The Din Surrounding Duke Has Grown Dim

By John Feinstein
Saturday, March 10, 2007

TAMPA The end was surprising. Not the loss to North Carolina State. Anyone who has been paying attention during this basketball season knew that Duke was perfectly capable of losing to the Wolfpack. It wasn't even the fact that N.C. State scored on every possession of overtime against a team that once prided itself on playing shut-down defense.

The surprise Thursday night was the reaction to the final buzzer in the St. Pete Times Forum. The red-clad N.C. State fans were deliriously happy with the victory. But the rest of the fans, who once would have been just as delirious over seeing Duke humbled in the opening round of the ACC tournament by a 10th seed, seemed almost uninterested. A few stood to applaud and high five. Most looked at their watches and wondered if there was still time to get dinner somewhere.

That's because Duke isn't Duke anymore.

Oh sure, the St. Petersburg paper ran the predictable "why everyone hates Duke" story on the front of its ACC tournament section Thursday morning. But it isn't the same.

Mike Krzyzewski once made the point that people don't hate losers. While it may be unfair to label a 22-10 team that will be in the NCAA tournament for the 23rd time in 24 years as "losers," the Blue Devils aren't close to being the winners they once were.

This is a team that had played in nine straight ACC tournament finals -- winning seven. Its record in the tournament during that period was an astonishing 25-2. Dating from 1997, Duke's lowest ACC regular season finish had been third, and it had finished first six times and tied for first on another occasion. In the past 23 seasons, Duke had finished lower than fourth in the ACC once -- in 1995 when Krzyzewski was forced to leave the team after 12 games because he was exhausted, mentally and physically.

The change though isn't so much about numbers but about aura. In past years, Duke would have beaten State on Thursday night. Someone would have hit a big shot; someone would have taken a charge that would have left opposing fans screaming that the Duke kid flopped. An N.C. State shot would have rimmed out the way Greg Paulus's three-point attempt did in overtime for Duke. Fans would have left the building grumbling about Duke getting all the calls.

Not anymore. These days Duke is symbolized by Josh McRoberts, who simply couldn't defend State's Brandon Costner (career-high 30 points) and spent much of the evening pulling the ball out of the net and screaming at teammates as if it were their fault that he couldn't -- as Bob Knight once eloquently put it -- guard the floor.

One can tell how Duke is playing most of the time by looking closely at Krzyzewski after a game. When he has a team he likes -- one that plays defense and makes big shots and understands what he is asking -- he's funny and smart and entertaining in his postgame interviews. He will poke fun at himself and at old friends in the media. His eyes light up when he talks about his players and how much effort they have given him.

On Thursday, there was no spark in Krzyzewski at all -- no anger, just acceptance.

"Anyone who has watched us play this season knows we aren't a great basketball team," he said. "But we have been a very good basketball team. The last three games, though, we haven't played any defense. We can't win if we don't play defense."

Some think Krzyzewski has lost some focus because of the pressures he's facing as coach of the Olympic team. Others think recruiting mistakes have been made. Paulus, who was rated the best point guard in the country two years ago, isn't really a point guard. Lance Thomas, who was all the rage coming out of New Jersey last year, played 20 minutes Thursday and didn't score. McRoberts puts up nice numbers but appears to believe that playing college basketball is beneath him at times. He's about as ready for the NBA as he is for Broadway, but he may very well depart after the season. If you believe what people close to the Duke program are saying, few tears will be shed in the locker room if that occurs.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company