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Competing For A Championship

Duke defines success with titles and all titles are valued.

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Obama Welcomes NCAA Champion Duke Blue Devils To White House
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 08: A basketball autographed by the NCAA champion Duke University men's basketball team is displayed before being given to U.S. President Barack Obama during an event in the East Room at the White House September 8, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Blue Devils won their fifth NCAA championship by defeating Wisconsin 68-63.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mike Krzyzewski has always said that his goal at Duke is to win championships.

Any championship – the championship of the CBE Classic (Duke beat Kansas State for the title in November 2010) to the Preseason NIT (Duke has won five times in eight tries) to the Maui Invitational (Coach K’s Devils are five-for-five in that one) to the ACC championship to the ultimate – the NCAA championship (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2016). [Note: By the way, check the end of this story for my ranking of Duke’s 10 most significant early-season tournament titles.]

I’m not sure exactly how Coach K ranks his many titles, although I’m sure that his NCAA championships (and probably his 11 regional titles) are at the top of his personal priority list. I suspect that next in line are his 13 ACC championships.

I bring this up because Duke will start its quest for an ACC regular season championship Saturday at Virginia Tech.

The emphasis is on the words “regular season”.

I know this debate stirs a lot of people up, but the FACT is that the official ACC championship is determined by the postseason tournament. The conference voted on July 1, 1961 to officially designate the tournament champion as the league’s one and only champion. Thirty years later, the ACC voted to recognize the regular season winner as the “Regular Season Champion.” But that’s still secondary to the tournament champion.

Not everybody agrees with that state of affairs.

Many fans argue that the regular season provides a better test of greatness and the 3-4-5 day (depending on seeding) single-elimination tournament. Certainly, back in the days when the ACC played a full home-and-home schedule, that argument made a lot of sense, although today’s unbalanced schedule has to some degree weakened that point of view.

No matter. There are some coaches who would rather win the regular season title than the real conference title. Back in 2005, Roy Williams had his team cut down the nets in the Smith center after edging Duke to claim the regular season crown. And in 2009, he had injured guard Ty Lawson injected with cortisone before the Duke finale (which clinched the regular season title for the Heels), then allowed his star guard to rest during the ACC Tournament (helping K win his 11th ACC championship).

No matter what he says now for public consumption, Williams has made it clear that he’d rather win the regular season title than the real title.

Coach K has not made his priorities that clear – either by word or action. Every time he’s been pressed, he says he wants to win BOTH titles. And I can’t recall a time when K coasted when he had a chance to win either the regular season or tournament titles.

Is it significant that he has had more ACC Tournament success than in the regular season?

Krzyzewski’s Duke teams have won 13 ACC Championships (tying Dean Smith for the most ever). His teams have won the regular season title 10 times outright and have tied for the regular season title twice.

It’s worth noting that Duke hasn’t won an ACC title of any kind since the 2011 team beat UNC in the finals to win the ACC championship. The last regular season title was in 2010, when the Devils tied Maryland for first in the standings. The last outright regular season title was in 2006 – 11 years ago.

Duke has not done poorly in that last decade. In fact, the Devils have the best overall ACC record of any team in that span, but since 2006, Duke has finished second five times, tied for second on one other occasion and tied for third once. The 2007 team finished tied for sixth, while the 2016 team finished tied for fifth.

That’s the streak the 2017 Blue Devils will be trying to end starting tomorrow at Virginia Tech. It’s a quest for a championship – the ACC regular season title.

To my mind, it’s not as important as winning the real ACC title in March, but it’s a heck of a lot more significant than winning the Hall of Fame Tipoff title last month.


Winning the ACC – whether we’re talking about the regular season or tournament titles – is a lot tougher these days than it was when Krzyzewski entered the league.

The ACC was an eight-team conference in 1981, very deep and very talented, but still just eight teams. It’s almost twice as large today with 15 teams competing for the crown. I won’t say that all 15 ACC teams are of championship quality, but the league is still very deep and very talented.

The league has proved that in the last two seasons with the greatest two-year run any conference has ever had. The ACC has won 36 tournament games in the last two NCAA Tournaments – eight more than the old two-year record. The ACC has produced three Final Four teams, seven Elite 8 teams and 11 Sweet 16 teams in that span.

The indications are that the 2016-17 ACC will be just as strong. As conference play heats up this weekend, Ken Pomeroy rates Virginia, Duke and North Carolina as the three strongest teams in the nation. He has Louisville at No. 8. Clemson (22), Florida State (23) and Notre Dame (27) are in his top 30. Add Miami (32) and Virginia Tech (36) in his top 40. Wake Forest and Syracuse are top 50.

And N.C. State, which had to play early without center Omer Yurtseven and sophomore forward Maverick Rowan, is almost certainly underrated at No. 55. I’m not sure what to make about No. 59 Pitt, except to say that the Panthers remain a viable NCAA possibility.

That’s 13 teams – five more than Coach K had to deal with during his first decade at Duke. Only Georgia Tech and Boston College go into conference play without a realistic chance to be an NCAA team.

Oddly, Duke’s ACC schedule offers the Blue Devils a chance to get off to a fast start – if the Devils can survive Blacksburg. Home games with Georgia Tech and BC follow the ACC road opener.

Of course, after that, there’s nothing easy, except maybe a Feb. 18 visit from Wake Forest.

Still, it would be nice if Duke could head out for back-to-back road games at Florida State and Louisville with a 3-0 ACC record. For that to happen, the Devils have to knock off a very tough Virginia Tech team in a very tough place to play.

Ask the 2015 national champs about playing in Cassell Coliseum – Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and company had to go over time to edge an 11-22 )2-16 ACC) Hokie team.

This is a much better Virginia Tech team in Buzz Williams’ third season in Blacksburg.

The Hokies turned the corner last season when 6-6 Chris Clark returned to the lineup after an injury. Williams’ team started the ACC 4-1, but lost seven of the next eight in the league to spiral towards an expected landing place near the bottom of the standings.

But with Clarke back in the lineup, Virginia Tech won six straight conference games to earn a spot in the NIT.

Maybe I assign too much importance to Clarke’s return, but I do that because he’s my favorite non-Duke player in the league. He doesn’t put up big numbers (although he recently recorded a triple double), but the versatile sophomore is the ultimate glue guy who can score, defend, rebound or handle the ball.

Williams gets his scoring from undersized post standout Ricky LeDay and sophomore wing Ahmed Hill, who missed last year with any injury. Sophomore James Robinson is not the best point guard in the league (as Williams once predicted), but he’s a classic pass-first playmaker. Former Maryland star Seth Allen provides a huge scoring punch off the bench.

The Hokies are short of size with sophomore big man Ronald Blackshear sidelined with a leg injury. That’s put a heavy burden on 6-10 freshman Khadim Sy.

Frankly, the Hokies are a lot easier to scout for this game than Duke. Williams’ team has done pretty much the same thing in all 12 games so far – 11 wins and a late loss to Texas A&M.

The Blue Devils, on the other hand, have had to adjust half a dozen times this season as injuries (and now a suspension) have altered the Duke roster.

We know (or at least think we know) that K will rely on seniors Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, plus soph Luke Kennard for a major share of the load Saturday. Freshman Jayson Tatum, who has averaged 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds since rejoining the team five games ago, is going to play a big role.

Freshman Frank Jackson, who averaged almost 17 points a game in four starts between Rhode Island and Michigan State, has seen his minutes decline as he’s battled an ankle injury and given up time to Tatum.

But that could change against Virginia Tech as Jackson is likely to gobble many of the 31.3 minutes a game that junior Grayson Allen has been averaging. Allen, of course, was indefinitely suspended for his third career tripping incident in Duke’s last pre-ACC appearance against Elon. There’s still no indication when he will return – but it won’t be tomorrow.

Will Coach K simply replace Allen with Jackson? If he does that, where is his backcourt depth? Maybe he starts 6-10 soph Chase Jeter and goes big? How would that fare against a small Virginia Tech team?

And how close are heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden from contributing? Both young big men finally got off the bench in the week before Christmas, but neither was effective. Will almost a week of post-Christmas practice help them find their roles on the team?

Lots of questions to answer as Duke opens ACC play. It will be interesting to watch Krzyzewski cope with the various problems while still pursuing a championship.

But this year might present a good argument as to why the regular season race doesn’t always produce the best champion. A team like Duke is very likely to be stronger in February than in January … and stronger in March than in February. Which is more impressive – a team that shows is muscle off early then fades or a team that struggles early, then dominates down the stretch?

Of course, there is no guarantee that Krzyzewski can put the pieces together as the season goes on. Maybe the injuries and Allen’s anger issues will sink this Duke team. Maybe, but I doubt it. You have to look at Coach K’s track record and bet on him to get it figured out.

` Duke already has one championship this season. I think it’s a good bet that there will be more to come – will the ACC regular season title be one of them?


1. 1985 Preseason NIT – The first Preseason NIT was loaded. The Final Four in Madison Square Garden featured three Final Four teams that season – Duke, Kansas and Louisville. The fourth finalist was St. John’s, which would win the No. 1 seed in the East. And that doesn’t tell the whole story – to even get to New York, Duke had to beat a very good Lamar team and No. 16 UAB in Houston. Then to win the title, the Devils beat No. 18 St. John’s in front of a raucous sellout crowd in the Garden, then topped No. 5 Kansas in the finals.

2. The 1995 Great Alaskan Shootout – Coming off that 13-18 disaster in 1995, Duke needed to re-confirm its status as a power. With Coach K back on the bench, the unranked Blue Devils beat Old Dominion in the opener then upset No. 23 Indiana (with K beating Bobby Knight) and No. 10 Iowa to win the title. The early season spurt had a lot to do with getting an 18-12 team (8-8 in the ACC) back in the NCAA Tournament.

3. The 1997 Maui Invitational – Duke was still fighting back to nation prominence when the Devils traveled to Maui early in the 1997-98 season. After an easy win over host Chaminade, Duke dominated a good Missouri team in the semifinals, then took on No. 1 Arizona – the defending national champ in the finals. Senior guard Steve Wojciechowski gave All-American Mike Bibby fits as Duke won and returned to No. 1 in the polls for the first time since midway through the 1994 season.

4. The 1953 Dixie Classic – Duke entered the holiday event just 5-3, coming off losses to UCLA and Kentucky in the Kentucky Invitational, but Hal Bradley’s unheralded team upset No. 12 Oregon State (with Mel Counts) in the first round of the Dixie Classic in Raleigh, then knocked off Dickie Hemric and Wake Forest in the semifinals. The Blue Devils then beat a strong Navy team for the finals for Duke’s only Dixie Classic title. The triumph would give the Devils the momentum to win the (unrecognized at the time) ACC regular season title.

5. The 2012 Battle for Atlantis – Duke beat Florida Gulf Coast – which would reach the NCAA Sweet 16 – in a first round game in Durham, then went to the Bahamas to beat Minnesota, VCU and Louisville (the eventual national champion) to win the title. The run propelled Duke to the No. 1 ranking in the RPI.

6. The 1979 Tipoff Classic – Just as Duke won the first Preseason NIT in 1985, Duke won the inaugural Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass. No. 3 Duke edged No. 2 Kentucky in overtime as big man Mike Gminski (21 points, 14 rebounds) dueled Kentucky freshman Sam Bowie (22 points, 17 rebounds). Duke would repeat the upset in Lexington in the NCAA Sweet 16 with a one-point victory on the ‘Cats home floor.

7. The 2011 Maui Invitational – Duke survived a one-point game with Belmont in Cameron as the tip-off to the tournament. On the islands, the Devils beat Tennessee and No. 15 Michigan to reach the finals against No. 14 Kansas. Unheralded Tyler Thornton hit two clutch 3-pointers late to help beat the Jayhawks.

8. The 1963 West Virginia Centennial – Coach Vic Bubas took a No. 4 ranking to Morgantown and faced off with No. 7 Ohio State in the opening round. Jeff Mullins outscored OSU All-American Gary Bradds 32-28 as the Blue Devils pulled out a one-point win. That earned them a matchup with homestanding West Virginia in the finals. Mullins had 28 to lead the Devils to the title.

9. The 2007 Maui Invitational – Duke was coming off a disappointing 22-11 season, but the addition of freshman Kyle Singler was a big plus for 2007-8. Singler earned MVP honors as Duke knocked off Princeton, Illinois and No. 11 Marquette to win the title.

10. The 2010 O’Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic – Duke beat Princeton and Miami of Ohio in Durham to open the event, then traveled to Kansas City to face Marquette and No. 4 Kansas State in the semis and finals. The championship game proved a national showcase for freshman Kyrie Irving, who totally outclassed KSU All-American Jacob Pullen.

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