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Acc Title, Sweet 16: Best Job In History?

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

March 31, 2005

DURHAM – The loss was disappointing, but the season wasn't.

Duke ended its 2004-05 basketball season – Mike Krzyzewski's 25th in Durham – with a 78-68 loss to Michigan State at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, in the NCAA regional semifinals.

It hurt because it was a game Duke could have won with a little better ball-handling, a little better shooting or just a little better luck. But Krzyzewski didn't want the season-ending loss to taint what was in some ways an amazing season.

"I told the kids after the game, it would be a mistake for us to dwell on this game," Krzyzewski said. "Because the season's been absolutely beautiful and sensational. We showed the same heart tonight. Our kids never gave up. We're playing against a team that was playing really well. And we put ourselves in position to win, in spite of a lot of different things."

The message seemed to get through to Krzyzewski's players.

"I don't want to take off my uniform," junior forward Lee Melchionni said. "It's been a tremendous year because we proved so many people wrong by winning the ACC championship. To be part of a group like this is something special."

It's time to assess what Krzyzewski and his team accomplished this season. The 2005 Blue Devils finished 27-6, ranked No. 3 nationally in the final AP poll, won the ACC championship for the sixth time in the last seven years, gave Krzyzewski his 65th and 66th NCAA Tournament wins – breaking Dean Smith's all-time record in that category – and reached the Sweet 16 for the eighth straight year, the third-longest such streak in history.

Not bad for a team picked to finish fourth in the ACC in the media's preseason poll.

"Considering everything that's happened," CBS commentator Billy Packer told USA Today, "I think it's the finest coaching job that I've seen in Atlantic Coast Conference history."

Duke's many critics, mostly jealous fans of other schools, roared at that one. After all, their logic went, who couldn't win with two college All-Americans (J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams), an outstanding senior (Daniel Ewing), three other McDonald's All-Americans (Shavlik Randolph, Sean Dockery, DeMarcus Nelson), and at least one decent role player (Melchionni)? Indeed, most coaches in the country would be very happy with that lineup.

So, was the Blue Devils' season that good? Was it even Krzyzewski's best coaching job? Where did it rank among the following performances?

p 1988, when Coach K guided a team with one future NBA player in the rotation (Danny Ferry) to the ACC title and a spot in the Final Four;

p 1991, when he led a young team that was supposed to be a year away from greatness past invincible UNLV in the NCAA semifinals, then past Kansas in the title game to give Duke its first national title;

p 1992, when he guided Duke to a wire-to-wire No. 1 finish and a second straight national title, despite a string of injuries that was longer and more severe than this year's;

p 1997, when he somehow slipped past Wake Forest and North Carolina for the ACC regular-season title with a 6-6 freshman playing in the middle;

p 2000, when Coach K blended his only three holdovers from his 1999 Final Four team with a strong freshman class to go 15-1 in the ACC, claim a second straight ACC title and finish the regular season with a No. 1 national ranking;

p 2001, when he rebuilt his team in the final week of the regular season after losing his only post player with a broken foot and reeled off 10 straight wins to claim his third straight ACC title and his third national crown.

You could make an equally strong case for his coaching jobs in 1986, 1989, 1990 or 1994. Only five teams in ACC history depended more on freshmen than Krzyzewski's 2003 team, yet that squad won the league title and advanced to the Sweet 16. His 2004 team wasn't much older – its best player was freshman forward Luol Deng – and it reached the Final Four. Those were pretty good coaching jobs, too.

This Duke team didn't accomplish quite as much as some of those others, but few of Krzyzewski's teams had to overcome as much misfortune as this one faced. It started last spring, with the unexpected defections of Deng and point guard recruit Shaun Livingston to the NBA, then it continued throughout this season with injuries and/or illnesses to the likes of Nelson, Randolph, Reggie Love, David McClure and finally – and most significantly – Dockery. A strong perimeter defender as an experienced junior, Dockery was the only true point guard on the roster, and his absence complicated things for the Blue Devils at both ends of the floor.

"I think this has been a very special team for us," Krzyzewski said before the ACC Tournament. "We knew coming in that number-wise, we weren't going to have a lot, and we seem to have had a number of things happen to our team that you don't have control over. What they've done is shown up every game. Not that I'm saying we could have gone undefeated. We also could have lost four or five more games. But we were in every game so far this season. That's a credit to them as a unit."

Next Season: Another Loaded Team

It certainly helped that Krzyzewski's big three of Redick, Ewing and Williams stayed healthy and productive all season.

Despite his mediocre shooting in the NCAA Tournament, Redick was a consensus first-team All-American. Williams led the ACC in rebounding and blocked shots and was named the league's defensive player of the year. He made some All-America teams and generally was regarded as one of the best two-way players in the nation at any position.

Ewing, who was never voted better than third-team All-ACC in his career, simply did a little bit of everything. Perhaps the number that best defined him was Duke's 115-23 record with him in the lineup. That was six more wins than any other active player in college basketball this season.

"The main thing is that he's been an outstanding player," Krzyzewski said. "What he has been is invaluable to us. Ultimately, he's been a winner. If you have Daniel on your team, you win more."

But Duke won't have Ewing on the team next year. He and the surprisingly productive football-player-turned power forward Reggie Love will be the only player losses off this team.

Or will they?

According to numerous NBA sources, Redick is regarded as a possible late lottery pick this season and a certain first-round selection. The only two ACC players clearly in front of him in the scouts' eyes at this point are North Carolina freshman Marvin Williams and Wake Forest sophomore Chris Paul. Redick was asked about his future in Austin, and he made it clear that he has no plans to make an early jump. According to sources, that claim is fully supported and believed in NBA circles, unlike Deng's similar claims last year.

"I will definitely be back next season," Redick said. "No question."

Williams didn't have a clear answer to the same question, but sources said his status will depend heavily on the feedback he gets from NBA sources in the coming weeks. If he's projected as a potential lottery pick, Krzyzewski might have to replace his bulwark in the middle. The NBA writers who have surveyed the potential pros among college underclassmen are getting mixed messages (middle first round, late first round) about Williams from their sources, but nobody has him projected as a lottery pick.

Williams' possible return, along with the return of Redick and the influx of the nation's top-rated recruiting class, could make Duke a potential No. 1 preseason pick next season. The Blue Devils are one of three ACC teams that could vie for that honor, along with UNC and Wake Forest. In all three cases, next year's status will depend heavily on which underclassmen go pro and which decide to return.

But Duke will contend next season no matter what Williams decides. Consider this likely lineup: Dockery and Redick in the backcourt, with Melchionni, Randolph and Williams up front. Nelson and McClure would be available off the bench, along with the freshman quintet of big man Josh McRoberts (McDonald's All-American), point guard Greg Paulus (McDonald's All-American), center Eric Boateng (McDonald's All-American), forward Jamal Boykin (California player of the year) and wing guard Martynas Pocius (shooter). McRoberts and Paulus, in particular, are regarded as immediate-impact players.

This year demonstrated and/or reminded everyone beyond a doubt that Krzyzewski's program has reached the stage that only UNC under Smith previously achieved in the ACC – a level of consistency that opponents can only envy.

Players will come and go, but it's as clear as ever that as long as Krzyzewski is on the sidelines, Duke always will be a team to be reckoned with, both in the ACC and nationally.