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A team of its own

Duke, shown here celebrating after its win over Baylor, found a unique identity as its season progressed, senior Ben Cohen writes.
Duke, shown here celebrating after its win over Baylor, found a unique identity as its season progressed, senior Ben Cohen writes.

For a short while this weekend—about as long as Baylor led on Sunday—I privately wished I had a reason to root for Cornell or Butler, the NCAA Tournament’s two pseudo-Cinderellas whose fans seemed so gleeful in their cheering. This was new to them. They didn’t have three national championship banners hanging in their arena. Their students did not matriculate expecting to raise another in their four years, and their coaches and players weren’t bombarded with questions about why they hadn’t made the Final Four in five years. For a team like Cornell or Butler, the outpouring of emotion after an upset was not relief but euphoria, pure as a Jon Scheyer jumper.

Of course, Duke isn’t supposed to be that plucky upstart. It’s the team that Cornell and Butler dethrones, the one that everyone roots against, the one whose NCAA Tournament loss opens a torrent of schadenfreude. The Duke that we’ve come to know is J.J. Redick throwing up the shocker after swishing 30-footers, Steve Wojchiechowski slapping the floor at midcourt, Christian Laettner blowing kisses to an adoring crowd. In short, Duke is neither Cornell nor Butler. Duke is Duke, and more simply, it’s supposed to be the Duke that everyone hates as much as they cherish their own team.

But on Sunday, just as Duke began to pull away from Baylor, two realizations hit me and, I imagine, many others. The obvious first one was a reactionary impulse: We’re going to the Final Four. (Except with a smattering of celebratory four-letter words that would make Mike Krzyzewski proud.) The second was one that had formed over the entire season and crystallized in one game: This is not that Duke team, and we’re better off for it.

These Blue Devils have little in common with the Duke teams that have won national championships. It’s probable that no one on this team will have his jersey retired; five of Duke’s 13 retired numbers were worn in 1991, 1992 and 2001. This team lacks a genuine superstar; the national championship teams featured names that are still, almost 20 years later, synonymous with Duke Basketball. This team seemed delighted and surprised to plow through the South region; the national championship teams were expected to waltz the entire way.

The dichotomy between these two types of teams—successful as they both may be—reminded me of a certain issue of Sports Illustrated that hit newstands when this year’s senior class still haunted high school hallways. It was the yearly college basketball preview, and the cover was a photo of Duke players running in Cameron Indoor Stadium accompanied by a headline that most Duke observers still remember: “Can Anyone Stop Duke?” The question seemed apt for that year. Duke had the most talent in the country, as it often did, and as a senior, Redick appeared poised to cap his career with the only laurel he was missing. They weren’t the Beatles, as the Blue Devils were in the early 1990s, but the 2006 Blue Devils embodied the Duke team we all know and most everyone despises. It was the last year that Duke was Duke.

Since then, Duke Basketball has been pronounced dead by its detractors. Because the program was bounced in the first round of the Tournament in 2007, the second round in 2008 and throttled in the Sweet 16 in 2009, it was no longer elite, and Krzyzewski was over the hill. There was no reason to hate Duke, because the Blue Devils didn’t win enough to deserve the attention. And at the start of this season—alarmingly unathletic, anyone?—this Duke team didn’t appear to be the one to snap the skid. It didn’t help when the Blue Devils laid eggs at Georgetown and N.C. State, of course. This was the team that would make the Final Four? It had no flash, no stud, no John Wall dance.

What it does have, though, is a swarming defense and an ultra-efficient offense, ranked first in the country by Ken Pomeroy. (Duke’s points per possession on Sunday was the highest Baylor allowed all season, and its Friday performance was the second-best against Purdue.) It wins ugly. It wins with juniors and seniors, a core group of experienced veterans that endured talk, for almost four years, about Duke’s fade into obscurity. It wins when Jon Scheyer cans threes, Nolan Smith sinks mid-range jumpers and Kyle Singler exploits mismatches. It wins when Lance Thomas pounds the offensive glass and Brian Zoubek protects the defensive boards. It wins, quietly, against onslaughts of vitriol directed at Duke teams of the past. It won two games against North Carolina, an ACC championship and an ACC Tournament title, almost as if no one noticed.

All year long, I’ve struggled to define this team, mostly because I tried to equate this year’s Blue Devils with their predecessors. They’re not. This team wins because it has lost.

“I never had a group exactly like this one,” Krzyzewski said after Sunday’s win. “Again, we’re not a great team, but we are a really good team, but we have great character.”

For almost six years, and with more urgency recently, we’ve waited for a return to the last weekend of college basketball. I’ve never been on campus for a Final Four, and neither has any other undergraduate. This is President Richard Brodhead’s first Final Four in the Allen Building, and Director of Athletics Kevin White’s first Final Four, period. This type of thinking—Final Four or bust—was exactly what Krzyzewski assailed almost as soon as he returned to Durham from Beijing in August of 2008.

“Sometimes being here at Duke, because we’ve been very, very successful and won a lot... [people] expect you to be perfect,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s like, ‘What, we haven’t gone to the Final Four? What, we haven’t won a national championship?’ It’s very spoiled and it ruins it a little bit—really, a lot.

“For the rest of my career, I’m not going to do that relief thing. I’m going to go after it, I’m going to do it. And if somebody doesn’t go to the Final Four during their four years at Duke, then that’s just too damn bad.”

It’s something we won’t have to worry about for another four years. And because of that, the jeers and howls and envy will return, in all their glory, this weekend and next year and for the foreseeable future. They will be aimed at a new kind of Duke team, one that is decidedly different from the ones that booked Final Four tickets in October. It’s been a while, relatively speaking, but this Duke team is something else entirely. It’s one we can call our own.

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