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An Inside Look:
Posted: Wednesday February 17, 1999 01:18 PM
In this week's cover story, senior writer Tim Crothers focuses on the Duke Blue Devils, the team with the inside track on the Road to the Final Four. Crothers has been following the Devils closely all season. In fact, he recently emigrated from New York to an apartment 10 miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium -- and two miles from the Dean Dome, but we won't get into that.
With 18 days to go before Selection Sunday, CNN/SI spoke with Crothers about the piece, and Duke's designs on its third national championship of the '90s.
CNN/SI: How does this Duke team compare to other teams Mike Krzyzewski has had in the past?
Tim Crothers: In the story we compare this squad to the national championship teams of '91 and '92, and describe Krzyzewski's quest to return his program to the attitude and toughness he feels will be required to win another national championship. And I think by Krzyzewski's own admission, they're not there yet; he feels that they're close, but he's not sure that it will ever be possible to restore the total feeling of domination that the '91 and '92 teams had. But right now he feels pretty comfortable with his team and where they are in comparison to every other team in the nation, realizing, of course, that a lot has changed in the college basketball landscape since 1992, with so few good players actually playing their junior and senior years. The overall quality of team necessary to win the national title isn't what it was back then. Obviously Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill all played through their senior years, and they might not do that if they were playing today.
CNN/SI: Does this team stack up talent-wise?
Crothers: It's a very good team talent-wise; experience, I think, is the question. Last year in the South Regional final they played against Kentucky, led by 17 in the second half -- just over 10 minutes to play -- and ended up losing the game, and it was admitted by several Blue Devils after the game that they just didn't have the experience, didn't have the same championship swagger that Kentucky had. That's what they're looking to have this year. I think everybody feels like Duke has as much if not more talent than anybody else in the nation -- Connecticut might be the one team that could compare to them talent-wise, and Connecticut does have some experienced players on their team.
I think Krzyzewski is very comfortable with the talent he's got -- he can go eight deep with a various mix of players -- and that leaves the one question in his mind, which is, How will this team react when it gets into a difficult game in the tournament? Because the fact of the matter is they've played maybe three close games all season and the rest of the games have been blowouts, so it's hard to say how his team will react.
CNN/SI: Do you think the missing attitude is a result of the mediocrity the program endured a few years ago, or more because these players don't have the same aggressive personalities that guys like Laettner and Hurley brought to the floor?
Crothers: I think the whole program, to an extent, was humbled by the 13-18 season in 1995, when Duke missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years. Basically the entire ego of the program was removed. One player, Trajan Langdon, still remains from that team; he had to take a redshirt season the next year. So he has direct experience with what it feels like to fall out of the tournament completely, but I think everybody else needs to learn exactly what it takes to win an NCAA championship. And a lot of them have actually spoken to Grant Hill or Laettner or Hurley during the various times when those guys returned to campus from the NBA to play pickup games at Cameron. We talk about in the story how they try to almost goad the current players into the attitude they feel it takes to win a championship.
CNN/SI: As you point out, the team's top two scorers, Elton Brand and Trajan Langdon, both have laid-back personalities. How big of a drawback is it when a No. 1 team's two best players are not vocal leader-types?
Crothers: I was at practice the other day, and the one thing that Coach K has harped on the entire year and is still harping on is that these guys don't talk on the court as much as his teams in the past -- especially last year with Steve Wojciechowski, there was a natural leader on the floor. He feels neither Elton nor Trajan has natural leadership qualities -- Elton perhaps because he hasn't been around long enough, and Trajan because it's just not his personality. And when it comes down to it, it would be nice to have somebody on the floor for everyone to rally around. I think Coach K anointed Chris Carrawell as the guy to be sort of the emotional touchstone for the rest of the team, and I think they have rallied around Carrawell on those rare occasions when they have been in close games this year. It doesn't necessarily mean that Elton and Trajan can't come up big in those situations -- Trajan was responsible for the comeback against Georgia Tech, when Duke was really in trouble in the second half and Trajan hit some huge threes down the stretch to pull them through. I think Coach K understands there has to be a balance out there. He needs someone who is a calming influence -- and he's looking to Carrawell for that -- and at the same time he's hoping the inside-outside threat of Brand and Langdon will be able to carry them offensively in the tournament.
CNN/SI: Is it possible he's playing too many guys and not leaving anyone out there enough to establish himself as a leader?
Crothers: Basically he's playing eight guys at this point, and I think he's comfortable with that rotation. I don't think he's really worried about the fact that there isn't a pattern, a set rotation at this point that leaves a pat five players on the floor. I think you will see, as you almost inevitably see in the tournament, that the rotation will shrink to some extent. I still think he'll play eight players, but I don't think you'll see guys like Chris Burgess get much time once the tournament starts. I think he's going to stick more with his starting five, and I think Corey Maggette and Nate James will see some time, but I think he'll limit it to his main five or six guys.
CNN/SI: Having been around the team during the past week, how much pressure are the players feeling to make the Final Four and/or win it all?
Crothers: There's a sense of destiny here -- as we say in the story, Wojciechowski was the first player since 1995 not to make the Final Four at Duke as a four-year player -- and there's a sense that it's time again for it to happen, and that this team really has no excuse not to go to the Final Four. Langdon, in particular, can feel the clock ticking because it is his last chance. And I think he has tried to convey to the others a sense of urgency that, while they may feel that this isn't their last chance, it is his last chance, and they should put themselves in his shoes and play as if they, too, were playing in their final season. And the fact is, while Duke has never had anyone go to the NBA early, it is possible that this could be Elton Brand's last year, so he, too, may be playing with a sense of urgency the rest of us are not privy to. So there's a general sense of urgency around the program now -- the expectations are such that if they do not go to the Final Four it would be a huge disappointment.
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