Mike Krzyzewski’s program at Duke.DURHAM, N.C. – Continuity has always been a big part of
Young players learn from older players. When Danny Ferry arrived on campus, he had the benefit of learning from a senior class that included Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, David Henderson and Mark Alarie. Ferry passed on his knowledge to Christian Laettner and from there it passed to Grant Hill. Steve Wojciechowski and Trajan Langdon helped mentor Chris Carrawell and Nate James. They, in turn, passed on the secrets to Shane Battier and from him to Jason Williams, then Chris Duhon, then to J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams.
Obviously, Coach K has had a lot of great players in his 30 years in Durham, but his program has excelled as much for the lessons that have been passed from one great player to another.
However, three times in Krzyzewski’s three decades at Duke, those lessons have had to be re-learned from scratch – most recently by the current group of Blue Devil seniors.
“We didn’t have anybody to learn from as freshmen,” senior center Brian Zoubek said earlier this week. “We didn’t have any established players to ride the coattails of or to teach us what to do.”
That 2007 team – the youngest Duke team since World War II -- won 22 games, but ended the season with four straight losses – including first-round defeats in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
“Although we didn’t start out the best, we were still 22-11,” senior guard Jon Scheyer said. “As bad as it seemed to us, we probably had four or five games where we either lost in overtime or at the end of games, so we got some bad breaks. I think we’ve grown and gone a step farther in each of our years. It says a lot for our group to get to this point.”
Indeed, this senior class compares to the 1986 seniors – Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas – and the 1998 seniors – Steve Wojciechowski and Trajan Langdon (who actually finished in 1999 after sitting out a season) – as classes that had to learn everything from scratch.
The first time was, in fact, the first time. To get his program off the ground, Coach K had to instill his concept of hard work and focus into his first crop of gifted players. He did that in the early 1980s with Dawkins and company – a class that started with a losing record and ended up leading a 37-win team that played in the national title game.
That class got Krzyzewski’s program off the ground, igniting a run of seven Final Fours and two national titles in a nine-year run.
But there was a discontinuity in 1995. It started on the second day of practice, when junior guard Chris Collins, expected to provide the veteran leadership for a young team, broke his foot and missed all of preseason. Krzyzewski might have overcome that blow, but he was sidelined with back problems and the leaderless team struggled to a 13-18 season.
When Krzyzewski returned the next season, he realized that he not only needed to re-stock the team’s talent, but that he had to teach those hard-earned lessons to a new generation of players. Over the next three years, the Blue Devils endured the same learning process that the Dawkins class experienced in the early 1980s.
The payoff came in 1998 and 1999 when a group of players who have never experienced any postseason success won 69 games, an ACC title and recorded eight NCAA wins in back-to-back years. They set the standard for Krzyzewski’s second great run from 1998 to 2006 when Duke won a third national title, played in three Final Fours, reached the Sweet 16 in nine straight seasons and won seven ACC championships.
But there was another discontinuity after the 2006 team won 32 games, finished No. 1 in the nation and reached the Sweet 16. Duke graduated a pair of senior All-Americans in Redick and Williams, plus solid senior contributors Sean Dockery and Lee Melchionni.
The early NBA departures of Luol Deng (who would have been a senior in 2007) and recruit Shaun Livingston (who would have been a junior point guard) robbed the Blue Devils of almost any upperclass leadership. In fact, the team didn’t have a senior on the roster and the only junior was oft-injured DeMarcus Nelson.
Krzyzewski was hoping that sophomore point guard Greg Paulus, who started as a freshman in 2006, could provide on-the-floor leadership – but in an eerie replay of the Collins injury before the1995 season, Paulus suffered a broken foot on the second day of practice.
Those problems left the freshman class – Scheyer, Zoubek, Lance Thomas and Gerald Henderson – to carry a heavy load with very little veteran leadership.
At least they did have – unlike the 1995 Blue Devils – Krzyzewski’s presence on the bench. In that context, their 22-11 record was a good deal better than the 13-18 season the 1995 team endured ... or the 11-17 season that the Dawkins class had to go through.
That doesn’t mean it was easy for those freshmen to take.
“Four losses in a row [to end the season]?” Zoubek said. “In high school, I didn’t lose four games in a season. That’s a terrible taste in your mouth to end the season. If you lose based on somebody outplaying you rather than outworking you, then you won’t regret the season. The end of my freshman season was tough to deal with.”
So was the end of their sophomore season – in the NCAA second round against West Virginia – the team that the 2010 Blue Devils will face Saturday in the Final Four.
Duke won 28 games in 2007-08 and ended the season ranked No. 9 in the nation. But the season ended on an ugly note as West Virginia rallied from a five-point second-half deficit to knock the Devils out of the tournament.
“They out-toughed us,” Scheyer recalled. “We were up for a good part of the game. I remember that [Joe Alexander] threw up a shot as the shot clock expired. And from there, they took off.”
Zoubek can live with the fact that West Virginia played better in that game. What still haunts him is that the Mountaineers played harder.
“I was a part of that game – it was a tough loss,” he said. “The toughest part of that loss was that they out-fought us. That’s something we never want to happen. If we give it our all and they beat us by hitting shots or making a couple of more plays than us, then it might be a little better. But to be out-worked is something that can’t happen.”
Duke’s seniors are pretty certain that won’t happen Saturday. They’re not guaranteeing a victory in the NCAA semifinals – but they are confident that Duke has learned how to compete at the highest level.
“Going through those experiences I had as a freshman and sophomore, I feel I learned a lot,” Scheyer said. “I’m more confident on the court. Against Baylor, I was confident the entire way. I never had a doubt we were going to win. I didn’t have that all the time as a freshman. I’ve been through a lot of games. I feel like just being through it helped.”
Whatever happens in Indianapolis this weekend, Duke’s three seniors have left the program a legacy – the same legacy that the Dawkins class and the Wojo class left their generations. Next year’s Duke team will have a strong foundation of players who have been taught the hard lessons that Scheyer-Zoubek-Thomas had to learn for themselves.
“I hope they can take advantage of that,” Zoubek said. “We try to teach them that. They should be so happy to have guys like us teaching them the way to do it. How to practice hard. How to execute. How to have the right mentality all the time. How to work hard enough to get there.
“I do hope they learn from us and bring it next year. I know that the seniors and I have really been trying to make them better.”
Freshman Mason Plumlee, who will likely go from a support role to a starting role next season, appreciates the advantage he’s had in learning from the seniors.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I think we’ve got an amazing senior class. They play hard every day. They’ve been great all season.”
Asked to provide an example of what the veterans have taught the young guys, Plumlee pointed to effort.
“I don’t think anybody – at least in this year’s freshman class – I don’t think anybody played hard enough,” he said. “We played hard in spurts, but when you talk about our seniors and what they taught us – it’s to play hard all the time ... don’t take plays off. If you do, they’ll let you know it.”
That knowledge was hard-learned. So was the confidence and the poise that comes with success. But it’s all paid off for Duke’s three seniors, who get to close out their career with a trip to the Final Four.
“I think we’ve come a long way since our freshman year,” Scheyer said. “And to be in the Final Four and in contention for a national championship, it means a lot. I don’t know if it’s fully hit me. I’m sure after the year I’ll have a better appreciation.”
Zoubek certainly appreciates what his team – and his class – have accomplished.
“You expect to [go to Final Fours] just by coming to Duke,” he said. “And the reality was, we learned when we got here – you have to work for it. You have to earn it. Just by coming to Duke doesn’t give you that privilege. That’s what we have done this year. We’ve worked for every single win.”