DURHAM, N.C. – It may not go down in history as one of the best Duke basketball seasons ever — the bar is set pretty high there — but coach Mike Krzyzewski has called his 2009 club one of his favorites for the way all the members came together and connected to form a successful team. Coming off his gold-medal experience with the 2008 Olympians, Krzyzewski said this Duke contingent continued to refresh and energize him throughout a season of much accomplishment.
While critics sometimes tend to focus on what high-profile programs such as Duke don’t do, this group did plenty with 30 wins, an ACC Tournament championship, a No. 1 ranking at one point and a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
The conclusion clearly was a disappointment, with the Blue Devils shooting so poorly in their Sweet 16 loss to eventual Final Four qualifier Villanova. The Wildcats defense attacked Duke as well as any opponent did all year, shut down driving lanes and frustrated Duke’s three primary offensive weapons, Gerald Henderson, Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer. They took 45 of Duke’s 60 shots in the game but only hit nine of them. As a team, the Devils’ 54 points against Nova was the second lowest output of the year, better than only the 47-point outing at Clemson.
“I felt like whenever I drove the ball or put the ball on the floor, there was always somebody else coming over to help,” Henderson said. “There were kicks there, but it was difficult for me to get my own shot, like it might usually happen in our games.”
“There was nothing easy,” added Krzyzewski. “Villanova didn’t give you anything. When you did have an open shot, I thought we put a lot of game pressure on ourselves when we shouldn’t have. But that comes from a good place. It comes from a place where they care and they want to do it. It’s not a seven-game series, it’s a one-game thing. They made their mistakes by trying to do something. I can’t fault them for that. They’ve been a great team for me to coach.”
Krzyzewski applauded the way his team has gotten better and continued to win while rebuilding its culture over the past three years and noted that it was unfortunate the year had to conclude with such a disappointing performance.
“I’m just disappointed for them, not in them,” Krzyzewski said of his players. “I’m disappointed for them because they’ve been a great group of kids. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed being with this group. But that’s the way it is.”
There were plenty of highlights along the way, and here are just a few to savor:
• The pulsating Rhode Island game back in November, when sharpshooter Jimmy Baron lit up Cameron for 24 points on eight three-pointers, only to be stopped at the very end on a defensive switch by Singler in the Blue Devils’ 82-79 victory.
• The 2K Sports Classic championship in New York, with Singler earning MVP honors.
• One of the toughest showings of the season in early December at West Lafayette, Ind., when Duke fought off a Purdue team primed for victory to win its ACC-Big Ten Challenge game for the 10th straight year.
• That total blitzkrieg to start the Xavier game at the Meadowlands, offensively and defensively. Duke forced turnovers and rained in threes to jump in front 18-1 and 22-3. Scheyer in particular dominated the highlight reel with four threes in the first half and a nifty no-look pass to David McClure for a dunk to give Duke a 55-24 halftime lead over a team that was ranked No. 7 in the country.
• The total annihilation of Maryland at Cameron, 85-44. Okay, it was not the Terps’ day, but Duke was superb in nearly every category and used the win to move to No. 1 in the country. Of note, Maryland star Greivis Vasquez, one of the ACC’s most productive players, had three chances against the Blue Devils during the season and was held to 1-of-7 from three-point range in the Duke sweep.
• The many flurries of Gerald Henderson. They weren’t so frequent at the beginning of the year, with the 20-point second half against Southern Illinois the bright spot. But when the calendar turned to 2009, Henderson turned on another gear. A 17-point first half against Georgetown followed by a 17-point second half vs. N.C. State. A 16-point half against Virginia and the 18-point second-half explosion to beat Miami in overtime. But the best had to be that 35-point eruption against Wake Forest, featuring 12 consecutive points and three straight dunks in the first half.
• The lineup switch after the loss at BC. Jon Scheyer proved adept at setting up the offense and his own shot improved. And freshman Elliot Williams gave the Devils a “fearless” element according to Scheyer when he took over pressuring the ball. Those three straight Williams steals and those 30 Scheyer points teamed with Henderson’s fireworks to make the 101-91 win over Wake Forest one to remember.
• Clawing out a tough 84-81 win over Florida State on Senior Night. The three seniors started and Greg Paulus hit a couple of key threes, while the Big Three were at their collective best: 20 points for Singler, 17 for Scheyer and the first career double-double for Henderson at 21 points, 10 boards. Nine of G’s points came in the final two minutes to help secure the outcome and put Duke in position to play for the ACC regular season title in the next game at UNC.
• And of course the ACC Tournament run through Atlanta, with consecutive victories over Boston College, Maryland and Florida State giving Duke its eighth ACC Championship in 11 years, but first for most of the current players. Scheyer edged Singler for tourney MVP honors and Henderson was helpful as well with the game-winning basket in the opener and 27 points in the closer.