Commentary

Baylor not the only team new to this

Originally Published: March 27, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

They buried Patrick Dennehy on Aug. 7, 2003.

Eight months later, Duke played Connecticut in the Final Four.

Since then, Baylor has risen from the ashes, restoring a program once crumbled and humiliated, and Duke has put its tradition in neutral, cruising no further than the Sweet 16 until this year.

[+] EnlargeScheyer
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesDuke senior Jon Scheyer will be playing in his first regional final. It's the school's first since 2004.

On Sunday, the two programs -- the beggars at the feast and the lords of the manor -- go head to head. One is trying to establish its legacy, the other trying to restore it, with nothing less than a ticket to the Final Four on the line.

"This shows we have arrived," Baylor's Ekpe Udoh said. "I don't think anyone saw us going this far, one of the last eight. Now here we are, with the big dogs."

These big dogs, though, are just as green as the Bears' uniforms. Not a single player who takes the court on Sunday has played in an Elite Eight game, not surprising when it comes to Baylor's roster, but downright stunning for Duke.

The Blue Devils long have tried to play down their drought, but as the NCAA keeps hosting Final Fours without them, the questions keep coming.

If you don't think Duke is feeling the heat, consider the way its Hall of Fame coach has behaved this week. Parsing words in news conferences, cutting off questions and turning his answers into semantic wars, Mike Krzyzewski has angrily and vehemently argued with anyone who has deigned to question why his team has struggled lately.

On Thursday, Krzyzewski pointedly took apart a question about why the Final Four lull continues.

"You know there are two words when you compete that are interesting -- since and never," Krzyzewski said. "Since and never. I'm glad we're in the since. Let me leave it at that."

To an extent, the man has a point. There are plenty of programs that would give their eyeteeth to have a lousy run that includes 11 Sweet 16 appearances in the past 13 years and a run of 15 consecutive NCAA tournament bids.

But Duke long ago separated itself from plenty of other programs. It is on par with a handful of other schools that judge themselves not by winning records and NCAA bids, but by Final Fours and national championships: UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Since 2004, the Bruins have played in three Final Fours; Kansas has one national championship and another Final Four to show for itself; and Carolina has two trophies and another semifinal appearance.

Only Kentucky has suffered alongside Duke, Final Four-less and title-less since 1998. The Wildcats fans, coaches and administrators made no bones about the embarrassment they felt during this lengthy drought.

"I don't think the criticism is unfair," Duke junior Kyle Singler said. "When you come to Duke, you come for the tradition and we know what the expectations are. We're all competitors. We always feel like we have Final Four talent and when we don't reach our goals, we feel like we haven't held up our end. That's happened the last couple of years."

It's a concept that's naturally hard for Baylor to comprehend. The Baylor Final Four drought is slightly longer than Duke's -- by a mere 54 years.

[+] EnlargeScott Drew
Manny Flores/ Icon SMIScott Drew has led Baylor back from a disastrous scandal.

The Bears last made the Final Four in 1950, back when there were only eight teams in the field and schools like City College of New York could win the whole thing.

After losing to Bradley that year, the Bears waited 38 more to get back to the NCAA tournament. In 1988, they lost to Memphis in the first round.

And then Baylor made headlines for all of the wrong reasons in 2003: The murder of Dennehy and the subsequent violations and attempted cover-up by Dave Bliss held up as examples of everything that was horrifically wrong with college basketball.

Scott Drew took over a program in shambles -- embarrassed and humiliated, its scholarships cut, its recruiting budget slashed and the NCAA knocking Baylor out of an entire season of Big 12 competition in 2006.

While Duke spent the past six years peppered with questions about a return to the Final Four, Baylor spent the past six years in anonymity. No one thought the Bears could recover. There wasn't a tradition to build on and there was so much to overcome.

"It's like a businessman opening a restaurant or starting a new business," Drew said. "You're so busy you don't really hit that [low] point. We put the nose to the grindstone and worked as hard as we could every day."

The Bears found the right guys, the ones who recognized what they were up against and still wanted in.

Asked what he thought was possible when he first came to Baylor, Tweety Carter -- a McDonald's All-American who scored 7,000 points in his high school career -- answered simply, "A turnaround."

The turnaround complete, the Bears have just as much at stake as Duke in taking this next step.

The healing is over. The stigma erased.

"It's time to put the past behind us," Udoh said.

Duke feels the same way.

But only one team will walk out of Houston on the road to both the Final Four and a new legacy.

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

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