At Wake Forest four days later. Duke proved Blakeney's theory, shooting 31.9% from the field—the worst since Krzyzewski took over at Duke 15 years ago—and losing by 10 points. For the first time in memory, opponents sensed weakness in the Blue Devils. They weren't facing Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, and they knew it. "Took at the talent Duke had," said Wake Forest guard Randolph Childress. "They were one of the best teams in NCAA history. You can't just replace those guys."
But the bitter reality of Duke's decline didn't really sink in until the next game, on Jan. 14 against Virginia. The pumped-up Blue Devils jumped out to a 40-19 halftime lead, and the Cameron Crazies were jubilant. But the Cavaliers rallied in the second half, scoring on 19 of their final 22 possessions in regulation to force the game to overtime, before winning in double OT—the biggest comeback victory in an ACC game in the past five years. Duke's locker room was a morgue. "I am definitely in shock," Capel said. "In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined we would start the conference with four losses or, for that matter, lose four games in a row anytime this season. I don't want to say it's time for panic, but it seems like it is getting to that point."
Four days later the misery was supposed to end when North Carolina State arrived in Durham. The Wolfpack hadn't beaten Duke in their last eight meetings and hadn't won an ACC road game in its last 19 tries. Surely, this would be the streak-stopper. But freshman guard Ishua Benjamin scored 23 points for the Wolf-pack, and the Blue Devils were run out of their own building, 77-60. The loss dropped Duke out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since December of the '86-87 season, ending the nation's longest streak at 153 weeks.
Finally, at Florida State last Saturday, it looked as if Duke might suffer total meltdown. The Seminoles jumped out to a 15-point lead with 8:35 left in the first half. But behind 24 points from center Cherokee Parks and 22 from Capel, the Blue Devils nearly stole a win. Twice in the final seconds, Duke had wide-open three-pointers that might have sent the game to OT, but each rimmed out. It's been that kind of season. "I think they've lost some of their mystique," said Seminole guard Bob Sura after Duke's sixth straight loss, something no Blue Devil team had suffered since the 1938-39 season. "In the past, Duke wins this game in the last two minutes."
Said Wojciechowski, "We've all grown up watching Duke succeed. We don't want to be the team that everybody looks at and says, 'What the heck happened to Duke?' "
That is the question everyone is asking, however, and the answers are too obvious.
After losing Hill, Antonio Lang and Marty Clark to graduation, Duke's regular rotation this season basically consists of two centers, Parks and 6' 10" Erik Meek, and a smorgasbord of six perimeter players. Without any natural forwards, Duke has shuffled its personnel, starting seven different lineups in the first 17 games. Only Parks (20.0 points a game) and Capel (11.8) have emerged as reliable offensive threats. Of the three freshman guards, only Price is shooting over 40% from the field, and Collins has struggled mightily, hitting only 27% from the floor and 17% from three-point range.
Perhaps most damaging of all is Duke's lack of its trademark suffocating defense. In ACC play the Blue Devils are allowing opponents to shoot 49% from the field and 52% from three-point range. They have also turned the ball over 18 more times than their opponents, and they are last in the conference in steals. "One of the things that teams have feared is our defense," says Parks, "but now it seems like teams can't wait to get on offense against us. We're trying. We're working hard, and that's why it's so confusing, even frustrating. We shouldn't be down like this, but we don't know what to do about it."
"Once we lost a few games, we lost our confidence, and that's something we've always thrived on at Duke," says Amaker, who helped build the Duke tradition as the team's point guard from 1984 to '87. "That's where these guys miss Coach K. They feed off his enthusiasm, and it's been a tough adjustment without him."
Gaudet is a capable leader, but he is not Mike Krzyzewski. In fact it is odd to think that as the "restricted earnings" coach at Duke, Gaudet is now making just over $300 a week to pilot one of the highest-profile programs in the country. At least Gaudet is familiar with the job of stepping in to replace Krzyzewski, having taken over at Army when Coach K left that post to come to Duke. "Yes, but it was easier the first time," Gaudet says. "Then I wasn't replacing a legend."