Thursday, March 25, 1999

Duke back on top

13-18 season seems distant

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST.PETERSBURG, Fla. — They still were the Duke Blue Devils. Their classic uniforms had not been altered. Their fans were still devout, clever and occasionally smarmy. Their coach was tinkering with a Hall of Fame resume. There were enough McDonald's All-Americans to staff a city council for Mayor McCheese.

        There was something missing, though, as Duke whiled away the middle part of this decade and ceded control of the college basketball universe to the Kentucky Wildcats.

        Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski calls it passion. Duke forward Shane Battier calls it the “fear factor.” Duke remained an elite program, a team you noticed if it showed up on television or happened to lose an early-round NCAA Tournament game, but the Blue Devils were not the same as those who reached seven Final Fours in nine seasons and won the 1991 and 1992 championships.

        They were not the same as those who've dominated the 1998-99 season, winning 36 of 37 games and the East Regional title that placed the Devils opposite Michigan State in Saturday's 8p.m. national semifinal at Tropicana Field.

        “Getting back to the Final Four, for me, is incredibly fulfilling,” Krzyzewski said. “It's not promised to anybody. For a while, it seemed like it was. It seemed like you just get in. Then a whole bunch of things were taken away.”

        Duke went 87-44 between 1994 and 1998, reaching the NCAAs three times but only once advancing past the first two rounds — last year, when the Blue Devils blew a 17- point second-half lead in the South Regional finals against Kentucky.

        It is not as though Duke has been revived like one of those electro-charged patients on ER.

        The Blue Devils experienced one losing season, 13-18, that partially resulted from physical ailments that removed Krzyzewski from the bench for the better part of 1994-95. The team that lost all those games included future pro Cherokee Parks at center and four other McDonald's All-Americans on the roster.

        This wasn't Duquesne. This was Duke.

        The true renaissance in this circumstance has been with Krzyzewski and his coaching staff. He admits to questioning, during the losing season, whether Duke would return to the Final Four in his tenure. They weren't far enough removed then to wonder if it were possible for the Blue Devils, but it could have been impossible for him.

        He had back surgery to repair a herniated disk in 1994, and his rush to return to work led to a case of extreme exhaustion. At the urging of his superiors, he took a sabbatical while the team disintegrated. He began to ponder his future in coaching.

        He wondered where the Duke program was headed. He wondered how much longer he cared to last. He thought about coaching in the NBA.

        But now — after a period during which he lost good friend Jim Valvano to cancer, was forced by his own health problems to set aside his job, then lost his mother to cancer in 1997 — Krzyzewski clearly knows what direction he wants his life and career to follow.

        He is every bit as driven as during the Duke rise but enjoys both his job and free time more than ever.

        “I think I'm pretty much like I was in the early '90s. I love coaching, we have great teams and we've won a lot,” Krzyzewski said. “I enjoy the day-to-day stuff with my teams.

        “I think as we got to the mid-90s, everything kind of took its toll, and some of that probably had to do with my back.”

        The physical pain Krzyzewski endures now has not crippled the pleasure he has gained from this season and this team. He is scheduled for hip-replacement surgery when the season concludes. It is an operation he could and should have had months ago but requires an extensive rehabilitation period that would not have been compatible with the demands of coaching.

        “I've really enjoyed this year,” Krzyzewski said. “I've enjoyed every moment of this year. Whatever we do this year, accomplishment-wise, this team will be a measuring stick for me as far as how good of kids we have.

        “This has been the most emotional team I've ever coached. That's why we've played so well so many times, because we've had passion and emotion. It takes a big commitment.”

        This is true, perhaps more so, in the recruiting game. Duke's brand name and Krzyzewski's legend status are a huge advantage in the process, but not over the sorts of schools the Devils outlasted to land such players as big men Chris Burgess, Elton Brand and Battier. Kentucky or North Carolina (or both) wanted those guys. The difference in who got them had much to do with assistant coach Quin Snyder.

        Mike Brey and Tommy Amaker, who assisted Krzyzewski in the early 1990s, were extremely capable coaches who've experienced considerable success (Brey at Delaware) or suggested considerable promise (Amaker at Seton Hall) since leaving Duke to accept head coaching jobs.

        Neither, though, produced the recruiting results Snyder, only a decade removed from playing in the Final Four as a Duke point guard, has in his time as associate head coach.

        Whereas in the mid-1990s Duke brought in players such as Jeff Capel, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski — players whose future in basketball was limited by their physical ability — the past three years have yielded seven players ranked among the top dozen prospects in their classes including guard William Avery, forward Corey Maggette and next year's prize, point guard Jason Williams of Metuchen, N.J.

        It is the sort of recruiting roll North Carolina enjoyed in the early 1980s, when Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith stopped by Chapel Hill for a little basketball with coach Dean Smith.

        “We wanted to bring Duke back to national prominence,” said Battier, who turned down Michigan State, North Carolina and Michigan to play for the Devils. “When you play for Duke, you're not just another basketball player. You're part of the Duke family.”

        It is a wealthy family, indeed.