With 9:32 remaining in last season's South Regional final in St. Petersburg and Duke leading Kentucky 71-54, Blue Devils freshman forward Shane Battier peeked up at the scoreboard and turned his thoughts toward cutting down the nets and going to the Final Four. When the game ended in an 86-84 Duke loss, Battier studied the Tropicana Field scoreboard again and committed that moment of deep disappointment to memory. "We were like the Big Bad Wolf," he says, "huffing and puffing, but we just couldn't knock the door down and crash the party."
This year's Blue Devils lineup is a more seasoned bunch and has every intention of reaching the Final Four, which in a luscious coincidence will be held at Tropicana Field. "I think we're going to be really good, so I like the high expectations," says coach Mike Krzyzewski, who in his 18 seasons at Duke has reached seven Final Fours, more than any active coach. "I don't have a problem with telling my guys that we want to win a national championship."
The expectations in Durham are as huge as Duke's frontcourt, which includes four players who are 6'8" or taller. With that skyline at his disposal, Krzyzewski has shifted his team's offensive emphasis from the perimeter to the paint. Sophomore Elton Brand, who averaged 17.0 points and 7.6 rebounds in helping the U.S. win a gold medal at this summer's Goodwill Games, is a strong player of the year candidate, and Battier (53 blocks, 51 steals, 29 drawn charges) is one of the nation's top defenders. Those two and sophomore Chris Carrawell will get plenty of room to maneuver down low as long as Trajan Langdon consistently knocks down his jumpers. Though he shot nearly 40% from behind the arc in 1997-98, the senior guard has a history of late-season funks: In his three years in Durham he has hit 49.6% of his threes before Feb. 16 but only 35.3% after.
Duke's success, however, will hinge most on whether sophomore guard William Avery develops into a dependable playmaker. Avery, an eager shooter who launched more than 100 three-point attempts despite averaging less than 20 minutes, must improve his assist to turnover ratio (87 to 60).
It's no secret that poor half-court execution in the final 10 minutes against Kentucky cost Duke a ticket to last year's Final Four, and the reason may have been a lack of experience in big games. Five of the nine Blue Devils who played against the Wildcats were freshmen or sophomores. "We were wide-eyed and tentative, and Kentucky showed the moxie of a champion," Battier says. "It's like monkey see, monkey do. This year we've got a lot more swagger."
Battier recalls that as the team bus pulled out of the gate at Tropicana Field last March, he was beginning to sense that moxie stirring inside him. As he watched the dome shrinking in the distance, he had one thought: See ya next year.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]