ACC: Blue Devils savor run to tournament title

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By Luke DeCock
Raleigh News and Observer
ATLANTA ó Before the season ever started, with Mike Krzyzewski still fighting jet lag from his flight back from Beijing, the Duke coach talked about living in the moment, savoring winning instead of taking it for granted.
Standing on a platform Sunday with two of his grandsons to cut down the last link of a net after a 79-69 win over Florida State, this was the kind of moment he envisioned.
Duke’s first ACC title in three years is the most significant result of a season when Krzyzewski never stopped trying to find the right mix of players to make it all work.
“I think the kids would tell you, too, our whole staff, we’ve been really energized the whole time, really positive and enjoying it ó enjoying it but working hard,” Krzyzewski said.
It will take another month to tell where this ranks among Krzyzewski’s coaching jobs, but it can be said now that it was one of his most creative.
He was willing to bench his senior captain to start the season, inserting sophomore Nolan Smith into the starting lineup.
When that set-up stalled and Duke’s season headed the wrong direction after the 27-point capitulation at Clemson, he went back to Greg Paulus, whose energetic performance in an overtime win over Miami rallied the Blue Devils.
When losses to North Carolina and Boston College knocked the Devils down the ACC standings, Paulus went back on the shelf and freshman Elliot Williams emerged from the deepest reaches of the bench to join Jon Scheyer in the backcourt.
In the nine games since, Scheyer has 10 turnovers while running the point. Duke is 8-1.
“That’s just who Coach is ó a competitor,” Duke forward Kyle Singler said. “Even when we were taking losses during conference play, it was all about getting better during the season. We wanted to play as well as we can, but our main focus was on getting better and being at our best at the end of the season.”
Not that Krzyzewski was done when the Devils arrived in Atlanta.
Singler played all 120 minutes of the tournament, proving a point not only to the forward but to anyone else that fatigue would not be an issue this postseason.
Sunday was a big “up” in a season that has had more than a few “downs” with the two losses to Carolina and that odd night at Littlejohn that seemed to call into question every precept the Devils were built upon.
“I didn’t want to live in the moment at Clemson, for sure,” Krzyzewski said. “That was not a good moment.”
Yet Duke emerged atop the field Sunday in Atlanta with its 17th title, moving alongside North Carolina atop those standings.
Seven of the 11 games in the tournament were decided by six or fewer points, and the top two seeds went home early.
And while Saturday’s games were played in front of a heavily Carolina blue crowd, the Heels’ departure didn’t affect Sunday’s atmosphere, with a larger Duke presence and a surprising number of Florida State fans seated in the Carolina sections in a reversal of typical tournament form.
Despite the wide-open spaces in the third level, it was still the second-highest attendance for an ACC Tournament, behind only the last visit to Atlanta in 2001.
Duke won that tournament and went on to win the national title.
It’s too soon to say whether that kind of fate awaits the Devils again this season, but it’s not too soon to applaud the coaching job that got them this far.