Mike Krzyzewski once said, "but we don't look like a great team when we're warming up or walking through airports."INDIANAPOLIS – "We have very good players," Coach
This comment came moments after Duke had advanced to its first Final Four under Krzyzewski in 1986. A team of blue-collar players who had an unswerving work ethic, that team won more games than any other in NCAA history. It was a team that had actually prompted admiration from fans and media figures across the country, because it had won and lost with class and humility.
''I'd give my right arm to play in the NBA,'' Jay Bilas said moments after he and his teammates had fallen to Louisville in the NCAA championship, ''but there isn't much call for one-armed players.''
The media, enraptured not with articulating specious reasons as to why they hated Duke or why the Blue Devils were unlikeable, instead marveled at a story line that has not waned in the decades since.
''I think we've set new standards as far as academics and basketball are concerned,'' Johnny Dawkins said in response to questions about being a student and an athlete in college. "This team shows that they can go hand in hand.''
Such was the arrival for Duke basketball onto the national stage in the modern era, high-achieving workaholics who were yet to experience the displaced vitriol and vulgarity heaped upon Blue Devils over the past quarter century.
A new phenomenon has arisen in the past two weeks, however. It has become trendy, all of a sudden, to write articles calling this Duke team a likeable anomaly: The gregarious Nolan Smith, whose love for his late father has warmed the most frigid hearts; the battlescarred star Kyle Singler; the reserved makeshift point guard in Jon Scheyer; the resurgent Brian Zoubek; the sparkplug Andre Dawkins; the playmaking Plumlees; and the emotional leader Lance Thomas, who fought back tears after his offensive rebounding and defense put Duke into its first Final Four since 2004.
"I'm so happy right now. It took four years to get here. We fought for this man, and people didn't believe in us and we didn't care. We know what this team is capable of doing. The leadership on this team, the heart, the drive that we have. Being here is great. I'm very happy right now."
And though this team may stick out more in an airport than the 1986 squad of old – having six players standing over 6'8 makes you rather conspicuous – they are no different from the renegade '86 team that snubbed the notion that teams couldn't win on defense, rebounding, scrappiness and sacrifice.
Coach K has articulated at much, calling this team a "bunch of throwbacks" on a number of occasions.
How fitting, then, that this season began with Nolan Smith dressed in Johnny Dawkins' throwback Duke jersey-too small and too short, sans black in the jersey's color scheme – dunking to a rousing ovation of fond memories and high hopes for what might come in March 2010.
It having come and gone, Duke will start April in the same city where it won its first national championship, this time taking on a rugged West Virginia team, comprised of many of the same players that ousted the Blue Devils from the tournament in 2008.
That team left an impression on Duke, not only because it won, but in how it handled victory, mocking the Blue Devils at every turn in the postgame press conference. This game is not about revenge, however, nor about silencing critics nor anything else. It's about playing the game the way Duke has played it all year, and few have done it better than the Blue Devils. West Virginia poses more problems on both sides of the court than any team Duke has played all year. Then again, lots of teams have thought they would have the personnel to oust the Blue Devils this season. Not unlike 1986.
''I always hear teams say, 'We match up well with Duke.' I've heard that for 38 games," Coach K said on the cusp of that first Final Four. "Maybe that's why our team's always ready, because they're always hearing about how people are ready for them.''
This team has been hearing about how people are ready for them, too.