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Tides of March
Under the glint of the newly redesigned 2005 NCAA Tournament trophy, North Carolina's first in twelve years, many Tar Heel fans could not fully enjoy the moment.
Their latest national championship had been achieved in the unlikeliest of ways—by a second-year head coach, who finally had assuaged the anger he caused from first turning down the UNC job in 2000, leading a largely bastardized team of players that former coach Matt Doherty had recruited.
Roy Williams was back to stay, for sure, despite almost annual offers to coach the in-flux Los Angeles Lakers. But the stepchildren who had won his first NCAA title after four previous trips to the Final Four at Kansas would not be back, that much was almost certain. Three were graduating and the other top four players were underclassmen who were all likely to enter the NBA draft.
Even after their team cut down the nets in St. Louis, returning Carolina to national prominence following a turbulent transition from the Dean Smith era, the specter of archenemy Duke loomed as large as ever. The Blue Devils still dominated the rivalry in recent years, beating Carolina in fifteen of the last eighteen meetings and running up unprecedented strings of ACC regular season and tournament championships.
And, Duke was not losing its entire team. Supposedly, only one starter, senior Daniel Ewing, was departing after All-American and ACC Player of the Year J. J. Redick reaffirmed his decision to stay for his senior year and All-ACC center Shelden Williams, the best shot-blocker and post defender in Duke history, also decided not to test the NBA.
"I want to accomplish some of the same things Carolina did," Williams said in his announcement to return.
Both programs were bringing in stellar recruiting classes for the 2005-06 season, but Duke's was rated higher, led by McDonald's All-Americans Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts. Heading Carolina's class was Tyler Hansbrough, a big white center like so many others that had anchored Roy Williams's Kansas teams, but he would have few seasoned players to help his adjustment.
Duke was loaded. The ever-increasing Blue Devil fan base, pervasive everywhere but in the state of North Carolina, was already licking its collective chops over next year's Final Four in Indianapolis, where the Dukies had won the first of their three national championships in 1991.
As was the case a year before, when after Roy Williams turned down the job privately and Mike Krzyzewski freaked out another first-year Duke president, Dick Brodhead, by publicly flirting with the Lakers (he had done the same to Nan Keohane in 1994 over an offer from Portland), the off-season found both basketball juggernauts in the news.
Tar Heel players Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Marvin Williams, who together with seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott represented 90 percent of their team's scoring, 80 percent of its rebounds and assists, and all but 20 of its blocked shots, indeed turned pro and were all NBA lottery picks—the first time four underclassmen from the same program had ever gone in the first round.
Duke junior Shavlik Randolph, among the most highly recruited prep players in North Carolina history and grandson of N.C. State legend Ronnie Shavlik, also applied for the NBA draft despite averaging only six points a game. The stunning announcement followed widespread reports of financial trouble in his family. His father, Kenny Randolph (a UNC graduate), had filed bankruptcy for two of the businesses he and his family had inherited from Ronnie Shavlik. Krzyzewski was miffed that Randolph did not follow his advice to stay in school and made plans to go on without him. Randolph went undrafted but hooked on as a free agent with the Philadelphia 76ers, whose general manager was former Duke defensive star Billy King.
In October, just after preseason practice began, Roy Williams got a surprise phone call from high school senior Brandan Wright of Tennessee, a consensus schoolboy All-American. The 6' 9" forward, who had visited UNC the weekend before and attended Late Night with Roy, told Williams he wanted to play for the Tar Heels. Speechless, a rare state for the talkative Carolina coach, Williams had figured that Wright was going to Duke and now had to retract a scholarship offer to Memphis forward Thaddeus Young, who eventually signed with Georgia Tech.
As Williams continued rebuilding the Carolina program, the Wright commitment marked the first player he had landed that Duke also wanted but clearly lost to the Tar Heels. Williams had been closely aligned with Hansbrough since he started recruiting him for Kansas, and fellow freshman Marcus Ginyard was scouted but not offered a scholarship by the Blue Devils. Wright, together with point guard Ty Lawson and shooting guard Wayne Ellington, gave UNC its second recruiting class of three consensus top-ten players in four years or since Felton, May, and McCants enrolled in 2002.
Duke, of course, still had its own studly list of commits who would sign letters of intent that November, including 6' 6" Jon Scheyer from Glenbrook, Illinois, who had played for the brother of Illinois coach Bruce Weber, and Ellington's Philadelphia high school teammate Gerald Henderson. But Wright's decision left Krzyzewski and his staff scrambling to fill the spot earmarked for a strong forward. They immediately turned their attention to unsigned New Jersey forward Lance Thomas, who had originally committed to Arizona but said he'd wait until the spring to sign.
In late October, Krzyzewski was named coach of the USA Basketball team, an appointment that promised to keep him in the headlines through the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He was the first college coach to hold the position since the United States began using NBA players in the Olympics, and it fulfilled another lifetime goal for the Army graduate who always had loved international basketball, long before serving as an assistant to Chuck Daly (a former Duke assistant coach himself) on the original 1992 Dream Team in Barcelona.
With other ACC teams also losing key players, Duke was a landslide favorite to win the league. They lived up to their top-ranked billing by sweeping the preseason NIT before routing second-ranked Texas in a made-for-national-TV game at the Meadowlands behind 41 points by Redick. The Blue Devils weren't threatened until they needed a forty-footer from Sean Dockery at the buzzer to stave off a home upset to Virginia Tech. Their best early win might have been breaking a three-game losing streak to Maryland, before which Krzyzewski pulled one of his forever-hokey but famously effective motivational ploys. The entire team signed the Duke logo on Coach K Court in Cameron Indoor Stadium, publicly indicating their intention of defending their home court against a team to whom they had lost to on that floor last season and three straight times overall.
Carolina, picked to finish sixth in the ACC, needed an ugly three-pointer by David Noel, the only returnee with any experience, to defeat low-major Gardner-Webb in its opening game. After a close home loss to Illinois in a national championship rematch for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Carolina upset then tenth-ranked Kentucky in Lexington but went into the holiday break on a blowout loss at Southern Cal that did not bode well for the ACC season. However, several unsung players were emerging to help Hansbrough, the team's top scorer and rebounder. Junior forward Reyshawn Terry showed flashes of NBA talent and former walk-on guard Wes Miller started draining three-pointers with regularity.
Duke's narrowest winning margin in January was 10 points before aggressive Georgetown handed the Blue Devils, the last undefeated Division I men's team, their first loss at the MCI Center in Washington. But a seductively dangerous trend had developed. Redick led the nation in scoring, dropping another 41 points on Georgetown and 40 more on Virginia, followed by five consecutive games of at least 30 points to break Art Heyman's school career record of nineteen. Redick was grabbing national attention almost nightly while locked in a battle for the college basketball scoring lead with Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, a friend from various summer tournaments whom he talked to several times a week by cell phone, text message, and video-game headset.
Along with Shelden Williams, the only other double-figure scorer, Duke was relying too much on Redick while their teammates became tentative. Krzyzewski called it "J. J. Watching," and Duke fans wondered why he didn't utilize the athletic, 6' 9" McRoberts more. A nagging foot injury to sophomore DeMarcus Nelson and the season-long shooting slump of senior Lee Melchionni aided the imbalance, and 6-foot point guard Paulus was having the same freshman adjustment problems that had plagued Bobby Hurley sixteen years earlier.
By the time Duke went to Chapel Hill for the rivals' first matchup, the second-ranked Blue Devils had a 20-1 record and the tag of a two-man team.
An ongoing officiating controversy wasn't helping, either. Duke had won tight, hotly contested games at Boston College and at home against Florida State, going to the foul line 80 times compared to a total of 24 for BC and FSU. Shelden Williams was not called for a foul in an under-the-basket collision with BC's Tyrese Rice at the end of that 83-81 win. The Blue Devils trailed Florida State when they were also abetted by the disqualification of Seminoles' center Alexander Johnson, who got his fifth foul on a double technical while backing away from a body bump by Williams.
John Clougherty, the new ACC Coordinator of Officials, suspended the crew—Ed Corbett, Ray Natili, and Mike Eades—that worked Duke-FSU for one game because he deemed that Johnson did nothing to deserve his technical.
"It came as a surprise to me when I heard it," Krzyzewski said two days later. But the incident kept an old can of worms wide open.
Krzyzewski and ex-ACC Supervisor of Officiating Fred Barakat had known each other from coaching eastern basketball (K at Army, Barakat at Fairfield). Together with the late N.C. State coach Jim Valvano (who came from Iona College), Krzyzewski had supported Barakat when he had landed his job twenty years ago. Barakat ruled the refs with an iron hand that, critics claimed, was raised too often with a whistle against whomever Duke was playing. Clougherty, a well-respected official, had already proven he was his own man by essentially "firing" from the ACC schedule Larry Rose, who was Barakat's buddy and worked an inordinate number of Duke games. Rose also wanted the job that eventually went to Clougherty.
The manner in which Krzyzewski continued to treat officials, all the while facing charges of favoritism, seemed to say his influence had far transcended any so-called double standard that existed when Dean Smith's Tar Heels ruled the ACC. Shouldn't Duke be called for more fouls because of the way it played defense and shoot fewer free throws because of its reliance on the three-point shot?
Or was it, simply, that winning teams often got the benefit of the doubt, more talented players drew more fouls because they couldn't be stopped, and teams that generally led late in the game were sent repeatedly to the free throw line by desperate opponents? Statistics revealed that similar patterns followed Carolina in its heyday and almost every other dominant team in its seasons of success.
In response, however, Krzyzewski subtly turned the attention away from any advantage his team may have been receiving by asking, "Are you saying the games are fixed, that the officials don't have integrity? When you do that, you better be careful because you are harming the game, not just Duke, but college basketball itself." Ironically, he had essentially levied the same charge at the refs in 1984, when he had claimed they treated Dean Smith's teams with a double standard. In truth, both coaches were granted leeway that others did not get.
In 1989, Smith had brought up the issue of racist fans because of one hand-held sign at Duke that read "J.R. Can't Reid." Krzyzewski introduced the taboo word "fix" into a game that he had backed for its wholesomeness. Any other coach with less stature would have summarily drawn a reprimand from his conference and school for using the clever attorney's ploy of deflecting attention by positing an outrageous and inflammatory alternative.
Nevertheless, it was of little surprise that the crew working the Duke-Carolina game whistled four fouls in the first six minutes against the Blue Devils, who did not get into the bonus until the final seconds of the half. They led by five and had a shouting match in their locker room, yelling about the calls and at each other for lackadaisical play. Krzyzewski calmed them down, and Duke scored the first 12 points of the second half, forcing six straight turnovers that had Roy Williams pulling all five starters.
"At that point, we could have lost by a thousand points," Williams said, angered that his team didn't meet the challenge and especially by the nonchalant play from his freshman guard Bobby Frasor. "I hate 'cool' and have always hated anything about being 'cool.'"
Carolina had won three straight games and was a respectable 14-5. But its season turned around after Williams's tirade that nearly brought on one of his seemingly semi-annual dizzy spells. The Tar Heels rallied and actually took a five-point lead with four and a half minutes left and were probably one more basket from pulling off the upset. But Redick drained 3 three-pointers down the stretch to finish with 35, the most ever by a Duke player in Chapel Hill, and the Blue Devils survived, 87-83.
Once just a spot-up shooter, Redick had turned himself into a complete player—a defender, passer, and fast-breaking guard who averaged thirty-eight minutes a game and often had three or four opposing players trying to slow him down. While keeping a hand in his face, Carolina's Marcus Ginyard once found his in Redick's mouth, and the accidental bite drew blood that required a tetanus shot the next day and took two weeks to heal.
As had become custom at Duke, the regular season was more a training ground for March and positioning for the NCAA Tournament. It was important to have a great record because that meant a high seed when the pairings came out. The Blue Devils remained undefeated in the ACC, clinching first place with four games to go, until the tit-for-tat rematch at Florida State, where this time FSU shot 40 free throws compared to 17 for the Devils. Still, they had a chance to win but failed because Redick missed 18 of his season-high 28 shots, going 4-for-14 from three-point range.
Upset with the crowd storming the court as much as losing the game, Krzyzewski had sent the regulars to the locker room for the final seconds and later complained that some fans had "alcohol on their breath" as they mobbed their victorious team (beer was sold at the off-campus arena in Tallahassee). He said one of his players could have reacted "competitively"—like in 1998 when UNC's Ademola Okulaja punched an oncoming Duke celebrant in the nose after a comeback win over Carolina.
Krzyzewski said he didn't want his team or fans to rush the court "unless we win a championship. We never want to give that much credit to an opponent. We want to give the credit to winning a championship."
A more alarming trend for Duke was Redick's shooting slump, which began looking like the previous year in which fatigue killed his scoring and he shot only 37 percent over the last 10 games. He kept missing at the end of the 79-74 loss at FSU, dropping his shooting to barely 30 percent over the last two weeks, and having to repeatedly deny that he had again lost his legs at the end of a long season.
The day before playing Carolina, the last game in Cameron for Redick, Williams, and four other seniors, Krzyzewski claimed the news media had made too much of how many more free throws Duke shot than its opponents. Since the controversial first game with Florida State, Duke had fallen well behind the pace to reach its annual goal of making more foul shots than the opponents attempted.
Redick made it sound like sour grapes when, referring to what happened in Tallahassee, he continued his two-year criticism of opposing home crowds. "There's just something wrong with the culture of playing college basketball on the road these days," he had said in the past, an assertion widely ridiculed because of the Cameron Crazies' own conduct.
Clean cut, hard-working, and the most popular player in the college game, Redick seemed bemused by the parallel universes he sometimes found himself in.
America's Team still had a coach who spewed profanities during the action and talked of sportsmanship during the televised commercial breaks. Reading Krzyzewski's lips, words so vulgar that several regular ticket holders sitting within earshot complained about his language to school officials, was a favorite pastime of TV viewers and an ongoing symbol of the dividedness on Duke.
Duke students, sleeping outside for weeks for the best seats and painting their body parts religiously, weren't really any better fans than those at other schools with rabid followings. Maybe they were more organized with their "cheer cards" and definitely more publicized by TV announcers who glorified them from afar, but their advantage was where their team played. Being near to the court was one thing, but being so dangerously close to the combatants seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. Besides Okulaja belting the student who jumped toward him, Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg claimed he was poked in the eye by a Cameron Crazy while leaving through a narrow passage in 2005. The day was coming when an opposing player getting ready to inbound the ball on the sideline, with dozens of Dukies droning and waving fingers inches from his face, instead fired the ball into the crowd.
At no other ACC arena were students allowed that much access, obvious latitude they were given by their school and beloved coach.
As the 2006 regular season drew to a close, and ESPN rolled into Durham to begin unprecedented coverage of the Duke-Carolina game, the debate raged around the country. The cable network, perceived by many as a Duke propaganda machine, had fanned the flames of the officiating controversy by making it the lead story on SportsCenter three nights running. In Dean Smith's heyday, he and Carolina never had as many allies or enemies as Duke and its coach.
In so many ways, Krzyzewski defined a class act. Devoted to his family, team, and close friends, he insisted his players study and graduate, supported the right charities, and spoke long and emotionally, to the public and in private meetings, about the state and future of "our game." He was known to colleagues as a humanitarian since his famous friendship during Valvano's dying days. Privately, he also called and sent notes of encouragement to former UNC assistant coaches Phil Ford and John Lotz during Ford's battle with alcoholism and Lotz's debilitating, and ultimately fatal, illness.
He also tried to tone down the arrogance in his own program. His best players no longer bitched and complained and whined on the court. He hadn't liked it when Chris Duhon had said a few years ago that everyone else in the ACC played for second place. He clutched his deceased mother's rosary beads during particular tense moments of close games and easily teared up when talking about her and what she had meant to him.
Like Smith at UNC, Krzyzewski was both revered and feared on the inside at Duke. He had interrupted several meetings with new administrators by saying, "Let me tell you how it works here. . . ." He groused over "everything I've done for this school" when his wish was not immediately granted. Most people who worked around athletics understood that as part of his greatness, the ego and the need for control, and that as someone with a military background he had to fabricate an enemy when one did not exist to keep himself and his troops, his team, with the right mental edge.
The coach's profanity remained a rallying cry for anyone looking to dent Duke's armor. But Krzyzewski wouldn't change and his supporters knew why, even if most of them disdained discussing it.
Trained at West Point, where the legacy of MacArthur and Patton taught cadets they could curse in context and still be considered Christian soldiers who deeply loved their country, Krzyzewski was really no different from the maniacal drill sergeant who, nose to nose, called his marines "maggots" one minute and hugged their necks the next. He made no excuse for his language because he felt none was needed, and his superiors at Duke had never called him on it.
He had his annual meeting with Krzyzewskiville students the night before the Carolina game, which meant nothing except school pride. UNC fans thought they could win because their young team was playing the best basketball in the ACC, riding a six-game winning streak and a 6-1 road record in the ACC. Against Georgia Tech, Hansbrough had set an ACC freshman scoring record with 40 points, including a half-dozen old-fashioned three-point plays.
Almost quietly, the blue-collar postman had become the ACC's next-best player. He had already won ACC Freshman of the Week nine times and gotten his mother, a former Miss Missouri, lots of airtime on TV. Hansbrough was supposed to be good, but the twenty-year-old rookie demonstrated a relentless work ethic and nose for the ball that gave him the nickname "Psycho T" among adoring Tar Heel fans.
Copyright © 2005, 2006 by Art Chansky. All rights reserved.
Posted December 25, 2007