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Posted: Wednesday March 31, 2010 9:29AM; Updated: Thursday April 1, 2010 4:10PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Not so fast, Duke haters: These overachievers are actually likeable

Story Highlights

The reasons that people dislike Duke just don't apply to this season's team

These Blue Devils were barely on the radar due to the mediocrity of the ACC

Duke, playing in its 11th Final Four under Coach K, faces WVU on Saturday

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Jon Scheyer
Understated Blue Devils star Jon Scheyer has nothing in common with hated Duke players of the past.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So you say you hate Duke. You always root against them. You consider it a crime against humanity, not to mention a conspiratorial act by CBS, that Mike Krzyzewski's team reached this year's Final Four. You can't wait to root against the Blue Devils when they face West Virginia on Saturday, though you fully expect the refs to do whatever possible to ensure they advance.

Dude, you're such an outdated cliché.

I won't try convincing you to root for Duke this weekend, not when every other team in the field has its own compelling storyline. Not when Butler is playing in its own backyard, not when Michigan State is playing without its star point guard, not when West Virginia has managed to turn Bob Huggins into a sympathetic figure. Choose your favorite accordingly.

But all this blind Duke hatred -- it's so 2006. Do you even know why you're still rooting against the Blue Devils? Or have you been doing it for so long that it's become as ingrained a habit as mocking Pauly Shore movies?

Because I've got to tell you -- most of the reasons people give for hating Duke basketball don't really apply to this year's team.

Mind you, I've been as big a Duke critic as anyone in recent years. I bristled at their penchant for late-season collapses. As recently as late January, I panned the Blue Devils' Final Four chances this year, which looks pretty foolish now (though I doubt anyone who watched that same Georgetown game came away feeling any differently).

But hey, they proved me wrong, and in doing so debunked many of the very criticisms that surrounded them these past few years.

Duke's not athletic enough. Tell that to Baylor, a team full of physically gifted specimens whom the Blue Devils flat-out outplayed last Sunday. Their big men are stiffs. Then how did they outrebound the Bears 22-16 on the offensive glass? The Blue Devils lack depth. Some of the biggest plays in that game came from non-starters Miles and Mason Plumlee.

Some people, however, choose not to notice. They're too hung up on the past.

While Krzyzewski's program has been going to Final Fours since the mid-80s, the Blue Devils didn't truly achieve New York Yankees/Notre Dame football-level backlash until around 2001. That was the year Duke beat Arizona to win its third (and most recent) national championship, and you couldn't go five minutes without hearing Dicky V -- soon rechristened Dookie V -- singing the praises of Shane Battier, Jason Williams and Carlos Boozer. It was a lot like we just saw with Tim Tebow in football, where people got fed up with the nonstop adulation.

But does anyone really feel this year's Duke team was overhyped? Was it even hyped? Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Ohio State's Evan Turner dominated the media landscape these past four months. I've been following Dicky V on Twitter all season and even he's had little to say about Duke. The Blue Devils had about the quietest 33-5 season imaginable, in large part because the downfall of rival North Carolina and mediocrity of the ACC left them playing few big national games.

As evidenced by their ensuing NBA draft fortunes, those early-'aughts Duke teams were unquestionably loaded. So, too, to a slightly lesser degree, were the J.J. Redick-Shelden Williams teams that followed. That contributed to anti-Duke sentiment as well -- resentment over the fact that Krzyzewski seemed to horde the nation's top talent, and ensuing criticism when that talent failed to make it past the Sweet 16 most years.

Newsflash, people: There's no Battier or Boozer on the 2010 Blue Devils. If anything, Krzyzewski's recruiting has slipped in recent years. There's not one surefire first-rounder on this year's team, though guard Nolan Smith certainly deserves consideration. Kyle Singler, once regarded as such, has regressed. He scored five points against Baylor. Krzyzewski has had far more talented teams that never sniffed the Final Four. This is a rare case where his team overachieved.

Many of you will presumably dismiss that claim by pointing to Duke's "easy" road to Indianapolis. The Blue Devils were, after all, a No. 1 seed, and I was among the many on Selection Sunday who felt they drew a more favorable region than No. 1 overall seed Kansas.

But that argument no longer holds water after what's transpired in this tournament. When I said the Jayhawks got a tougher draw than the Blue Devils, I wasn't referring to quality of their opposing No. 9 seeds. It's not Duke's fault that Kansas couldn't handle Northern Iowa, or that Syracuse ran into Butler. Duke's past three games were actually harder when measured by total seed number (No. 8 Cal + No. 4 Purdue + No. 3 Baylor = 15) than fellow Final Four participants Michigan State (No. 4 Maryland, + No. 9 Northern Iowa + No. 6 Tennessee = 19) and West Virginia (No. 10 Missouri + No. 11 Washington + No. 1 Kentucky = 22).

Then there's the most tired argument of them all -- that Duke "gets all the calls." Please. Cry me a river.

You may not be aware of this, but every team that's ever won or lost a close game in the history of college basketball did so because the officiating was either for or against them. I spent the past two weeks courtside at two NCAA tournament venues where the teams' family and friends were seated directly behind the media. I got to hear everyone from Ashley Judd (Kentucky) to Nate Robinson (Washington) to Marcheita Anderson (wife of Missouri coach Mike Anderson) try to bust their vocal chords screaming at the refs.

It was no surprise, therefore, that when Brian Zoubek drew a questionable charge call on Baylor's Quincy Acy during crunch time Sunday that folks all over Twitter went ballistic. Never mind that there were still more than four minutes remaining at the time, and that Baylor briefly reclaimed the lead after that call. If you're predisposed to hating Duke, you can convince yourself that one whistle did more to decide the outcome than the actual players themselves.

Which brings us to one last, and entirely ridiculous generalization that some folks just can't bring themselves to give up: That Duke's players are "punks." How do we know this? Because Christian Laettner once stomped a guy, Steve Wojciechowski pounded the floor and Redick talked smack. Naturally, Jon Scheyer must be like them, as well.

In truth, Scheyer is one of the shyest Duke stars in recent memory. The next time he brags or trash-talks will be the first. The only two things he has in common with any of the names in the previous paragraph is that he plays for Duke ... and he's white.

One of the great sociological mysteries in sports today is why so many white basketball fans resent the fact that Duke has so many white players. Someone with a more advanced academic degree than mine might have to explain that one.

In the meantime, I've got some bad news people: Two of Butler's top three scorers -- Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard -- are also Caucasian. Let the venom spewing begin.

Many of you won't want to hear this, but there are actually lots of reasons to root for this Duke team. First and foremost, there's Smith, who dedicated his Elite Eight game to his late father, Derek, and will be returning to the same city where his dad led Louisville to a national title 30 years ago.

There's Zoubek, who, after 3 1/2 injury-plagued, underachieving seasons, remarkably transformed himself into a productive starter shortly after that Georgetown debacle. He, Scheyer and forward Lance Thomas comprise a senior class that has done the one thing any fan ever hopes for: They've gotten better each year, going from the first round (2007) to the second ('08) to the Sweet 16 ('09) to the Final Four.

And then there's Krzyzewski himself. I know -- this one's a hard sell.

The Dean of Durham is not often a sympathetic figure, but it's hard not to admire the job he's done with this team. Over the past couple of years, many (myself included) have questioned his dedication to the program what with his increased commitment to USA Basketball and Duke's perceived drop-off recruiting-wise. His adversary, Roy Williams, had won two national titles since the last time Coach K reached the Final Four.

But now Krzyzewski is headed to Indy at the same time Williams is guiding his team in New York City -- for the NIT. He's made his own little mini-comeback. And next year, with the arrival of big-scoring transfer Seth Curry (Steph's little brother) and top-10 recruit Kyrie Irving, he'll have his first legitimately "loaded" team in five years.

Feel free to recommence your hating then.

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