NCAA: Chilly reception awaits Duke
By Joedy McCreary
DURHAM ó Duke spent the entire season in the top 10, won its first ACC Tournament title in three years and finished atop the RPI list.
The selection committee came up with the perfect reward for the Blue Devils: To keep them close to campus, they were assigned to play their first two NCAA tournament games an hour’s drive down Tobacco Road.
Top rival North Carolina will be there, too, and the Tar Heels are expected to turn the Greensboro Coliseum into the Dean Dome West. They’re sure to pack the 22,404-seat arena with thousands of fans who love nothing more than hating Duke.
“It’s tough ó there are so many Carolina fans around here, but I think that we feed off of that,” Duke center Brian Zoubek said Tuesday. “We like it. We play in environments like that all the time, and we hear that all the time during the day, whether it be outside of basketball, and so we’re just looking forward to taking care of business. That’s how we make our statements ó taking care of business.”
For only the second time since the introduction of the tournament’s “pod” system in 2002, Duke and UNC are preparing to spend the first weekend at the same venue.
And if it goes anything like it did the last time ó when both teams were shipped to Charlotte in 2005 ó the Blue Devils could be in for another long weekend of razzing at a so-called neutral site that’s ultimately anything but.
“We’re used to being booed,” guard Jon Scheyer said, “so that’s not a big deal to us.”
Maybe so, but in recent years the Duke program seems to have shown more sensitivity to how it is received. No longer do the Blue Devils seem quite as comfortable being the team everybody loves to hate.
That wasn’t always the case, especially when lightning rods Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and J.J. Redick became household names while playing for the powerhouse program that Mike Krzyzewski has guided to 10 Final Fours and three national titles in three decades.
Forward Lance Thomas even admitted as much once, saying of his team’s 2007 first-round upset loss to Virginia Commonwealth: “I’ve never been that hated before.”
At the very least, Duke has learned to live with its status as one of the sport’s most polarizing programs.
Most recently, at last weekend’s ACC Tournament in Atlanta, North Carolina fans stuck around the Georgia Dome for the evening session to boo the Blue Devils.
“The Carolina fans, they stayed even after Carolina lost to try and see us lose,” guard Nolan Smith said. “But it didn’t matter to us. We just played our game, and eventually the whole arena was on our side.”
Then again, those Tar Heels had to go home sometime.
In recent years, one of the perennial powers has been shipped out of state for the first round. The last time the tournament visited Greensboro, top-ranked Duke held court there while the Tar Heels were sent to Dayton, Ohio. Two years ago, North Carolina held a No. 1 seed in Winston-Salem while the Blue Devils were sent to Buffalo, N.Y., and last year the Tar Heels claimed Raleigh while Duke was bound for Washington, D.C.
Now they’re together again, and even North Carolina’s players are well aware of what kind of atmosphere they should expect in Greensboro, with star forward Tyler Hansbrough bracing for a repeat of Charlotte in 2005.
“I’m pretty sure they’re not going to be pulling for us,” Hansbrough said, “so I doubt we’re going to be pulling for them, fan-wise.”
And North Carolina guard Wayne Ellington, who grew up in the Philadelphia area with Duke’s Gerald Henderson, called the Blue Devils’ swingman “one of my best friends, but I’m not a Duke fan at all. I wouldn’t mind watching them lose.”
“Whether it’s people cheering or people booing, at least people will be there,” Scheyer said. “That gets us excited to play, no matter what it is. Having a full stadium, a fun crowd, that’s fine. Whether we come out and we’re booed at all or cheered the whole time, whatever it is, just as long as noise is being made and it’s exciting, it’ll be helpful to us.”