By AL FEATHERSTON
There are years when Duke looks like a monster going into the NCAA Tournament.
You just knew the 1992 team was going to do well. The '99 Blue Devils were the pre-tournament favorites, especially after they routed UNC in the ACC title game. In 2001, 1986 and 1991, Duke looked like a good bet to go deep into the NCAA Tournament. And while the 2010 Blue Devils weren't exactly a juggernaut, they entered the playoffs playing very, very well.
Then there are years when the Blue Devils look extremely vulnerable.
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The 2007 team struggled all year and when they lost to N.C. State in the first round of the ACC Tournament, you knew they wouldn't last long in the NCAAs. The 1996 team did a great job returning to the tournament after the 1995 disaster, but was crippled by March and was easy picking in the NCAAs. Even in 1997 when a small, undermanned Duke team won the ACC regular season title, anyone who watched them all season knew they were running on fumes by the time postseason started.
I felt the same way about the 2008 Blue Devils. I can still remember leaving Charlotte in 2008 after Duke lost to Clemson in the ACC Tournament semifinals. The Blue Devils had enjoyed a very successful season - 27 wins, a 13-3 ACC record, a No. 9 national ranking. They had earned a No. 2 seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Kind of like this year, right?
Well, statistically, the similarity is striking. This Duke team lost in the ACC semifinals and finished with 27 wins, a 13-3 ACC record and a No. 8 national ranking. These Blue Devils also earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But there is a difference - a huge difference in my opinion.
The 2008 Devils were physically spent. Freshman Kyle Singler, who was so good that season, was exhausted. I recall interviewing him in the locker room after loss to Clemson and he looked like a man rescued after a month in a collapsed coal mine. It was widely believed at the time that senior DeMarcus Nelson - the team's best player - was suffering from the flu. I've since heard that the story wasn't true, but the fact that it was so widely believed indicates how run-down he looked that March.
It was no surprise when the '08 Devils struggled in the NCAA Tournament - barely surviving their opener with Belmont, then taking a painful beating at the hands of West Virginia in the second round.
I would be shocked if the '12 Blue Devils meet a similar fate.
I know the records are the same, but the situations are very difficult.
The Duke team I watched in Charlotte is -- despite the injury to Ryan Kelly - in much better physical shape than the '08 Blue Devils. The game Duke played against Florida State was a classic ACC Tournament game. The two teams competed with a ferocity that was mesmerizing from courtside. Duke lost, but the Devils lost to a physically imposing team that was playing very, very well (as the 'Noles proved by beating North Carolina one day later).
You have to understand how good Florida State can be. It's easy to underestimate them because there are times when their offensive inexplicably disappears. They lost some bad games early and one inexplicable game in February (at Boston College). But at their peak - and the 'Noles were definitely at their peak in Charlotte - they match up with anyone. They have imposing size, great athleticism, two senior guards and two more veteran guards with even more talent. Plus, they have considerable experience - every player who plays was a member of last year's Sweet 16 team (that came within an overtime loss of going to the Elite Eight).
It was impressive, not discouraging, that Duke battled them to the wire on a day when the Blue Devils did not shoot well. The conventional wisdom is that Duke has to make 3-pointers to beat a top team. But Duke made just five 3-pointers against the 'Noles and still came down to the final second with a chance to win or tie. The Blue Devils didn't blow that game - Florida State won it.
That's why Mike Krzyzewski was so upbeat on the podium after the game. You could see his pride in his team's performance â¦ and the confidence that gives him going forward.
I know there are some fans that think Duke has lost ground since its early season success against the likes of Michigan State, Kansas and Michigan. It's been a month since the Devils stole the win in Chapel Hill. The team's last good 3-point shooting night came in Tallahassee on Feb. 23. Duke lost two of its last three games.
But I agree with Krzyzewski - this team is playing its best basketball right now. The defense is getting better. This is still not a team that can impose its will on a team defensively - not the way Florida State can: watching the 'Noles in Atlanta, it was like watching one of K's great defensive teams - imagine the '88 Devils with a great shotblocker on the back line.
Still, Duke is playing better defense than it did earlier this season. The offensive still sputters at times, but freshman Austin Rivers had grown into his role. Seth Curry is more confident forcing the action. Mason Plumlee re-discovered his offensive game in the second half against North Carolina. Miles Plumlee is playing the best basketball of his career.
This is a better team than the one that beat Michigan State in Madison Square Garden and won over Tenenssee, Michigan and Kansas on successive nights in Maui. Those other teams probably improved too - it's possible that they have improved more than Duke - but Duke IS better.
Obviously, it would be nice to get Kelly back at full speed - he's a unique player, a 6-11 forward who can stretch the court. And it would be even nicer to get Andre Dawkins back from wherever he's been since the Florida State win in Tallahassee. The junior guard has long been an in-and-out player, but he's never been out this long before.
Duke will need Dawkins to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. And they'll need Kelly at or near the top of his game. This is not one of those monster Duke teams that you know will make a deep run. But it's not a wounded duck either.
Don't ask me how far this Duke team will go.
For now, let's concentrate on this weekend. The Blue Devils have two things going for it in the Gate City:
(1) Coach K's extraordinary success in the first two rounds (and, yes, these are the first two rounds, despite the NCAA's stupid new nomenclature).
He actually lost his first NCAA game against Washington in Pullman, Wash., in 1984. That was actually what we now call a second round game - it was in the round of 32. Duke got a bye through the round of 64.
That was the last year before the adoption of the modern 64-team field. From that point on, every Duke first game was what we know as a first round game (a round of 64).
Coach K is 25-2 in the first round (with one bye). That's 92.6 percent.
He is 20-6 in the second round (76.9 percent)
He's produced 20 Sweet 16 appearances, which is recognized as the most for any coach in NCAA history. But K only has that record on a technicality.
UNC's Dean Smith is credited with 17 Sweet 16 appearances between 1975 and his retirement in 1997, including a record 13 in a row between 1981 and 1993. However, Dean also put teams in the Sweet 16 in 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1972. He doesn't get credit for those because the size of the field was such that just by making the field, his UNC teams were seeded in the Sweet 16. They didn't have to win any games to get there - except they had to win the ACC Tournament, which was a bigger hurdle those days than winning a first and sound round game today.
So, officially, Coach K has the most Sweet 16 appearances of any coach, while in reality, Dean Smith had 21 Sweet 16 teams.
What is remarkable is Coach K's consistency in making the Sweet 16. He had eight Sweet 16s between his first in 1986 and 1994. But starting in 1998, Krzyzewski has been a Sweet 16 machine, grinding out 12 Sweet 16s in 14 years (missing only in 2007 and 2008).
No current coach in college basketball can match that run - Tom Izzo has nine sweet 16s in that 14 year span; Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams have eight each (although Roy's were compiled at two different schools).
It's true that Coach K has had some recent difficulty advancing beyond the Sweet 16, but when it comes to surviving the first weekend, nobody in the game does it better.
(2) Duke's track record in Greensboro.
The Blue Devils have had considerable success in the always changing War Memorial Coliseum, but never more so than in the NCAA Tournament. Duke has been assigned to Greensboro six times and has never lost there, compiling a perfect 12-0 record in first and second round play.
There were some close calls - most memorably a first-round struggle with Mississippi Valley State in 1986 and a brutal second-round battle with Texas in 2009.
Duke is actually pretty tough anywhere in North Carolina for NCAA play. Under Krzyzewski, Duke is 2-0 Chapel Hill, 2-0 in Winston-Salem, 2-0 in Raleigh and 8-2 in Charlotte.
That's 26-2 in the state of North Carolina, the two losses coming in the 1994 national championship game to Arkansas and the 1997 second round to Providence. Both were in the second (of three) Charlotte Coliseums.
It would be optimistic to predict that this team will win the national championship or even reach the Final Four.
But it would be a bigger surprise if the 2012 Blue Devils don't survive Greensboro. Nothing is a lock in NCAA play, but history - and the current performance of this team - should send Duke to Atlanta.
We'll worry about that weekend when we get there.
ACC TOURNAMENT LEFTOVERS
Florida State earned its first ACC Championship with two terrific performances (following a fairly pedestrian win over Miami in the opener).
The Seminoles ended the fourth longest active title drought that stretched back to their entry into the league. FSU went 20 seasons without a championship before winning the title in its 21st year.
That leaves the current ACC futility list looking like this:
1. Clemson 59 years (never won)
2. Virginia 36 years (last title 1976)
3. N.C. State 25 years (last title 1987)
4. Georgia Tech 19 years (last title 1993)
5. Wake Forest 16 years (last title 1996)
6. (tie) Maryland 8 years (last title 2004)
Miami 8 years (never won)
Virginia Tech 8 years (never won)
9. Boston College 7 years (never won)
10. UNC 4 years (last title 2008)
11. Duke 1 year (last title 2011)
12. Florida State current champion
You've got to feel for the Tiger fans - a charter member of the ACC and they've never won the title. In fact, Clemson's only championship in basketball came in the 1939 Southern Conference Tournament.
BEATING THE BEST
Looking at the NCAA field, it's see to see why Duke's 2012 schedule was so impressive. The Blue Devils beat:
-- Two No. 1 seeds (Michigan State and Kansas) - both on neutral courts.
-- A No. 2 seed (Kansas), also on a neutral court
-- A No. 3 seed (Florida State) on the road
-- A No. 4 seed (Michigan) on a neutral court
Duke beat 10 NCAA teams in all. Five of the team's six losses were to NCAA teams - two to No. 3 seeded FSU, one to No. 1 seed UNC, one to No. 2 seed Ohio State and one to No. 5 seed Temple. The one team to beat the Devils and not make the NCAA was Miami (a No. 2 seed in the NIT).