Last Thursday night, as Duke was fighting for its NCAA life in Buffalo, a curious scene played out in the makeshift press room under the stands at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
A number of prominent national writers, on hand for the NCAA first-round games in Winston-Salem, looked on in amazement as the bulk of the North Carolina media watched the Duke-VCU game play out on the televisions scattered around the work area. It wasn't their interest that surprised the out-of-towners - that's to be expected. What shocked the writers from Boston and Chicago and New York was the blatant anti-Duke bias exhibited by writers who make their living covering the ACC.
One non-aligned writer reported that when Eric Maynor sank the jumper that killed the Devils, such a roar went up in the press room that it could have been heard in the main arena!
This is a good time for Duke haters. For the first time in a decade - and only the second time in almost a quarter-century - the Blue Devils suffered through a season when they weren't legitimate contenders for ACC or national honors. True, many teams would kill for Duke's 22-11 record and No. 6 NCAA seed, but by Mike Krzyzewski's standards, it was a disappointing season.
But does it mark the end of the Krzyzewski dynasty as many have suggested? Even Duke graduate John Feinstein made it sound that way in a column written after the ACC Tournament. Or was this season a rare blip in Duke's nearly unparalleled streak of sustained success?
A few optimists have suggested that this year's team has a lot in common with the 1996 Blue Devils, a modestly accomplished team (18-13 with a first-round NCAA exit), that Krzyzewski has touted as his "bridge team" - linking the great teams of 1984-94 with his second great run from 1997-2006.
But before we can call this year's team a bridge, we have to know what it's linking us to. Did Coach K's young squad lay the foundation for future championship teams or was it merely the first sign of the decline in his program?
It's far too early to answer that question. We can guess with reasonable certainty that Duke will be better next season, especially relative to the ACC as a whole, but that's not the same as projecting the 2007-08 Blue Devils as championship contenders.
Before we can examine the future, it might be use to take a look back at the immediate past. We need to understand how Duke got to the point where the team was not talented nor experienced enough to contend for championships this season. Let me suggest the following reasons:
(1) Early NBA entry. Before 1999, Duke was almost unique among the top programs, never losing a player to the NBA. Since 1999 - when sophomores Elton Brand and Will Avery, plus freshman Cory Maggette all bolted - no program has lost more talent than the Blue Devils.
In the last eight seasons, Duke has lost two years of Brand, two years of Avery, three years of Maggette, one year of Jason Williams, one year of Carlos Boozer, one year of Mike Dunleavy, three years of Luol Deng, four years of Shaun Livingston and one year of Shavlik Randolph. All except Avery are still in the NBA.
Without the defections, this Duke team would have had senior Luol Deng and junior point guard Sean Livingston as anchors. It might also have had fifth-year senior Lee Melchionni - had Dunleavy stayed for his senior season (as expected), there's a good chance that Melchionni would have been redshirted in 2002-03.
That said, none of that is an excuse for this season's problems.
You might argue that Krzyzewski got caught by surprise in 1999 when three underclassmen left early, but since 2000 he's understood the new dynamic and has planned for it. He recruited the Super Six (JJ Redick, Shelden Williams and company) to arrive in the season that would have been the senior year from Jason Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy. Coach K might have been a bit surprised when Deng left after one year, but he can't have been surprised that the gifted swing man left before his senior year.
No, NBA defections hurt, but don't explain the season's slump.
(2) Recruiting mistakes. No coach is perfect when it comes to handpicking talent - and neither are the national recruiting services.
But on the whole, Krzyzewski has managed a fair percentage of success with his signees. Let me suggest that a lot of basketball fans don't understand recruiting or the recruiting rankings. Too many people get excited about top 25 recruits and the 24-man McDonald's All-America team. Putting aside the politics that go into that team, I would argue that beyond the top 10, there's usually very little difference between players rated 11-25 and those rated 26-100 - especially when you factor in the difficulty in judging teenage talent.
It varies from year to year, but the real difference makers are usually the kids rated near the top of the recruiting lists. It varies from year to year, but normally, a top 10 recruit should be expected to be or at least develop into a great or near-great player. In the last decade, Coach K has signed the following consensus top 10 prospects:
- 1997 - Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Chris Burgess
- 1999 - Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer
- 2000 - Chris Duhon
- 2003 - J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams
- 2003 - Luol Deng
- 2004 - Shaun Livingston
- 2005 - Josh McRoberts
- 2006 - Gerald Henderson
[Note: Although Shavlik Randolph was earlier rated the No. 1 player in his class, the hip injury that would plague him at Duke dropped him out of the top 10 by the end of his senior season at Raleigh Broughton High; and contrary to memory, Corey Maggette was not a top 10 prospect]
Okay, I went through that list because it seems to me that after years of picking prospects wisely, Coach K has made some mistakes in the last few years. When I break down Coach K's top 10 signees, I would rate them:
Great: Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, plus Deng who was on path to greatness when he left. Livingston never played at Duke, but his play in the NBA - when not injured - is enough to suggest that he'd be in this category.
Near great: Carlos Boozer, Chris Duhon
Flop: Chris Burgess.
That's a pretty good percentage of success, at least until recently.
Where would Josh McRoberts rank in this pantheon? He's certainly no flop - he was a second-team All-ACC pick as a sophomore. But he's clearly not in a class with the greats or even (to my mind) the near greats.
That's not all his fault. Duke has had two "great" players in every season since Battier and Brand arrived in the fall of 1997. Thanks to the defection of Deng and Livingston, there are no great players to help McRoberts achieve his own greatness - and I think he could be a near great player if he was surrounded with a couple of great teammates.
The recruiting rankings would suggest that Gerald Henderson was supposed to be the other "great" player in this class. He was the consensus No.10 guy in one of the deepest high school classes ever. And in the spring all-star games, he excelled against the likes of Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Brandan Wright and Thaddeus Young. It's still far too early to categorize Henderson's career, but he clearly didn't have the first-year impact of a Jason Williams or a Luol Deng or even a Chris Duhon.
Without a great player, Duke was left with a lot of good young players. Young, GREAT players can lift a team into national contention (as Oden and Conley have done at Ohio State), but young, GOOD players normally need time to develop. A lot of coaches could win a lot of games with players such as Henderson, Lance Thomas, Jon Scheyer and company - when they are juniors and seniors.
(3) Injuries - Duke didn't have the kind of misfortune that plagued Virginia Tech a year ago or that devastated Miami this season, but the Devils did have their share of injury problems.
The most significant was the broken foot that sidelined Greg Paulus on the second day of practice. The timing of the injury hurt a young team that was trying to build itself around a sophomore point guard. Although Paulus returned for the opener, he was clearly physically hobbled for more than a month. And while he blossomed late as a shooter, he never seemed comfortable running the team.
How much of that was due to his limitations as a point guard and how much was due to the long hiatus he had to take early in the season when the foundations of the team were being laid?
It's interesting to compare Paulus' plight with what happened to Chris Collins in 1994. The current Duke assistant coach was supposed to anchor another young Blue Devil team as a junior in 1994-95. But Collins suffered a broken foot on the second day of practice and missed the entire preseason. Although he returned to action by the first week in December, Collins was never the same that season - he finished with a far worse season than his sophomore year. But a year later, a healthy Collins returned and was the rock foundation for Krzyzewski's bridge team in 1996.
So before you write off Paulus off as an inferior ACC point guard, keep Collins' fate in mind.
Another preseason ankle injury also slowed the progress of Henderson, who was also limited by exercise-induced asthma that limited both his playing and his practice time. Lance Thomas was also set back by a severe mid-season bout with the flu.
Finally, there is David McClure, who was the team's most pleasant surprise as he bounced back from a year's absence to play with an intelligence and athleticism that few had expected. At least he did until late in January, when he hyperextended his knee in the second half of a victory over Boston College.
Although McClure returned in time for the next game and played the rest of the season, it seemed as if he was missing a little bounce after the injury. In the five games before his injury, he was averaging 8.9 points and 6.0 rebounds and playing some great defense, especially as a help-side defender. He averaged 2.4 points and 4.8 rebounds after the injury and was far less prominent on the defensive end.
And perhaps it's just coincidence, but Duke was 18-3 at the moment McClure was hurt ... and 4-8 afterward.
(4) Inexperience. It sounds like an excuse - and to some extent it is -- but there's no denying that this is the youngest, least experienced team of the Coach K era. Even his 1983 team - when Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and company were freshmen - included three seniors who had started for much of their careers.
No other ACC team had so few upperclassmen - Wake Forest was close, but the Deacons started two seniors; UNC started three freshmen and a sophomore, but still had three upperclassmen left from the 2005 title team, plus four sophomores who started or played key roles last season.
Put all of that together - the NBA defections; the recruiting disappointments, the injuries and the inexperience -- and Duke's 22-win season looks a little better. A lot went wrong and Krzyzewski's young team salvaged a season that would be considered a success almost anywhere other than Duke.
The reasons to expect at least some improvement next season are obvious. If I may address this year's problems in reverse order:
(4) Without a recruited senior on the roster, every player on this year's team is eligible to return next season. Certainly most of them will, providing an experienced nucleus for next season.
(3) Future injuries are unknowable, but the odds are that Duke will suffer less in 2006-07 than the Devils did this season. How likely is it that the team will lose its key player in preseason practice?
(2) Recruiting: Duke will add at least three and maybe four players next season. One recruit - 6-9 forward Kyle Singler of Oswego, Ore. - is the consensus No. 5 prospect in the class and is projected to be a great player.
Taylor King, a 6-8 forward from Los Angeles, and Nolan Smith, a 6-2 guard from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, are top 25 prospects. King is regarded as the best long-range shooter in the class, while Smith will bring superior quickness to the perimeter rotation.
Duke is still pursuing 6-9 Patrick Patterson of Huntington, W.Va., an athletically gifted power forward who is rated just outside the top 10 (five of the top six services rate him between No. 11 and No. 14).
(1) NBA defections. Ah, here's the rub.
I don't claim to have inside knowledge, but I do know people close to the program who are convinced that Josh McRoberts will enter the NBA draft this spring. Obviously, that's subject to change - like it changed last spring when at one point, he decided to test the NBA market, then changed his mind. But the odds seem weighted towards McRoberts' departure.
Where will that do to Duke's prospects for 2007-08?
That depends on a factor I should list as (1B) - transfers.
Over the last decade, Duke has suffered a number of player defections, usually brought on with dissatisfaction over playing time. I didn't list this category above because I don't think that Krzyzewski has lost a player who would have made a significant difference since Billy McCaffrey left after the 1991 national title (and his departure obviously didn't hurt in 1992 as Duke repeated as champs, but it did hurt in 1993). His losses - from Chris Burgess to Andre Sweet to Michael Thompson to Eric Boateng and Jamal Boykin - are all players that were unlikely to contribute at Duke.
I don't think that is going to change. There were rumors floating around a couple of weeks ago that somebody close to Lance Thomas had contacted Rutgers and maybe Louisville to see about a potential transfer. But Thomas appeared to shoot that story down in an interview with New Jersey writer Steve Politi, when he confirmed his commitment to stay and work things out at Duke. Brian Zoubek, whose playing time dwindled as the season wore on, also sounds like he's committed to staying and developing his talent.
We'll see, but I'd suggest that in the coming weeks, watch the following issues that will determine whether Duke will be a little bit better or a lot better next season:
(1) Will McRoberts turn pro?
(2) Will Patterson sign with Duke (over Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wake Forest)?
I would suggest that the too situations probably are related. Eight years ago, Carlos Boozer waited until Elton Brand decided to turn pro before he signed with the Devils. While McRoberts and Patterson are quite different players, they would be fighting for the same minutes on Duke's frontline next season.
(3) Will any other players leave the program?
The fourth factor that will determine Duke's status next season will not be evident this spring. But good players can make a very good team, but great teams require great players.
To be a great team next year, Duke needs a strong post performer - either McRoberts or Patterson. Duke needs its 2007 freshmen to make the normal jump that most players make going into their sophomore years. Maybe most of all, Duke needs for Kyle Singler to be a great player ... not just a good player. He'll be young, but as you watch the remainder of the NCAA Tournament, see how many surviving teams are depending on great young players.
The odds are very good that Duke will be better next season, maybe much better than this year. But if the Blue Devils are going to be good enough to shut up the Duke haters, a lot of things have to go right this spring.
Having written that McRoberts is expected to go pro, I ought to extend my survey to Duke's ACC neighbors. There will be a number of players to watch this off-season in regards to the NBA draft:
-- Brandan Wright, UNC: A top five talent who will be under a lot of pressure to turn pro. Reportedly, he's a good student who enjoys school, but can he turn down a chance to be the third player taken in the draft?
-- Tyler Hansbrough, UNC: A great college big man who doesn't excite the NBA scouts. Can he overpower NBA big men the way he abuses his college foes? The scouts' doubts may be UNC's good fortune - as a projected late first-round pick there's not a lot of pressure on Hansbrough to go early. Unless he has an incredible NCAA run that really vaults his stock (as happened to Sean May in 2005), he should be back at UNC next season.
-- Thaddeus Young, Georgia Tech: He didn't have a great freshman year, failing to make the ACC's all-freshman team. But Young was one of the most certain players in his class to jump to the NBA before that league blocked high school players for a year. The pros still love his potential and his eyes are still on the NBA.
-- Sean Singletary, Virginia: He told reporters last month that he'd return to Virginia for his senior season, but the pro scouts I've talked to aren't sure they believe him. He's going to be an NBA point guard ... the only question is when. His ultimate decision may tell us whether UVa coach Dave Leitao is really as abusive towards his players as he appears to be on the sidelines.
-- Toney Douglas, FSU: He's already applied for the draft once, then pulled his name out when told he needed to polish his point guard skills. Did he accomplish that this season? He only needs a hint of encouragement to jump all the way this time.
-- Javaris Crittenton, Georgia Tech: An erratic freshman season, but at his best, he was an NBA caliber playmaker. Probably needs another year of seasoning in Atlanta, but when it comes to projecting early entries, reason doesn't always enter into it.
-- Ty Lawson, North Carolina: Nobody in Chapel Hill wants to hear this, but there are rumblings that the Tar Heel freshman decided last month to go pro and stopped going to class (which is the reason he briefly lost his starting job). I was told that he's going to class again and there's nothing to see here ... move along.
The outcome of those decisions - and maybe one or two that we don't see coming - will have a profound effect on the ACC next season. For instance, if UNC returns all of its eligible players, the Tar Heels could very well be the nation's preseason No. 1 pick. If I had to guess, I'd predict that they'll lose Wright, but keep Hansbrough and Lawson - that could still be enough to make them No. 1 unless Greg Oden decides to return at Ohio State.
Georgia Tech is also in position to move way up the rankings, provided Young and Crittenton return. Paul Hewitt will add a frontcourt stud in Gani Lawal to a team that otherwise loses only Mario West.
But there will be time to project the 2008 ACC standings when all the defections and additions are in. Certainly, it's safe to say that with graduation claiming three starters at both Maryland and Virginia Tech, plus key players such as Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall at Boston College, J.R. Reynolds at Virginia and Al Thornton at Florida State, Duke could make a big move up the standings based on its rivals' attrition alone.
A few leftover NCAA Tournament observations:
-- Mike Krzyzewski remains the active coach with the best NCAA winning percentage - despite his first-round loss to VCU. That dropped Coach K's NCAA record to 68-20 (77.3 percent).
But the No. 2 coach on the list - Louisville's Rick Pitino - lost in the second round and remained at 32-11 (74.4). Third-place Michigan State's Tom Izzo also lost in the second round and is at 24-9 (72.7).
Several of the coaches still in the field are positioned to make a big run up the charts - but none can quite catch Krzyzewski. If Florida's Billy Donovan adds a second straight NCAA title, he would be a 22-7 (75.9 percent) - good for second place. UCLA's Ben Howland (11-5 at the moment) can get to 75.0 percent with a title and Ohio State's Thad Matta can get to 72.2 percent. UNC's Roy Williams is climbing the victory list - it went unnoticed Saturday, but UNC's second-round victory over Michigan State was his 44th NCAA win - he's moved past Denny Crum into sixth place on the list - one win behind Bob Knight and two behind Lute Olson. In fact, if UNC wins the title, Williams would pass UCLA's John Wooden (47 wins) for third place on the win list.
He would trail only Krzyzewski (68) and his old mentor, Dean Smith (65). If UNC gives Williams a second NCAA title this season, he'll improve his record to 48-16 (75.0 percent) and leave him in second place (behind Coach K) on the active winning percentage list.
-- So far, this NCAA Tournament has been the most predictable since seedings began in 1979.
The NCAA defines an upset as beating a team five spots or better in the seedings. By that definition, this year's tournament has produced just three upsets: No. 11 VCU over No. 6 Duke; No. 11 Winthrop over No. 6 Notre Dame; and No. 7 UNLV over No. 2 Wisconsin.
It does beyond that. The Sweet 16 includes all four No. 1 seeds; three of the four No. 2 seeds and three of the four No. 3 seeds. That's 10 of the top 12 teams left in the regional semifinals - and the other six belong to a No. 4, three No. 5s, a No. 6 and a No. 7.
Where is Cinderella this year?
-- The 2007 McDonald's All-America game will be held Wednesday, Mar. 28, at Louisville's Freedom Hall.
Five future ACC players will participate, including the Duke-bound trio of Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Taylor King.
Also on hand will be Georgia Tech signee Gani Lawal and N.C. State recruit J.J. Hickson.
In addition, Patrick Patterson, who remains a target for Duke, Virginia and Wake Forest, will participate, along with guard Jai Lucas, the son of former Maryland star John Lucas, who is still being pursued by Maryland.
Patterson and Lucas are the only two uncommitted players in the game.
Also of interest, guard Chris Wright, who committed to N.C. State last year but changed his mind after Herb Sendek left Raleigh, made the game. He'll play for Georgetown next season. But Sendek will have a player in the game - Los Angeles guard James Harden is bound for his program at Arizona State.
-- Watching Kevin Kruger help lead UNLV into the Sweet 16 brought back an eerie memory from 1994.
I was covering the Final Four in Charlotte and on the day before the Duke-Florida semifinals, I was directed to the young son of Florida coach Lon Kruger. What made the story interesting is that Kruger's son Kevin was most emphatic that Duke was his favorite team.
A decade later, Kevin Kruger signed at Arizona State and played there three years. He transferred back to UNLV to play for his father. He was awful in UNLV's first round win over Georgia Tech, but played a big role in the upset of Wisconsin with 16 points, seven assists and no turnovers.
He's the really interesting thing. If you remember, the spring of 1994 was when Mike Krzyzewski had his second long flirtation with the NBA (the first coming in 1990 with the Boston Celtics; the third with the Lakers in 2005). I was told that while Coach K pondered offers from the Miami Heat and the Portland Trail Blazers, Duke athletic director Tom Butters was making contingency plans in case Krzyzewski left ... and that his top target was the young Florida coach.
I'm not sure that any real contact was made, but Kruger clearly would have been receptive - he soon left Florida for Illinois (and then Illinois for the NBA). I just had the stray thought that if things had worked out differently, Kevin Kruger might have played for his father at Duke ... although after watching Saul Smith play for his father at Kentucky, I'm not sure that would have been a good thing.
-- One last thought - after No. 2 seed Wisconsin flamed out in the second round, who will be the next team to give ESPN "all-access"?