronting press, so Krzyzewski drew up a release play in which Nick Horvath went over the top of the defense for a long pass. It worked. And when Daniel Ewing took a pass from Horvath and missed an open lay-in, Horvath was there for the putback.
Duke 80, N.C. State 75 ... and for all intents and purposes, game over.
"What can you say?" Redick said. "There's a certain comfort level knowing you have Coach K on the sidelines."
Conversely, there's a certain cover level for Coach K having Redick on the floor. Just a year ago, the 18-year-old was watching the ACC Tournament at home, dreaming what it would be like to wear the blue and white.
This year, he was the game's superstar, draining 3-point dagger after 3-point dagger in the second half to bury the Wolfpack. One would be remiss if they didn't say the clutch performance was at least somewhat Laettner-like.
Those that don't know him now are sure to know him soon. Redick, who says his favorite Blue Devil growing up was sharpshooter Trajan Langdon, had a different view. If somebody ever told him he performed like Laettner, "I'd tell them they were on crack," he said.
Yet even Sanders, a senior leader of this bunch, couldn't help but sit in his locker after Sunday's game and shake his head at what had just transpired. As shocked as the N.C. State players were, so was he, in a different way.
"These are freshmen. Just freshman man," he said, referring to Redick, Shelden Williams and Sean Dockery. "I can't believe what they can do. It's going to be a fun tournament."
Come this time of year, they say you want to be on a roll. You want to be playing the best basketball of the season. N.C. State was doing just that. Until they ran into the blue- and-white buzz saw.
At one point, with the team down by 15, Sanders chased a ball into the corner only to have it fall out of bounds. He grabbed the elusive leather, looked to sea of Wolfpack red mocking him and shook his head no. It was almost like he knew what lied ahead.
Confidence like that only comes from within.
"You get used to winning," Sanders said. "It's a habit. And you can't help but have it rub off when you put that jersey on. When we're down by 15, we could have packed it in. Instead, everybody digs deeper because that's what we're taught."
Cut off one head and another grows back. Sanders even alluded to the idea that a unified, cohesive group like this one, leaning on one another and relying on one another for maximum output, is more valuable than a talent-loaded team of years past.
"Last year, we knew we had Jay (Williams) or (Mike) Dunleavy or Carlos Boozer to dig us out," Sanders said. "We didn't always need to be at our best. But this year, we do. And because of that, we're clicking on a certain level right now. It's hard to explain."
Then there's the leadership of Chris Duhon, who was critical Sunday to helping his teammates maintain their composure. Opponents also will have to contend with the growing dilemma of who your top defender should guard. Redick, who can be deadly when given a few inches to spot up or Ewing, who matured brilliantly during this tournament, earned MVP honors by scoring 63 points in three games.
"You put your best guy on me and that's fine, because Daniel will beat you," Redick said.
They have the coach. They have the ever-maturing players. And they don't have the expectations. It's a combination that could be awfully dangerous in the coming weeks. Especially if you get over cocky.
"The message from today is that Duke is not done," Sanders said. "Duke is not done. We are ready for anybody."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It may not be a No. 1 seed, but Duke is no easy out.