March 6, 2007
DURHAM The completion of an unsatisfying regular season, Duke's worst since 1996, still will be redeemed if coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils can do what they've done best over the last decade.
That's to compete for the ACC Tournament title.
Duke will show up in Tampa riding a streak of seven ACC championships in the last eight years. Over that span, the Devils are 23-1 in ACC Tournament play, losing only the 2004 championship game to Maryland and that one in overtime! Counting their runner-up finish in 1998, the Devils have played in nine straight ACC title games and have gone 25-2 in those nine seasons.
Nobody in ACC history has ever had a run like that, unless you dip back into the old Southern Conference to count former N.C. State coach Everett Case's streak of nine titles in 10 years. Case had six titles in the last seven years of the Southern Conference, plus three in the first three years of the ACC.
The funny thing is that Krzyzewski was not a particularly effective ACC Tournament coach in his first 18 years at Duke. Oh, he had some success, winning three ACC titles in those 18 seasons. But during that span, he had a much better NCAA Tournament winning percentage (78.2; 43-12) than he did in the ACC event (57.6; 19-14). Coach K was sidelined for most of the 1994-95 season, so Duke's 1995 numbers are not included in this postseason summary.
Something changed after Duke lost the 1998 title game to North Carolina. From that point on, Krzyzewski's teams have ruled the ACC Tournament with an iron hand. During that span, Duke has gone from third in all-time ACC championships with nine titles to first with 16, rocketing past nearby rivals N.C. State (10 titles) and UNC (15 titles) in the process.
But none of those championship teams ever faced the kind of odds that Coach K's 2007 Devils will experience in Tampa. Only the 1995 Duke team, which had to compete with Pete Gaudet replacing Krzyzewski (exhaustion, back problems) on the bench, has started with a seed as low as this one. That's the only other Duke team that was faced with the prospect of winning four games in four days to win the title.
"Four games in four days?" sophomore forward Josh McRoberts responded when asked about the task. "We'd love to have that problem."
So far, the ACC has never had a champion that won four games in four days. N.C. State, coming out of the No. 8 seed in 1997, nearly did it before running out of gas in the ACC title game. It's happened on rare occasions in other conferences that play similar formats. Syracuse, for example, won four games in four days a year ago to claim the Big East crown.
Krzyzewski has 10 ACC titles to his credit, but he never made a run from a low seed to the championship. He's won as the No. 1 seed five times, as the No. 2 seed twice, and as the No. 3 seed three times. Duke's best longshot title came in 1980, when coach Bill Foster's sixth-seeded Blue Devils beat No. 3 seed N.C. State, No. 2 seed North Carolina and No. 1 seed Maryland to win the title.
Could this Duke team make a similar run?
"It's definitely possible," junior swingman DeMarcus Nelson said. "It's not going to be easy. Playing four games in four days is tough, but we're in great shape. That's something we do in the summertime. We have a good bench, so guys won't be run into the ground with minutes. It'll have to be a total team effort. We'll need contributions from everybody on the team.
"We don't know how it's going to happen, but we believe we can do it."
Nelson explained that much of that belief stems from the program's past success in the ACC Tournament.
"Our coaching staff has been used to battling in the tournament," he said. "Their experience, knowing how to win, has been big. I think our coaches will get us prepared to do well in the ACC and NCAA tournaments."
Krzyzewski has been so dominant for so long in ACC Tournament play that it's created a statistical anomaly. Entering the 2007 event, just two current coaches enjoy a winning tournament record: Krzyzewski (42-15) and Boston College's Al Skinner (2-1). Maryland's Gary Williams is the only active coach other than Krzyzewski to win a title (2004), but his career record in the tournament is 15-15.
McRoberts isn't as sure that Duke's on-going run of ACC Tournament success will have any impact on this year's event.
"You don't inherit any of that," McRoberts said. "I think it's something that each individual team has done in their year (with) their opportunity. That's not passed down. It's something that you have to earn."
The question is whether Duke is good enough and consistent enough to beat four ACC opponents in a row. During the season, the Blue Devils had winning streaks of five and three ACC games, but overall they lost as often as they won in conference competition.
It may depend on the matchups. During the course of the regular season, Duke either beat or played down to the wire against every ACC opponent except one. Maryland manhandled the Blue Devils twice, and in both cases, Duke was lucky to keep the final score reasonably close.
But the Blue Devils took Virginia Tech and Virginia into overtime before losing, lost to Florida State on a last-second shot and was in the first game with UNC until the final seconds. Duke beat everybody else in the league, including sweeps of Boston College and Clemson.
So it's not farfetched to suggest that four wins in four days is possible, if not particularly likely.
"We're trying to get better and build on the foundation we've had all year, which is defense," sophomore point guard Greg Paulus said. "If we play good defense and rebound, then we have a chance to do something good in the ACC Tournament. Just hearing four games in four days' that doesn't even cross my mind. Because you've got to win the first one."
For this Duke team, a first-round loss on Thursday is no more farfetched that a four-day run to the ACC title game.
HENDERSON: A SECRET WEAPON?
Heading into the postseason, perhaps the most promising development on the Duke roster was the strong recent play of freshman forward Gerald Henderson.
The 6-5 swingman is the son of former NBA standout Gerald Henderson Sr. and was a prep teammate of UNC guard Wayne Ellington. The younger Henderson arrived on campus this season as the most highly touted member of Duke's four-man freshman class, although the team's other three rookies (wing guard Jon Scheyer, power forward Lance Thomas, center Brian Zoubek) were ranked in the same general neighborhood by most recruiting analysts.
Henderson suffered a severe ankle sprain in the preseason that slowed his early progress. In addition, he struggled with his exercise-induced asthma throughout the season, a problem that limited his playing time. Going into the Blue Devils' regular-season finale at North Carolina, he had averaged a modest 6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds in about 19 minutes per game.
But Henderson's productivity increased late in the season. He upped his playing time and his scoring average in February and hit a season-high 15 points in the late loss to Maryland. He finished with another very strong game at UNC.
"He's been playing better," McRoberts said of his freshman teammate. "I think he's capable of being a great player. I think he has the potential to be the best player on this team, with his athleticism and the things he can do. When he's playing well, it gives us a big lift."
Henderson may be Duke's most explosive athlete since Corey Maggette. If the rookie's recent surge continues into the postseason, it will make the Blue Devils a much tougher out at tournament time.