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Healthy, Confident Entering March Madness

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



March 11, 2008

DURHAM – A sweet season came to a sour end at Duke, where the Blue Devils went cold in the final five and a half minutes of the finale against rival North Carolina and saw the ACC regular-season title slip away.

The Devils had fought their way back from a 14-point first-half deficit to take a 68-66 lead on Jon Scheyer's follow shot with 5:42 left to play. Duke then had three possessions with a chance to lengthen the lead but missed four shots in that stretch (including a dunk follow by Gerald Henderson) and finally saw UNC catch up and take the lead – and the championship – away from the Devils by scoring the game's final 10 points.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, although clearly disappointed by the defeat, offered no excuses.

"We got that two-point lead and we missed some good shots," he said. "I tell our kids, ‘You miss good shots and they make their good shots and you lose, then you just lose. You tip your hat to your opponent and you go on.'"

Krzyzewski was clearly ready to go on. He already knew that because of the loss to the Tar Heels, Duke would get the No. 2 seed in the ACC Tournament and would open play Friday night at seven. Actually, he was more precise than that, suggesting that the game would have a "7:10" start time.

Duke's postseason play will go a long way toward defining its season.

Last year's team reached the end of the regular season with a decent 22-9 record and a chance to salvage what clearly had been a less than memorable year. Instead, the Devils turned it into the program's worst season in more than a decade when the team made first-round exits from the ACC Tournament (N.C. State) and the NCAA Tournament (Virginia Commonwealth).

That pratfall was in sharp contrast to Duke's previous string of postseason success. Starting in 1998, the Devils won at least five postseason (ACC plus NCAA) games every year. That included a 25-2 record in ACC play (including nine titles) and a 28-8 record in NCAA play, easily the most consistently successful postseason performance by any team over that nine-year span.

Last year's 0-2 postseason performance obviously ended that run of excellence.

Krzyzewski pointed out that his team finished the regular season 26-4 (13-3 ACC) and that's not a bad record for anybody, even at a place with such high standards as Duke. The Devils obviously were assured of an NCAA Tournament bid – and a high seed – no matter what happened in Charlotte.

The good news for Duke fans is that the Devils appear poised to do well in the postseason for several reasons.

For one, they are healthy. Henderson, whose sprained right wrist was a major concern during a two-week stretch in mid-February where he averaged 6.0 points and shot 5-of-19 from the floor, bounced back to regain his pre-injury form. He finished the regular season with five straight double-figure scoring games and was even shooting the three-pointer again.

In addition, Brian Zoubek started to contribute. The sophomore center was hobbled for much of the preseason with a broken foot. He re-injured it at midseason, missing nine games. He gradually worked his way back into the rotation, however, playing double-figure minutes four times in the last six games.

Zoubek is an important player for Duke, even in a reserve role. Without him, the Devils are the smallest team in the national title hunt. Zoubek stands 7-2 and weighs 260 pounds; he's the largest player on an ACC roster. He anchored the zone that turned around Duke's win at Virginia late in the first half. His seven-minute stretch early in the second half against UNC had a lot to do with Duke's comeback in that game.

"We thought (before the season) Brian would either be a starter or somewhere about a 20-minute player off the bench," Krzyzewski said. "Getting him back has been a plus."

Duke entered postseason play with the confidence gained over three months of a successful season. The season-ending loss to UNC was hardly a crusher. The Devils shot poorly, yet still took the nation's top-ranked team to the wire before losing. It wasn't like last year, when Krzyzewski's team stumbled into the ACC Tournament off a pair of lopsided losses, with several key players limping with injuries, and with Henderson facing a one-game suspension.

There's no guarantee of postseason success this year, but there are no excuses if it doesn't come.

NO. 1 SEED BECOMES LONGSHOT

It widely was assumed that Duke and UNC were playing for more than the ACC regular-season title or for the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.

According to conventional wisdom, the winner would have the inside track for the No. 1 seed in the East. That would mean two tournament games in Raleigh and two in Charlotte in order to reach the Final Four in San Antonio.

Of course, that was just conjecture, and there were dissenting opinions. Jerry Palm of collegerpi.com posted a mock bracket earlier in the week that had UNC as a No. 1 seed but headed for the regional in Detroit, while Tennessee got the No. 1 seed in the East, with Duke in Charlotte as a No. 2.

That's possible, but it depends on the battle between UNC and Tennessee for the top-rated No. 1 seed. Both would like to play in Charlotte. The one seeded higher is likely to get that honor. Going into postseason play, UNC was No. 1 in both polls, ahead of the Vols, while Tennessee was No. 1 in the RPI. The ACC and SEC tournaments likely will play a large role in their competition.

Duke is now a longshot for a No. 1 seed, and that's only possible if the Devils win the ACC Tournament (and even that may not be enough). Even if they pull that off, it's unlikely that they would leapfrog Tennessee, so earning a No. 1 seed likely would result in the Devils being sent to Detroit.

Krzyzewski didn't seem very interested in those considerations when asked about NCAA seeding preferences before the UNC game.

"When I was younger, I used to comment about it," he said. "It didn't do me any good. I just said, ‘Forget it. So we have to pack longer, or do we take a plane or a bus?' I'm just happy we're going."

Krzyzewski's big NCAA temper tantrum came in 1998. His Devils had beaten UNC in the regular-season finale to claim the ACC regular-season title. But when UNC won the rematch in the ACC Tournament final in Greensboro, the Tar Heels earned the No. 1 seed in the East, while Duke was given the No. 1 seed in the Southeast.

The Duke coach talked about the placement in a pre-tournament press conference, especially complaining that his team was being sent to hostile Lexington, Ky., for the first two games. As it turned out, his well-publicized tirade stirred up even more hostile feeling in Kentucky's town, and during the open public practice before the tournament the Devils were showered with abuse.

Ironically, Duke won two games in Lexington that year but was bumped from the NCAA Tournament by Kentucky – in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Since then, Krzyzewski has kept his mouth shut when it comes to talking about NCAA pairings. He's also learned to be careful what you wish for.

That lesson was driven home in 2005, when Duke earned an unexpected No. 1 seed – and a chance to play two games in Charlotte – after winning the 2005 ACC Tournament. It seemed like the placement in the familiar North Carolina arena was a gift from the committee.

It turned out that the weekend in Charlotte was a nightmare for the Devils. Almost all the public tickets for the games had been snapped up by UNC fans who long expected their team to play in the Queen City. The NCAA's pod system allowed both the Heels and the Devils to play in Charlotte, and even though they didn't play each other, the UNC fans used the opportunity to cheer against Duke in a way the Devils hadn't seen in NCAA play since 1998 in Lexington.

So, while many others were speculating about Duke and UNC playing two games each in Raleigh, then one of them getting to play two games in Charlotte, Krzyzewski could be forgiven if he didn't try to project where his team might go, or even where the best place to go might be.