February 14, 2005 DURHAM The first four games of February were supposed to reveal the truth about this Duke basketball team. Were the Blue Devils 17-1 at the end of January really a top-five team? Or was Duke's gaudy record merely an illusion, created by a schedule that delayed all of the team's tough games until late in the season?
Surely, the four-game run that started at Wake Forest on Feb. 2 would prove whether the Blue Devils were for real or fake. Only it didn't prove anything ... not really.
Duke split the four-game run, sandwiching hard-fought road losses at Wake Forest and Maryland around a pair of impressive home wins over Georgia Tech and North Carolina. The mixed results left Duke just about as hard to figure out now as before it started.
Even Mike Krzyzewski chooses his words carefully when asked how good his team is.
"We're good, but we're not that good that we can lose sight of exactly what we're doing," the Duke coach said. "We have to keep our eyes on the road no daydreaming, no sight-seeing."
The Blue Devils are trying to extend several impressive streaks Coach K's club has maintained since the program overcame the "bad-back" slump in the middle of the 1990s. Since 1997, Duke has finished first or second in the ACC regular-season standings every year. In the last eight years, the Blue Devils have won either the regular-season title outright or the tournament title in every season, the longest such streak in history.
And Duke has reached the Sweet 16 in seven straight seasons, matching Krzyzewski's own seven-year run from 1986-92 as the second-longest in ACC history, behind only Dean Smith's NCAA-best 13-year run from 1981-93 in Chapel Hill.
Those will be tough, but not impossible, goals for this team to reach. The Blue Devils still are battling UNC and Wake for the top spot in the standings, but this could be where the back-loaded schedule hurts the Devils. It doesn't help that Duke is by far the thinnest of the ACC's top teams. That was obvious at the end of the overtime loss at College Park, when the Devils ended the game with three walk-ons on the floor.
That's forced Krzyzewski to ask a lot of his top players.
"In order to be where we're at right now, it's been a huge commitment from these youngsters," he said. "I've asked a lot of this team as far as focus. I've got to be careful, as I bring them along during these latter stages of the regular season, that we don't wear them out mentally or emotionally as we prepare for the postseason."
But it's not all apprehension in Durham. The one very positive note to come out of the early February run was the emergence of freshman DeMarcus Nelson, who came up huge in the narrow victory over North Carolina, then followed that up with a strong performance in his first career start at Maryland.
The long-armed 6-3 guard came to Duke as the ACC's second highest-rated recruit (behind UNC's Marvin Williams) after winning Mr. Basketball honors in California and setting that state's prep career scoring record.
But Nelson's development was slowed by a broken thumb he suffered on his shooting hand in the preseason. He only lately has begun to display the offensive gifts that made him such a coveted recruit. His 16 points were vital against UNC, and he followed that by scoring the game-tying basket to force overtime at College Park.
"I was so happy to see (Nelson) play like that," J.J. Redick said after the UNC win. "He was the difference in the ballgame. It's been an up-and-down year for him, and that's what a lot of freshmen do. Hopefully, this will be a springboard for the rest of the year for him."
Duke needs another consistent offensive weapon. Coach K has been asking his big three Redick, Daniel Ewing and Shelden Williams to carry a huge share of the offensive load. On nights when all three are playing well, the Blue Devils look ... well, they look like the Duke teams of old. But on nights when one or more struggles, the Devils haven't had many other options.
Nelson gives Coach K another offensive weapon. And he's proving to be a precocious defender (he had four steals against UNC and knocked the ball away from David Noel on the Heels' last possession) and a surprising rebounder. His average of almost five boards per game ranks second among ACC freshmen.
A year ago, rookie forward Luol Deng was the key to Duke's postseason drive to the Final Four. Now Deng is starting for the Chicago Bulls, along with Chris Duhon, the point guard who quarterbacked that drive to San Antonio.
Is there any chance this Duke team can repeat that postseason run?
"I think we can return to the Final Four," Redick said. "We aren't a great team. We're not an overly talented team. I think the keys for us are to play with a great attitude and play hungry."
It didn't hurt that Duke beat a North Carolina team touted by quite a few national commentators as the favorite to cut down the nets in St. Louis.
"Certainly beating a Carolina team with all that talent was a confidence boost for us," Redick said. "But we knew all along that we were a good team."
Maybe the Devils believe that, but everybody is still trying to figure out just how good this Duke team really is.
Recently, Rivalry Means Maryland
It was noteworthy that so much attention both nationally and locally remained focused on the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, when in the same week, the Blue Devils played a much more competitive rival.
The numbers don't lie: Duke now has won 14 of its last 16 games against UNC. By contrast, the Devils have lost three straight and seven of the last 16 meetings with Maryland.
"For a rivalry to exist, both teams have to be competitive with each other," Maryland's Gary Williams told the school's student newspaper. "For the last, say, five years, (we've) been competitive. The Carolina-Duke rivalry is forever. That goes back before the ACC was founded, so you can't compare the Maryland rivalry with the Carolina rivalry in terms of longevity. But there's been a good rivalry the last five years."
After losing to Maryland in College Park, Duke was 89-19 against the ACC in this century. That included three losses to Wake, two to UNC, State, Virginia and FSU, and one to Georgia Tech. And seven losses to Maryland.
More striking is the record in Cameron. Since 2000, Duke is 41-5 in Cameron. That's 3-3 versus Maryland, and 38-2 against everybody else.
And the rivalry is not just on the court. Maryland's crowd behavior during Duke's 2003 visit to the Comcast Center became national news, as obscene t-shirts and profane chants were easily evident on TV.
"I definitely think it crossed the line," Duke's Redick, the target for the worst abuse, said before the latest rematch. "The obscenity and profanity, that's just uncalled for. And the reason it is, there are kids in the stands. My freshman year, my little sister came to the game. She won't be coming this year."
Maryland's efforts to clean up its crowd behavior after that game mirrored Duke's similar efforts to reign in the Cameron Crazies after an 1984 visit by Maryland, when the Terps' Herman Veal was targeted for an alleged sexual assault.
Redick, talking about both the Duke-UNC and Duke-Maryland rivalries, contrasted the apparent hatred by the fans with the respect and even friendships between the players on the competing teams. He even jumped to the defense of Maryland's Nick Caner-Medley last month, when some Crazies taunted the Terp standout for an offseason confrontation with the police.
"I never want our fans to take personal attacks on guys," Redick said. "I know (Caner-Medley). He told me the story, and it was hogwash."
Redick just wishes the fans would remember it's just a game.
"(I like) the stuff that's in good humor," he said. "Like a sign I saw that said, 'J.J. drinks his own pee' ... Now I think that's funny. It's hilarious."