WE KNOW THAT MUCH OF HOOPS NATION HAS LONG LOVED TO hate the Blue Devils. College basketball fans root against Duke instinctively; they've been doing it for so long they've probably forgotten why. ¶ This year's team, however, rendered that hate an outdated cliché: Even for the people who do recall the roots of their enmity, most of the reasons they give for hating Duke simply don't apply. This was a different Blue Devils team, though some people never got around to noticing that. ¶ While Mike Krzyzewski's program has been going to Final Fours since the mid-1980s, the Blue Devils didn't truly begin to generate New York Yankees/Notre Dame football-level backlash until 2001. That was the year Duke beat Arizona to win its third (and most recent, before this season) national title. You couldn't watch television for five minutes without hearing Dickie V—soon rechristened Dookie V—singing the praises of Blue Devils stars Shane Battier, Jason Williams and Carlos Boozer. People got fed up with the nonstop adulation, a lot like what happened with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow last college football season.
But did anyone really feel this year's Duke team was overhyped? Or even hyped? Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Ohio State (thanks to star Evan Turner) dominated the media landscape during the regular season. The Blue Devils had about the quietest 29-5 record imaginable, in large part because the struggles of rival North Carolina and the general mediocrity of the ACC left Duke playing few compelling national games.
Those early-aughts Duke teams were loaded. So, to a slightly lesser degree, were the J.J. Redick-Shelden Williams teams that followed. That contributed to anti-Duke sentiment as well—resentment that Krzyzewski seemed to horde the nation's top talent. Yet there was no Battier or Boozer on the 2009-10 Blue Devils. If anything, Krzyzewski's recruiting slipped recently. As his detractors will remind you, Coach K has had far more talented teams that never sniffed the Final Four. This year, his team overachieved.
Many people were critical of Duke's "easy" road to Indianapolis. The Blue Devils were, after all, a No. 1 seed, and I was among the many on Selection Sunday who felt they drew a more favorable region than No. 1 overall seed Kansas. But that argument had disappeared by the Sweet 16. It's not Duke's fault that Kansas slipped up against Northern Iowa, or that Syracuse, unlike the Blue Devils, couldn't handle Butler. Following a first-round snoozer against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the total seed number (15) of Duke's next three opponents (No. 8 Cal, No. 4 Purdue and No. 3 Baylor) was lower than fellow Final Four participants Michigan State (No. 4 Maryland + No. 9 Northern Iowa + No. 6 Tennessee = 19) and West Virginia (No. 10 Missouri + No. 11 Washington + No. 1 Kentucky = 22).
Then there's the most tired argument of all—that Duke "gets all the calls." Please. Late in the West Virginia game Mountaineers' coach Bob Huggins chided referee John Higgins for not calling enough fouls on the Blue Devils, yet Duke was actually whistled more times (16) than Huggins's team was (12) in a 21-point win.
Which brings us to a last, ridiculous generalization that some folks just can't give up: Duke's players are "punks." Why? Because Christian Laettner once stomped a guy (Kentucky's Aminu Timberlake in a 1992 Elite Eight game), Steve Wojciechowski slapped the floor and J.J. Redick talked smack. Naturally, Jon Scheyer must be like them as well, right? No. Scheyer was one of the shyest Duke stars in memory. The next time he brags on himself or trash-talks another player will be the first. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith also went about their business stoically.
There were in fact lots of reasons to root for this Duke team. First, there was Smith, who dedicated his Elite Eight game to his late father, Derek, then went to Indianapolis—the same city where Dad helped lead Louisville to a national title 30 years ago—and matched his feat. There was senior center Brian Zoubek, who, after 3½ injury-plagued, underachieving seasons, transformed himself into a productive starter. He, Scheyer and forward Lance Thomas made up a senior class that did what every fan hopes for: They got better each year, going from the first round (2007) to the second ('08) to the Sweet 16 ('09) to the title.
And then there's Krzyzewski himself. The Dean of Durham is not often a sympathetic figure, but it's hard not to admire the job he did with this team. Over the past couple of years many analysts (myself included) questioned his dedication to the program, what with his increased commitment to USA Basketball and with Duke's seeming drop-off in recruiting. His adversary, Roy Williams at UNC, had won two national titles since the last time Krzyzewski reached the Final Four.
This year, while Williams slunk his way to an NIT final (which the Tar Heels lost), Krzyzewski erased any doubts about his competitive fire, leading a widely dismissed team to his fourth national championship. He's made his own little minicomeback. And next year, with the presence of big-scoring transfer Seth Curry (Steph's little brother) and top 10 recruit Kyrie Irving, he'll have his first genuinely "loaded" team in five years.
The country can recommence its Duke-hating then.