After two-year lull, Duke returns
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- This is what many college basketball fans have come to expect -- the Duke Blue Devils in the Sweet 16.
Fair or not, Duke is expected to win every game, advance deep in the NCAA tournament, and do it year after year.
That's Mike Krzyzewski's fault. He set that unreasonable standard with three national titles, 10 Final Four wins in 10 tries, and 10 Sweet 16 appearances in the past 12 years. It was the two years they didn't advance past the second round, though, that garnered the attention, the questions from the media, and the snickers from Carolina fans.
On Saturday night, with a thrilling 74-69 win over Texas, the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils got the last word in an arena filled with Tar Heels fans cheering for the Longhorns. They took an important step in proving the past two years were an anomaly, and not starting a new trend. For the first time since 2006, Duke will return to the Sweet 16, but Krzyzewski insisted he's "past relief" in his career, and part of that stems from his experience of coaching the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal.
"When we won the gold medal I was exhilarated and not relieved," he said. "When we won today I was exhilarated and not relieved. That is the message I want to send to my players so they never feel that pressure."
A week ago, Duke beat Florida State to win the ACC championship game, and the Blue Devils have been playing their best basketball since moving Jon Scheyer to point guard. And yet those within the program were aware of the fact outsiders didn't have much confidence in them because of their postseason performances over the past two years, and the fact they lack a legitimate post presence.
They compensated for that against Texas, though, with discipline, defense and big-time plays down the stretch. This team has more depth, more versatility and more experience than it did in the past two seasons. The junior class consists of starters Gerald Henderson, Lance Thomas and Scheyer. The trio combined for 42 points and 14 rebounds against Texas, with Henderson scoring a game-high 24 points.
"In years past, we didn't have as many upperclassmen to show us the way," Thomas said on Friday. "In my junior class, we've been through everything. We've been there when things weren't going well. ... We've learned from it."
Krzyzewski loves this team -- he can't say it enough.
"We've had good talent in our program during the last 25 years, but a few years ago with guys going pro, or guys not coming because they went pro, all of a sudden we hit a period where ... we had all these young kids," Krzyzewski said. "Then people put it on them that they're supposed to win the NCAA championship or the ACC. They're 18 and 19 years old. So I've seen them grow up and stick to the work."
No other team in the country has been to the Sweet 16 more times than Duke this decade. And yet because the Blue Devils didn't make it the past two years, it seemed as if they'd gone only twice. Most of the players downplay the expectations dropped on their shoulders. Brian Zoubek conceded it's not easy.
"It's something that's always in the back of your mind, what everybody expects of you, the huge tradition we have here," Zoubek said. "The last two years, it's been really tough not being able to live up to that or go to the same standard. This year it feels great to finally get there. It's been a long, hard, road."
Even though the players sign up for those expectations when they sign their letters of intent to play for Krzyzewski, some don't realize just how important it is to win at Duke until they lose.
"It's so difficult," Zoubek said. "You're in a completely different situation from anybody out there, pretty much. You see teams that are just like, 'Oh, yeah, we made the tournament, that's our year. We're good.' If we don't go like three or four deep in the tournament, it's a disappointment. That's tough for anybody to live up to year after year after year. But if you strive for that, you're going to be pretty good."
And that's exactly what everyone expects of Duke. This year, they've lived up to it.