DURHAM, N.C. – It takes six straight victories to win the NCAA basketball championship.
Duke has been very, very good in covering the first third of that journey. In fact, nobody in recent years has done a better job than the Blue Devils during the first weekend of the tournament. Since the turn of the century, Duke has more first-round wins and more second-round wins than any other team in college basketball.
It’s that third step that’s been a problem.
Starting in the 2000 season, the Blue Devils have reached the regional semifinals – more popularly known as “the Sweet 16” – in eight of the previous 10 seasons (more than anybody else in college basketball). But Duke has lost six of those eight third-round games, including a 77-54 loss to Villanova last spring in Boston.
Now the 2010 Blue Devils are back in the Sweet 16, scheduled to face Purdue Friday night in Houston. Can Duke overcome its recent third-round frustration and reach the regional finals ... and the Final Four beyond?
“We want to have the chance to go to the Final Four and play for the national championship,” Mike Krzyzewski said earlier this week. “If it were that easy, then everybody would do it all the time.”
There was a period when Krzyzewski did do it almost all the time. Between 1986 and 1994, he led the Blue Devils to seven Final Four appearances and two national championships. He has added three Final Fours since, plus a third NCAA title.
“People start throwing out what you haven’t done – a lot of people haven’t done anything – they don’t get to the Sweet 16,” Krzyzewski said when asked about his recent tournament roadblock. “You just have to keep knocking at the door. You have to keep striving to get there and once you’re there, maybe you open the door and you’re allowed to come in. The history of the time I’ve been here is that the door has opened 10 times. That’s a lot of times.”
Those 10 times “that the door has opened” refers to the 10 Final Four appearances that his teams have made in his first 29 years at Duke. He’s actually reached the Sweet 16 18 times (more than any other active coach), winning 11 times (also more than any other active coach).
There is an interesting dichotomy in Krzyzewski’s record. He actually won nine of his first 10 Sweet 16 games before losing to Florida in 2000. He bounced back to guide the 2001 Blue Devils past UCLA in Philadelphia – the third step on the way to the national championship – but has lost five of six Sweet 16 games since.
“I think it’s harder because there are more good teams and more good players,” Coach K said. “[On my radio show] the two guys we had on were pretty good guys – Coach [Bob] Knight and John Thompson. That’s one of the things we talked about: What’s different? Both of them said, ‘There are more good teams and more good players.’ ”
This year’s Duke team might be better armed to handle that competition than some recent Blue Devil teams.
“We feel this is a very different team,” senior Jon Scheyer said. “We know what went wrong the last couple of years and we’ve learned from it.”
Scheyer’s class – one that also includes starters Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek – has seen a steady progression of NCAA success in their careers. As freshmen, they played on a young team that lost a first-round heartbreaker to Virginia Commonwealth. As sophomores, they got past Belmont in the first round, but fell to West Virginia in the second round.
As juniors, they beat Binghamton in the first round, then won a brutal, physical game with Texas in the second round to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in their careers. But their 2009 ride ended against ‘Nova in the regional finals.
Now the Duke players are determined to take the next step ... and maybe several steps beyond that.
“This is this year – we’re not focused at all about the past,” junior Nolan Smith said. “The fact that we had guys who went to the Sweet 16 last year and knowing that’s where we lost last year, we’re ready to get past that. This team is hungry, ready to go as far as we can.”
Senior Brian Zoubek suggested that this Duke team is better equipped to do that than the teams he played on in the past.
“We feel really good physically,” he said. “We don’t have the nagging injuries or the overall fatigue that I think we had last year. Also, we’re kind of on a positive, upward climb. This team just keeps getting better. We’re playing our best basketball right now.
“We do understand who we are collectively and individually. We understand our roles individually and within the group. That’s a great thing to have. It gives you a great sense of what you should be doing on the court.”
That confidence and cohesion has carried this Duke team to 31 wins, and ACC regular season and tournament championships and now the Sweet 16. But Coach K understands that if the Blue Devils stumble in Houston, many will view the season as a disappointment.
That, he said, is the price for his past success.
“They’re going to be on me all the time,” he said. “That’s okay. I just want to make sure that our players are not playing for that and they get the recognition for what they’re doing now – not compared to what Jason Williams did. That’s unfair.”
His players don’t seem to mind the high expectations that they have to deal with.
“Those expectations are the reason why all of us came to Duke,” Smith said. “We came here to live up to those expectations, so we feel like it’s our job to do it. We don’t feel any pressure from the expectations. It’s the reason we put on the Duke jersey every game.”
Zoubek suggested that the expectations – and what’s behind them – could work to the team’s benefit.
“The tradition is unbelievable here,” he said. “That only instills more confidence in us. In those situations where we might not have as much experience, Coach does, so we look to him and look at his eyes and he’ll know what to do and he’ll have that resolve and that poise. That’s a huge confidence boost that we have that kind of resource to use.”
At the same time, Zoubek echoed Krzyzewski’s warning not to judge this year’s team by what past Duke teams did or didn’t accomplish.
“This is our team, our year – especially the seniors,” the veteran big man said. “We want to do something that’s just about us. We’re not worried about what Duke’s done in the past. We’re having such a great time playing with each other, we really don’t want it to end and we’re going to do whatever it takes to not let that happen.”
And that means smashing through the Sweet 16 barrier – and on to the Elite Eight.
“We’re hoping we can win Friday and have an opportunity to play Sunday and hopefully knock the door down and have a chance to compete for the biggest prize in college basketball,” Krzyzewski said.
That prize comes closer and closer with every game.
“Last week, it was kind of hard to see,” Zoubek said. “You possibly have six more games. It kind of seems like a really long road. And now we’re right here in the Sweet 16 – two weekends left? It’s a crazy feeling. It’s time to go.”