NCAA Tournament: Devils silence critics

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 24, 2009

By Joedy McCreary
Associated Press
DURHAM ó Mike Krzyzewski didn’t set out to prove anybody wrong. His Duke players did it anyway.
All those critics had two years to get their digs in and take cheap shots at the Blue Devils. Those down-by-Duke-standards seasons are history, and they’re back to accomplishing the very things that made them so reviled by some in the first place.
They returned to No. 1, won an ACC Tournament title and have made it back to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t accomplish that because we wanted to prove somebody wrong,” Krzyzewski said Monday. “I’ve never said that one time this year. But the fact is that that’s the world that they live in.”
Indeed, there are two ways to look at second-seeded Duke’s upcoming East Regional semifinal matchup Thursday night in Boston against No. 3 seed Villanova (28-7). The Blue Devils (30-6) are in the regional semis for the 10th time in 12 years, but this also is the first time they’ve advanced this deeply into the bracket since 2006.
“For this group, especially our junior class, they haven’t (reached the round of 16) yet, and so people throw up to them what they have not done,” Krzyzewski said. “A lot of people haven’t done it. If we have eight Sweet 16s in this decade, and no one else has more, that means a lot of teams haven’t gone to the Sweet 16. So why is it news? Why is it the big thing?”
The answer, of course, is that, like it or not, Duke ranks among the most polarizing programs in college basketball. Loved or hated, there’s certainly no middle ground when it comes to the perennial power that Krzyzewski has taken to 10 Final Fours and guided to three national championships.
And that’s why so many glee-filled cynics popped up during the past two seasons, when the Blue Devils followed a one-and-done showing in the 2007 NCAA tournament with last year’s equally uncharacteristic second-round exit.
Those days seem over.
The wrist injury that last year plagued swingman Gerald Henderson is gone, and so are those bouts with fatigue that seemed to hit forward Kyle Singler during his freshman year.
All those first- and second-year players who were thrust into the rotation the past two years now are upperclassmen who finally seemed to have figured out what it takes to win in March.
“This team is very excited to be where we’re at,” guard Nolan Smith said.
Duke ó which in late January and early February spent its first week at No. 1 in three seasons ó certainly didn’t show much vulnerability two weeks ago in winning the ACC Tournament for the eighth time in 11 years but the first time since ’06.
The Blue Devils kept things rolling this past weekend during the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, routing 15th-seeded Binghamton before doing all the little things right while holding off Texas.
“I’m still kind of running on (adrenaline) from a couple of weeks ago,” Singler said. “We’re at a good place as a team, and we’re having a lot of fun. We’re just building momentum towards each week.”
Yet, for all the Blue Devils have already accomplished, they still seem to be flying under the radar as the second-best choice in the ACC to win the tournament ó stuck behind the baby-blue powerhouse eight miles away that entered the season as a popular pick to win the national title and wound up claiming a No. 1 seed for the third straight year.
At least they won’t have to hear about it from North Carolina’s fans this weekend. Unlike last weekend, when both teams were sent an hour’s drive away in Greensboro, the Tar Heels are headed to Memphis while the Blue Devils brace for Beantown.
Not that much bothers these Blue Devils anymore. Not the razzing from the pro-Carolina crowd. Not the prospect of playing five games in a nine-day stretch. And not what will be a third weekend with at least one post-9 p.m. tip-off time.
“It’s tough to break up this team,” Singler said. “We’ve gone through tough times. We’ve gone through good times. We know what both sides are like, and we feel like it’s much better to be on the better side, so we try as hard as we can to stay on that side.”