ATLANTA If America has had enough of Duke, well, that's just too bad. If the sight of the Blue Devils celebrating their return to the Final Four on the floor of the Georgia Dome left you cursing at the television screen, you won't be happy to gaze into the future. Four former McDonald's All-Americans who are just sophomores J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph and Sean Dockery could be together for two more seasons. Freshman Luol Deng hasn't announced whether he is returning next season, but he has hinted that he has more to learn at Duke before he leaves for the NBA. With junior guard Daniel Ewing also returning, the only significant loss for the Blue Devils next season might be point guard Chris Duhon. In other words, after Duke is finished in San Antonio, there is no reason to believe the Blue Devils won't set a successful course for St. Louis to participate in the Final Four next season. And for Indianapolis in 2006. That's a thought that will drive Duke's enemies crazy. They obviously have (Mike) Krzyzewski, all the tradition, all the banners, said Illinois center Nick Smith, whose team fell 72-62 to the Blue Devils in the regional semifinals. And I think people just don't like them because they just get tired of hearing Duke, Duke, Duke all the time from everybody. Krzyzewski may have created a story that won't die after the ACC Tournament, when he said a nationwide anti-Duke sentiment has grown to the extent that it actually can influence the outcome of games. It was easy to see his point. On opponents' home floors, most noticeably at Georgia Tech and Maryland, Duke and especially Redick were targets of chants so foul that they would cause a sailor to blush. During the ACC Tournament final in Greensboro, Maryland enjoyed a homecourt advantage in Duke's home state because otherwise neutral fans cheered hard against the Blue Devils as the Terrapins won 95-87 in overtime. Krzyzewski and Duke's players also said some of the teams in their NCAA bracket, especially No. 8 seed Seton Hall, No. 9 seed Arizona and No. 5 seed Illinois, seemed more talented than their seeds indicated. If true, this meant Duke faced more significant obstacles than other schools on its route to the Final Four. Not that it mattered. We just have got to be stronger and do our best, Krzyzewski said, and hopefully that's going to be good enough. It was again mostly because of the incredible collection of athletes who cause Duke's detractors to be so envious. The most significant change for the Blue Devils has been in the post, where the team has been vulnerable in recent years. Duke was pushed around on the block by Indiana's Jared Jeffries and Kansas' Nick Collison in consecutive regional semifinal losses before this season. Williams put a stop to that in 2003-04, leading the ACC in blocked shots, crashing the boards with a purpose and maneuvering his solid frame into position for dunks and layups. They get him the ball in positions where he can be successful, said Xavier coach Thad Matta, whose team fell to Duke in the regional final. And he does a really nice job finishing. When Williams drew double-teams in the post, three-point shooting aces Redick and Ewing were open on the perimeter. Redick went through a couple of slumps this season, and Ewing started slowly while a stress fracture in his right foot healed, but they still were the most feared three-point shooting duo in the ACC. Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul edged Deng for ACC rookie of the year honors, but the Duke freshman still had a marvelous season. He scored from three-point range, on slashing drives and on post-up moves, and he ultimately blossomed into a clutch player. Deng's remarkable story including his family's escape from the civil war raging in his native Sudan gained him instant respect and helped put basketball in perspective. He often marvels at the attention he receives for his athletic ability, while there are children struggling in anonymity just to stay alive in Africa. There are kids out there, Deng said, working a lot harder than me and doing even bigger things. Through it all, Duhon has held everything together with his courage, leadership and timely plays. With his ribs bruised and causing him so much pain that he had difficulty sleeping, Duhon persevered through four NCAA games to get Duke to the Final Four. Earlier this year, Duhon made a game-clinching three-pointer in a home victory over Florida State, and his coast-to-coast drive for the winning layup in overtime at North Carolina may have been the most memorable play of the ACC season. It's just unbelievable, the heart he has, said walk-on Andy Borman, who is Duhon's roommate. The way he's playing, it makes it a lot easier for us just to follow him. Twenty-two games into the season, the Blue Devils appeared nearly invulnerable. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation and had lost only once, to Purdue in the Great Alaska Shootout. They won their first 10 ACC games, and though some of those were close, they displayed an uncanny ability for making big plays down the stretch. Then, suddenly, they became utterly human. Consecutive road games against N.C. State and Wake Forest resulted in losses. On March 3, a fearless, deep Georgia Tech team went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and broke Duke's 41-game home winning streak. Later, the Blue Devils' seven-player rotation didn't prove deep enough when Maryland overcame a 12-point deficit with 3:30 remaining to win the ACC Tournament final. But what confounded Krzyzewski was that everybody seemed so happy that Duke finally was losing. The magnitude of (anti-Duke sentiment) this year has been somewhat a surprise to me, Krzyzewski said. I've never experienced that. It's difficult for Duke's opponents in the ACC to feel sorry for Krzyzewski or his team because the Blue Devils' tradition gives them so many advantages. When North Carolina played at Duke in the regular-season finale, ESPN brought its studio crew to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a day-long live celebration of college basketball's most cherished rivalry. North Carolina coach Roy Williams admitted that coaches throughout the nation probably were jealous that the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils received what amounted to an all-day recruiting advertisement. After Duke hammered Georgia Tech 85-71 in the ACC Tournament, Tech coach Paul Hewitt grew weary of answering questions about the Blue Devils' unprecedented 17-game tournament winning streak. After a while, somebody is going to catch up, Hewitt said. Or they're going to give somebody else a chance to catch up. If it's not me, it's going to be somebody else. The next day, Maryland did catch up for one game, at least. But then Krzyzewski went public with his own frustrations, and a funny thing happened. Every time the Blue Devils faced a new wave of media in the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski and his players were asked about the anti-Duke sentiment sweeping across America. This perceived bias against Duke became the Blue Devils' newest, greatest enemy, and the team banded together against it. Redick shook free from his shooting slump. Duhon grimaced with determination. And Duke fought its way into the Final Four. Again. There are certain expectations for us because of the past, Redick said, but each year is a different situation. I think this team has been through the battles and is more prepared to handle the expectations. On one hand, it seems ridiculous. Ewing said Duke's players are perceived as preppies and choir-boy types. But at the same time, the Blue Devils said people view them as the evil empire of college basketball. Perhaps it makes sense only within the context of the culture. A faction of Americans love Martha Stewart because her trendy products and ideas brighten their homes and their lives, but many gloated when Stewart was convicted of obstructing justice and lying to the government. They were happy to see somebody rich, powerful and trendy knocked off her pedestal. For the same reason, many fans rejoiced when Duke was knocked off stride late in the season. But their enjoyment didn't last long and isn't likely to continue. If Duhon is the only player to depart this year, Duke might be just as formidable in 2004-05. Should Illinois prep star Shaun Livingston honor his letter of intent rather than jumping straight to the NBA, Duke might have the nation's top freshman point guard. Livingston obviously has yet to develop Duhon's leadership qualities, but he has much better skills with the ball. Meanwhile, everybody else on the roster will have an extra year of experience and maturity. The ACC was the nation's top conference this season and will be even stronger next year. But Duke likely will remain a favorite for the league title and maybe the NCAA championship. The only way for Duke to strike back at its detractors is to win, over and over again. People might grow to resent the Blue Devils even more as a result, but if people dislike Duke for winning, Krzyzewski can live with that. The alternative is to lose or get out of it, Krzyzewski said. I'm not resigning. Chances are, he won't lose much, either.
Ken Tysiac, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer
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