The movement started with several minutes left in the game. From my seat in the upper level of Raleigh’s PNC Arena, it wasn’t hard to notice the tide of N.C. State students making their way into the aisles, pressing down towards the court in anticipation of a Wolfpack victory. Their intention quickly became obvious: If the Wolfpack held on for an increasingly likely win over Duke, they were going to rush the court.
I was stunned. The Wolfpack had been the preseason pick to win the ACC and had been ranked above the Blue Devils through the first two AP polls of the season. Even before the ranking bump they’ll receive today for defeating Duke, they were ranked in the top 25. Their roster is one of the more talented groups in the country, and as big of a factor as Ryan Kelly’s absence was, N.C. State has the pieces to take down Duke even with Kelly.
The Wolfpack faithful seemed to be selling themselves short. Typically rushing the court is reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime sort of victories. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski insists that the court is only to be rushed when Duke wins a championship, whether conference or national. Exceptions can be justified for truly astounding upsets. But this was a game that N.C. State could have fully been expected to win.
It was on my way out of the stadium that I began to appreciate the fans’ motivation for storming the floor. Departing cars laid on their horns in celebration. Attendees crowed about the game’s place among all-time great wins, even though it was a mid-January victory for a program that actually has a pretty significant history of playing spoiler to good Duke teams.
I began to gather that the point was simply that they had beaten Duke. As Blue Devil fans, especially during the pressure of a season, I think it’s sometimes difficult to perceive the true magnitude of Duke’s impact in the college basketball world. Having cheered for the Blue Devils my entire life, I spend more time during games in a state of anxiety rather than confidence. But to many of Duke’s opponents, the Blue Devil juggernaut seems so unstoppable from the other end that even a relatively mild upset triggers court-rushing euphoria.
Only at my first “true” road game—attending as a fan in the bleachers rather than a writer on press row, for a game when school was in session—did I start to really understand the sheer size of the shadow that Duke basketball casts on the collegiate hoops landscape.
“Duke being [No.] 1 is old. We know that,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his team defeated Wake Forest Jan. 5. “We’ve been No. 1 11 of the last 16 years. It’s not big news.”
Indeed, Krzyzewski’s history with the top spot in the polls is staggering. During his career in Durham, Krzyzewski has coached the No. 1 team in the nation for 216 games. He has coached an unranked team just 141 times.
Even during the fallow periods of Krzyzewski’s tenure, Duke has largely managed to remain a threat, never sacrificing its aura of invincibility in the way that North Carolina did during the Matt Doherty years or that Kentucky did under Billy Gillispie.
None of this is to say that Duke is somehow a better program than its rivals. Nor is it to take away from the quality win that the Wolfpack earned Saturday. It’s to note that even as the Blue Devil faithful ride what they perceive to be a harrowing roller coaster between national title contention and “merely” top-25 caliber play, other fans, experiencing Duke basketball from a greater distance, simply see the heights at which Krzyzewski consistently maintains his program.
And it is those intimidating levels of success that makes a win over a Duke team seem like a momentous achievement, even when a worthy opponent like N.C. State could have arguably been favored over the Kelly-less Blue Devils. Given how many times—even under Krzyzewski’s strict standards—Duke fans have gotten to rush the floor after championship wins, perhaps it’s not altogether surprising that a win like the Wolfpack’s induces a celebration normally reserved for trophy-earning victories.