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No More Mr. Nice Guys
Tim Crothers
February 22, 1999
No. 1 Duke is once again playing with the kind of swagger exhibited by coach Mike Krzyzewski's title teams
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February 22, 1999

No More Mr. Nice Guys

No. 1 Duke is once again playing with the kind of swagger exhibited by coach Mike Krzyzewski's title teams

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Bedeviling the Opposition

The stats show how powerful Duke is. Through Sunday the Blue Devils comfortably led the nation in scoring and margin of victory, and they weren't doing it against cupcakes. According to the RPI rankings of Collegiate Basketball News, Duke has also played the fourth-toughest schedule in the nation-with games against Cincinnati, Michigan State, Kentucky, Florida and St. John's, in addition to the usual ACC grind.





1. Duke 94.0

Duke 25.4

Stanford .6127

2. TCU 90.6

Auburn 23.4

Indiana .6043

3. Siena 87.9

Maryland 20.0

Iowa .6040

4. Cal Poly 864

UConn 18.8

Duke .6034

5. Norfolk State 86.1

Utah 17.2

Florida State .6020

Saying nothing, he said everything. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski stepped into a timeout huddle with 38 seconds left in the first half of a Feb. 6 game at Georgia Tech, then abruptly retreated and sat down without saying a word. None of his players had experienced this before. Coach K had implored his players for two days not to let down against the inferior Yellow Jackets, and still the Blue Devils looked like a bunch of zombies, trailing Tech 40-33. Krzyzewski decided to coach by not coaching. This was no longer Duke playing Tech but Duke playing Duke, and the bad Duke was winning.

In the locker room at half-time Krzyzewski checked his watch, an odd gesture in basketball, where the only clock that matters is on the scoreboard, but he was hoping to inject a hint of reality. The coach scribbled "2:15-3:00" on the blackboard and then wrote "45 minutes" and circled it. "Time will run out," he said. "In 45 minutes you're dead. You're going to heaven or hell. Where do you want to be?"

Suddenly there was a pulse in the room. Duke came back to win a laborious game 87-79, but Krzyzewski employed one final touch. Breaking from protocol on the bus ride from the airport to campus, he walked back to where his players sat and spoke throughout the 30-minute trip about the late Emily Krzyzewski. "My mother only went to school to the eighth grade," he said. "She had two dresses her whole life. She had no money. Why the hell was she so happy? Because she was part of a family, a part of something bigger than herself. A shared experience is the most rewarding. Don't you get it? You guys are all part of something bigger than yourselves."

Recalling the speech five days later, Duke associate head coach Quin Snyder said, "It definitely felt like one of those moments when championship teams are forged."

That was one day. But it provided a window on the hundreds of days that have brought Duke to a 25-1 record through Sunday, a No. 1 ranking and the favorite's role in the race for the national championship. If the Blue Devils are to win that title, Krzyzewski insists they will need more than Trajan Langdon's jumpers and Elton Brand's rebounding and Shane Barrier's defense. They'll need attitude. Guts. The toughness Krzyzewski fostered in the 1991 and '92 NCAA title teams that featured Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner. "There's a perception of Duke that you have some highly publicized Caucasian athletes who are soft," Hill says. "When I was there, it was quite the contrary. We had a nasty streak. There was a feeling of complete confidence, complete arrogance and total disrespect for whoever we played."

Indeed, Laettner left the indelible stamp of that attitude on Aminu Timberlake's chest when he stomped the Kentucky forward in the 1992 NCAA East Regional final. It has been Krzyzewski's task to try to restore a measure of that swagger and give the Blue Devils the kind of edge they used to enjoy before they even took the court. To fully understand the difficulty of this undertaking, look back four years to a time when the mighty Blue Devils lost everything, including Krzyzewski.

Given a program that competed in 11 straight NCAA tournaments and seven Final Fours from 1984 to '94, it's easy to forget how thoroughly Duke imploded in '95. The Blue Devils had been NCAA tournament runners-up to Arkansas in '94, but when Krzyzewski left the team the following midseason to recover from back surgery, they endured the most dramatic collapse in ACC history. That 13-18 season was so embarrassing that Duke successfully appealed to the NCAA to have the Blue Devils' 4-15 record after Krzyzewski's departure credited to interim coach Pete Gaudet. "When I came to Duke, I expected to be in four Final Fours, so that season was very humbling," says Langdon, the only Blue Devil remaining from that team. "It was as if Duke ceased being Duke overnight."

"Sir Lancelot doesn't live in Camelot forever," Krzyzewski said at the time. "Eras pass. New Hurleys, Hills and Laettners have to be created."

Duke lost in the first round of the NCAAs in 1996 and advanced to the second round in '97 "Coach raised the bar for us a little each season," says Steve Wojciechowski, who played at Duke from 1994-95 to 1997-98, "but you're also motivated by the Hills and Laettners who come back to play pickup every fall and carry themselves like national champions. They don't say, 'Sit down, son, I'll give you the formula.' It's more like 'Where's your banner?' "

Last season Duke reached the South Regional final before coughing up a 17-point second-half lead and losing to Kentucky. Wojciechowski left the court that day as the first player to spend four years at Duke without reaching a Final Four since Todd Anderson, Jay Bryan and Danny Meagher in 1985. Krzyzewski wasn't devastated after the Kentucky loss because he knew those Blue Devils hadn't possessed what he calls the "expectancy" to win a championship. But as the 1998-99 season began, Duke was No. 1 in many rankings, and Coach K spoke openly about a national tide from the first day of practice. He approved a poster with, the headline CHAMPIONSHIP VISION and a photo of the Blue Devils gazing skyward. And he built a schedule as brutal as any he had assembled for his title teams, including nonconference road and neutral-site games against Michigan State, Kentucky and St. John's. After the season's sixth game he feared he had made a grave mistake. On Nov. 28 Duke was pushed around in a 77-75 loss to Cincinnati in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout. The defeat was particularly galling for Langdon, an Alaskan whose role was to be that of the homecoming hero. "With all our accolades, we felt that just because we're Duke we should win," Langdon says. "We were all disgusted and embarrassed. Coach told us, 'This isn't a joyride. If you keep playing like this, you're going to be awful.' "

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