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.
Krzyzewski has become a symbol of what is good about the sport and a lightning rod for those who can't stand coaches who win and win and win. As he has gotten older, Krzyzewski has come to respect his former rival Dean Smith more and more because he has come to understand what Smith dealt with when his North Carolina program was both dominant and hated.
Several years ago, Smith pointed out that he thought it was tougher for Duke and Krzyzewski because there is so much more attention paid to college basketball these days. Every Duke game is on national TV, and Dick Vitale seems to do about half of them, screaming about the greatness of Krzyzewski and Duke until normally reasonable people start to throw things at the television set. But there's more to it than that. Unlike Smith, who never endorsed anything, Krzyzewski has become a very wealthy pitchman for corporate America; he's written books on how to win and on how to lose and on how to tie. (Or so it seems.) He has put himself out there and, in doing so, made himself and his program a target.
Duke might very well climb the heights again in the near future. It won't be easy. Roy Williams has rebuilt North Carolina to superpower status, and the ACC appears deep and talented and will be for a long time to come. But Krzyzewski's greatest strength may be dealing with failure. The last time his team was a No. 7 seed in the ACC tournament was in 1983, when the Blue Devils lost to Ralph Sampson and Virginia, 109-66. There were some who thought then that the third-year coach with a record of 38-47 might not survive.
Early the next morning, sitting in a Denny's at 3 a.m with some friends, Krzyzewski heard someone raise a glass of water and say, "Here's to forgetting about tonight."
Krzyzewski picked up his glass and said, "Here's to never [expletive] forgetting about tonight."
No one hated Duke that night. For most of the next 23 years, people hated Duke. Now, those who do are doing it by instinct, because their memories tell them they're supposed to.
No one hates losers. You can bet that right now Krzyzewski hates not being hated. And he probably won't forget what it felt like walking off the floor here Thursday night. Outside of the N.C. State section, it was almost quiet.
The sound of silence is the sound of defeat. It is very quiet around the Duke basketball program right now.