Starting in a national championship game makes any college basketball career a successful one. Accomplishing that feat as a sophomore on the winning team makes it even more impressive.
Senior Casey Sanders claims the above accomplishments, but with the McDonald's High School All-American scoring in double digits only four times in his three years at Duke, many call the 6-foot-11 Tampa Bay, Fla., native a disappointment. Sanders would disagree.
Sanders came to Duke with much fanfare after the Blue Devil recruiting staff expressed interest in him his freshman season at Tampa Prep High School. Duke continued to be impressed as Sanders aged and developed into a consensus top-ten college prospect.
Sanders led his team to an 89-10 record in his four varsity seasons, and was named Florida's Mr. Basketball after averaging 22.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 7.0 blocks his senior year. When Sanders signed to become a member of the class of 2003, a class that included current NBA players Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer, scouts considered Sanders to be one of the best.
The class of 2003 was given an exceptional opportunity their freshman year after Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette left early for the NBA and Chris Burgess transferred to Utah. Williams and Boozer started for the Blue Devils that year, and Dunleavy played significant minutes as the sixth man on a team that finished No. 1 in the final AP poll. Sanders, on-the-other-hand, watched from the bench.
"I figured I'd come in with everybody else and be able to help the team immediately," Sanders said. "That wasn't the case for me. It doesn't mean I have anything innately wrong with me, it was just something I wasn't prepared for."
Sanders worked hard during the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons, but his fate met more time on the bench. The Blue Devils appeared to be having a disappointing year, as well. After owning the No. 1 ranking for much of the year, Duke had lost to Maryland at home on National Player of the Year Shane Battier's last home game.
To make matters worse, Boozer, the team's efficient starting center, broke his foot in that game, leaving the team without a tested center for the ACC championship and the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. Many thought the team would plummet without a big man on the already small Duke team.
Sanders had different plans.
He was placed in the starting line-up for the first time in his career, and he did not disappoint. The already-quick Blue Devils somehow got quicker with the loss of Boozer, and raced their way to a victory against first place North Carolina and then the ACC and National championships.
The momentum Sanders had at the end of his sophomore year did not continue into his junior season, however, as Sanders spent more time on the bench. Critics began to see him as a bust, but with the loss of Williams, Dunleavy and Boozer, Sanders is looking forward to making a contribution to the 2002-03 Blue Devils in a major way.
"I've set some individuals goals. Hopefully I'll be better at the end of the season than I am now," he said.
Sanders understands that he probably will not evolve into the star player on the team, so he is motivated to use his experience to teach the six freshman that are expected to make contributions this season.
"The biggest thing they have to learn is how physical [the ACC] is," he said.
The freshman seem to be responding, appreciating all the guidance Sanders has to give.
"I feel pretty good about playing with him," freshman Shelden Williams said. "He has a lot of experience... he knows the different plays. He knows the things to be a national [champion]."
As his career winds down, head coach Mike Krzyzewski--"the most important opinion on the team--has never felt that Sanders was a disappointment.
"I think Casey [Sanders] is ready to be a really good player," Krzyzewski said. "It's not like he hasn't been good before, but he hasn't been able to have the consistency both of us would like to see. I think he can give us that."
Sanders is looking past basketball now that he is a senior, and plans on using his history degree to pursue a career in marketing. He already has experience in the field, interning for GlaxoSmithKline during the summer.
"I really enjoyed my internship," Sanders said. "It was really good for me."
Even without becoming the player everyone thought he would be so far, Sanders feels the maturity and knowledge he has gained at Duke is better than any accolades that could be gained on the basketball court.
"I wouldn't change anything for the world," he said.