Mike Krzyzewski calls it "seeing the beach," that time in every basketball season when the games have run together, and the practices have, too, and it stays light outside the gym a little longer each evening. It is risky, this business of seeing the beach. Allow your eyes to wander prematurely toward some placid horizon, and you don't win six NCAA tournament games in a row. You don't do what Duke did Monday night in Indianapolis—beat Kansas 72-65 to win a national championship, its first ever in nine trips to the Final Four.
The danger of seeing the beach is all the more acute at a school like Duke, where Krzyzewski conscripts valedictorians and amateur musicians into his cause. "Everything in their lives doesn't hinge on a basket or a rebound," he says. "So they can rationalize when there's a roadblock, when maybe they should stay on the same avenue a little bit longer. For instance, [freshmen] Grant Hill and Tony Lang don't want to get in the way. Sometimes it takes a little prodding, we have to tell Grant, 'When you dunk, you're not in the way.' And Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Brian Davis—we have to tell them, 'Go ahead! You can be good. We don't mind.'"
One rationalization had thrown itself up as a roadblock year after year. It wasn't on the road to the Final Four, for the Blue Devils had reached four of the previous five Final Fours. The problem cropped up once they got to Dallas or Kansas City or Seattle or Denver. They simply couldn't win twice.
Yet this season Krzyzewski could see the road clearing. He discovered that although this Duke team was young, a young team can be more teachable. And if it was a skinnier and smaller team than others he had coached, he found that a runtier one didn't drag as much when fatigue set in—it didn't get "cumbersome," which is how Krzyzewski described the team that reached last season's title game only to lose to UNLV by 30 points.
"When you want to 'see the beach,' you want to see something besides basketball," Krzyzewski said on the eve of the championship game. "I don't feel that way about this team. I want to keep coaching it. I don't want it to end."
Thus Krzyzewski's task—to ensure that the end didn't come too soon—became easier. For an instant after its 79-77 semifinal defeat of previously unbeaten UNLV on Saturday, Duke lost all composure. Hurley confessed that he "acted like a fool," leaping on the back of a teammate. Moments later the Devils received their coach's counsel. "An ordinary team would be satisfied beating UNLV," Krzyzewski told them in the locker room, "but an ordinary team won't win on Monday."
Suddenly Hurley had an explanation for his gymnastics: "I was tired. I'd played 40 minutes. I needed a piggyback ride."
So it was that an extraordinary team won on Monday. From a visibly tired Laettner the Blue Devils got 18 points, 12 on free throws. He was 21 of 23 from the line for the weekend (and 112 for 132 in his tournament career), which helped him win the most valuable player award. From Hill they got eight defensive rebounds and an astonishing one-handed, alley-oop dunk two minutes into the game that set the tone for the evening. From Hurley and Billy McCaffrey they got nine assists and six field goals, respectively. Meanwhile Kansas, so magnificent in beating two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 to reach the final—mock chalk, Jayhawk!—missed shot after close-in shot. With 8:30 to play and Duke leading by 12, Kansas coach Roy Williams, the former North Carolina assistant, sent five substitutes into the game. "Oh, no!" yelled Duke fans, still sassy about the Tar Heels' elimination by the Jayhawks two days before, feigning horror. "Not the Blue Team!"
The notoriously cocky Duke partisans had suspended such comments for Saturday's semifinal with UNLV. All winter long the fanciful topic in basketball press rooms and coaching salons remained the same. If any team were to beat Las Vegas—and there was considerable doubt that this was even possible—how might it happen? Well, Runnin' Rebel point guard Greg Anthony would have to get into foul trouble. Vegas's opponent would have to use the entire offensive end, to "swing" the ball to stretch the UNLV defense at its edges. A parade of fresh defenders would have to keep Rebel star Larry Johnson sealed in the post. And an opponent would have to hang in until it could take UNLV into the alien environs of the final minute of a close game. Only then would there be a chance.
In the case of Duke, several additional elements were required. Hurley, the point guard, had the flu against Vegas a year ago, and his quickest move came on a sprint to the John. He had to come up big. Hill, a forward, erratic of late, had to get off quickly. And Duke had to banish all recollection of the biggest rout in the history of the NCAA championship game.