Brian Davis still remembers how he felt after Duke won its first ever national championship. He, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill had just beaten Kansas by seven. The Blue Devils were not expected to have gotten that far, and he and the rest of the team were overjoyed.
But the feeling lingered with the media and much of the general public that the win was a fluke. An accident, if a happy one.
How did Davis feel about that?
“We didn’t appreciate all the s—t everyone was talking about us,” Davis said. “[Christian and I] were pissed, and Grant was pissed, and we felt we had something to prove. We said to ourselves, ‘We’re going to win this s—t again.’”
This year’s Duke team is experiencing the same circumstances. Both it and its 1992 counterpart went from underdogs to the No. 1 team in the country.
And as the days pass and the time comes for the Blue Devils to mount their title defense, they can learn much from the guys who pulled off the repeat.
Lesson one: Expect, and embrace, the hype.
“When you’re the returning champs at Duke—you’re always going to get that rock star treatment,” said Thomas Hill, a starter on the 1992 team. “We have great fans, and Duke’s either really popular—or it’s hated.”
Time will tell if Duke, the 2010-11 squad, faces the hype that the 1992 team did. It certainly will be difficult to match.
At Notre Dame February 1, Bobby Hurley was carried in a laundry bag from the Edmund P. Joyce Center to the team bus stalling outside, hoping to avoid a horde of autograph seekers who had just seen their team fall by 29.
“That was pretty unique,” he said with a laugh.
On March 4, a mob hundreds large stood screaming outside of Littlejohn Coliseum after Duke beat Clemson, waiting for the Blue Devils to make their walk to the Duke bus. The bus was surrounded on all sides.
“It’s a mob scene. There’s no way to get to the bus. And they’re all Duke fans!” Jay Bilas said at the time.
According to Bill Brill, who reported the above quote in his book “A Season is a Lifetime,” “It was like traveling with The Beatles. I don’t know any other athletic team that was ever like that.”
Duke will always face more scrutiny and expectation than the average team. Its recent success, plus a perceived impression by many of elitism in the past, ensures that.
The key this year will be how the Blue Devils deal with even more hype than they’re used to. Like the 1992 team, this year there won’t be any sneaking up on anybody.
“They came in under the radar [last year],” Seth Davis, CBS Sports analyst and Trinity 1992 graduate, said. “If they thought last year was long, this year is going to be twice as long. Fortunately, they’re being directed by a guy who’s not in his first rodeo.”
Still, the expectations may prove debilitating. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith especially, as the unquestioned leaders of this team, will see a jump in hype rare even for Duke players.
Greg Dale, Director of Sports Psychology and Leadership Programs for Duke Athletics, said that the increase can be dangerous—but a focus on taking it game by game will prevent the expectations from causing too much harm for Duke.
“You can’t control what everyone’s expectations are,” Dale said. “But you have to be committed to playing hard every night against a nameless, faceless opponent.”
If Smith and Singler ever struggle to keep that singular focus, they have a coach that works to eliminate the external pressures. According to Hill, in 1992, Krzyzewski never let the team know that they were out to defend their title.
“Coach dealt with it and [made it] so we didn’t feel any pressure,” he said. “We kept a vibe that we weren’t the defending champions. Psychologically, that makes it more fun—you’re pursuing [the title], rather than defending it.”
In 1992, despite a non-conference schedule that Brill called the hardest Krzyzewski has ever assembled, Duke was undefeated until February 5.
This year, if the Blue Devils beat Butler and a few other non-conference opponents, the “unbeatable” tag will be there, and it’s unquestionably tough to handle. Hurley thinks they will actually benefit from losing a game, eliminating that extra pressure.
“When you’re in a tight game and the game pressure is on you, I’m not sure if [being undefeated] doesn’t factor in,” he said. “Now, when you’ve already lost a game and eliminated that from the equation, you’re not dealing with that element.”
And there is one thing Duke must always remember, according to Hurley.
“Enjoy the journey,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t have their opportunity. I know they’re going to be hungry to try and do it again. It’s something [they] should cherish.”
It’s tempting to draw similarities between the two teams.
Both have two senior co-captains who played the summer before their title defense with the U.S. National Team, and both duos are known for being friends off the court. Brian Davis feels each has similar leadership styles.
“Nolan and Kyle, they remind me of me and Christian,” Brian Davis said. “We were very laid back off the court and aggressive on the court.... These guys have the ability to repeat, because they have great leaders. And I think Nolan and Kyle are monsters.”
Both teams also have an underdog’s mentality. Davis said his squad played with “not a chip on our shoulders, but a boulder.” And Smith hasn’t forgotten that Duke wasn’t placed among the sport’s top teams last year.
“A lot of people overlooked us [last year],” Smith said. “This year we’ll still have the same mentality that we have to play every game like it’s our last game, get better as the year go along, take it step-by-step.”
Still, though, there are glaring differences. The 1992 team had very little turnover, losing only one player who averaged over six points per game—Bill McCaffrey, who transferred to Vanderbilt.
Duke in 2010-11 returns only two starters, after Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas all graduated. But Krzyzewski doesn’t feel that the relatively high turnover between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 teams necessarily means this year’s edition will fall short of 1992’s success. In fact, he thinks Duke has a better situation now.
“It’s a different team [now],” he said. “[In] 1992, we were the same team. 2002 was essentially the same team. I think this is better. We have a really good, mature team.”
Hurley agrees, saying that the different playing style of the 2010-11 squad can be a good thing.
“It’s going to be up to Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith to lead that team,” he said. “But I like the idea of bringing in a player like Kyrie Irving, as good as he is, I think it adds something. The players that are returning are going to get a real boost from him.... I think it’s going to help them.”
Another difference, perhaps more glaring even than the varying degree of turnover between the teams, is the difference in talent. 1992’s Blue Devils had three players whose numbers now hang in the dusty rafters of Cameron. Time will tell if this year’s team also boasts such accomplishments.
“The ’92 team was obviously better,” Seth Davis said. “Look at the talent that was on that team. And I don’t know if this team is going in as the prohibitive No. 1 like ’92 was.”
Fortunately for the 2010-11 Blue Devils, they’re not playing against Laettner, the Hills, Hurley and Brian Davis. They’re just trying to beat everyone else in the country. Easy, right?