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Tides of March
The Dean Smith Center was empty, except for the cleanup crew. The words "ACC Champions" were still illuminated on the new electronic boards on the fascia of the upper deck. Carolina had just beaten Florida State, surviving a 60 percent shooting half by the Seminoles, to clinch at least a tie for first place in the 2005 Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
One regular-season game remained, the biggest. It was more than sixth-ranked Duke coming in on Sunday afternoon. More than national TV with broadcasters Jim Nantz and Billy Packer sitting courtside. More than the latest renewal of the greatest rivalry in college basketball or perhaps any sport on any level.
The Tar Heels had to win this game for the preservation of their own collective sanity. Duke had won 15 of the last 17 meetings dating back to 1999, its most dominant stretch in the ninety-year history of the series. That statistic more than anything else had made the rivalry a moot point with many Blue Devil fans.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was the new king of college basketball, a twenty-first century sideline CEO with power and prestige that pushed the legend of UNC coach Dean Smith further into the past. Roy Williams's arrival from Kansas as Carolina's new coach was supposed to erase the memory of a disastrous transition from the Smith era and begin evening the score with Duke.
Yet Williams had lost two heartbreakers during his first year in Chapel Hill when the Blue Devils returned to another Final Four. This season, 2005, Carolina finally had the better team in terms of depth and talent. However, the Tar Heels had failed to prove it the previous February 9 at Duke, where they had lost again.
Thus, Carolina owned an ironic form of pressure. Looking up from the top.
A win would give the Tar Heels the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time since 1993 and only three years after three seniors on the team and their fans had suffered through an 8--20 debacle. A loss to Duke would still leave them in first place but with a hollow title after having been swept by the Blue Devils a second straight season.
If Williams didn't beat Krzyzewski soon, the comparison he had tried so hard to avoid would stick like Velcro. His second Tar Heel team was ranked higher than Duke with fewer losses in both the ACC and overall. The Blue Devils were down to six healthy dependable players; despite not having ill Rashad McCants for the fourth consecutive game, Carolina was still deeper.
There was also the emotion of playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly twenty-two thousand fans on Senior Day for Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, and Jawad Williams, the trio that had somehow survived two years and 36 defeats under coach Matt Doherty. UNC had everything in its favor. The Tar Heels had to win.
Roy Williams knew that. On Sunday morning, he told Smith Center Director Angie Bitting to have two tall ladders in the tunnel after the game.
Two hours before the 4:00 p.m. tip-off, thousands of fans had descended upon the Dean Dome, hanging around in sunny, (60-degree weather. Thirsting to beat the Blue Devils, they had the hottest and most valuable tickets of any Duke-Carolina game in memory. A seller's market if there were any sellers.
A Chapel Hill man was there with his two grade-school daughters. He was offered $5,000 for his three tickets. "I have a choice for you," he said to his girls, "I can sell these tickets and we can all go to Disney World next week. Or we can go to the game." They tugged at his hand and kept walking.
Duke's team bus pulled into the tunnel beneath the arena at 2:30 p.m. Krzyzewski was greeted by John Dubis, UNC class of 1990 and the operative assigned to guide and guard all opposing coaches. Dubis led the Duke party to its two locker rooms, one for the Blue Devils and one for the coaches, primarily Krzyzewski, who once inside took off his expensive suit jacket, hung it in a locker and spread the game plan out on one bench.
Krzyzewski didn't like the characterization that this was one of his better coaching jobs. With his ill or injured players missing a total of twenty-nine games, he had used ten different starting lineups. After losing at Maryland and Virginia Tech, he started walk-ons Patrick Davidson and Patrick Johnson against Wake Forest to send a message to his team because "these were the only two guys who believe in me." Krzyzewski was crazed that night, screaming at the officials from first minute of the game when Davidson committed a blatant foul on Wake's Chris Paul. Duke won the war 102--92 to snap the rare two-game losing streak.
Once considered a defensive coach whose teams were vulnerable when playing five-on-five half-court basketball, Krzyzewski had conceived an offense that got the ball inside easily to center Shelden Williams while relying on J. J. Redick's radar from the perimeter. Using the double-teaming attention paid to Redick, Duke still liked to run but also worked patiently to create open shots for Daniel Ewing and lefty Lee Melchionni as their third and fourth scoring options.
They had won their first 15 games, during which Krzyzewski reached 700 career victories, but 4 midseason losses, including 2 to Maryland, had locked the Blue Devils out of first place and rendered the finale with Carolina to rivalry-game status. It was a rivalry he had owned since a year after Smith retired in 1997.
His players went out to warm up with the assistant coaches while he remained in seclusion. They returned just before game time, and, after meeting with them briefly, Krzyzewski put his jacket back on and gathered his papers. He waited until they took the court before walking down the corridor by himself, trailing Dubis by a few feet. It was exactly the same routine he used every year Duke played in Chapel Hill. His pregame ritual was military to the minute.
Something else happened again, as it had without fail when the Duke coach entered the playing court and faced what Dubis called a "wave of hate, a blast of white noise that is really loud."
As Krzyzewski passed through the tunnel, a plastic baggie of cheese dangled on a string from above the railing. The coach Tar Heel fans called "Rat Face" for his pointy nose and narrow jaw was in the house.
He did not see the cheese, or anything else specifically, looking stone-faced and straight ahead as he strode purposefully along the baseline behind Dubis. His expression broke when he reached Williams. They chatted cheek-to-cheek; several photographers closed in to capture the moment. After the national anthem and lineup introductions, the starters shook hands around the center circle, the din rose again and the ball was in the air. The game college basketball fans, near and far, saw as the unofficial start of post-season was under way. Duke-Carolina on the last weekend.
Duke scored first against UNC's Senior Day lineup that started two walk-ons. Redick's first three-pointer gave the Blue Devils a 5--0 lead, his step-back jumper made it 16--9 and his second "three" from way out on the left opened Duke's biggest lead at 19--11. Nervous noise rose whenever he touched the ball.
Playing without injured point guard Sean Dockery, Duke was using Redick and Ewing to handle the ball and get into its motion offense. The Blue Devils had the ability to look chaotic and organized in the same possession, but once Redick or Williams had the ball within range, it was going up.
Carolina's 8--0 run, ending with Manuel's breakaway flying dunk over two Dukies, evened the game after nine minutes. Freshman Marvin Williams's only basket of the half gave the Heels a five-point lead, but Redick's fourth three-ball from the right wing triggered a spurt that put his team back ahead at the last media timeout before halftime.
During the break, CBS aired a new American Express commercial featuring Krzyzewski.
I don't look at myself as a basketball coach....I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.
When play resumed, those sitting along the scorer's table saw another side of him. After freshman DeMarcus Nelson couldn't get in the game, Krzyzewski glared at official scorer Mark Isley and screamed "Bullshit!" at the explanation that Nelson had arrived too late. Krzyzewski clapped mockingly at Isley after Ewing, the man Nelson was to replace, picked up a foul in the midst of a late 11--4 scoring run by the Tar Heels.
"Good job! Good job!" he yelled over sarcastically. "That one's on you!"
"Bullshit!" he yelled again at Isley while stalking off the court at the half, Duke down 47--41, to the jeers and catcalls of Carolina fans sitting near the tunnel.
Official Larry Rose stopped at the scorer's table to see what had happened. Rose was a veteran referee who over the years seemed to work a lot of Duke games and had the unflattering nickname around the ACC of "Duke's Sixth Man." Scott Williams, the twenty-eight-year-old son of Carolina's head coach, stood in his second-row seat and stared at Rose. "Larry Rose, be a man. Be a man, Coach K owns you!" Williams shouted.
Rose heard the taunt, looked up and told a UNC security guard to remove his heckler. The younger Williams went to the private box behind Section 127 where the rest of his family usually watched home games. His father was furious when he found out what happened before the second half began.
Carolina went ahead 49--41 and it looked for a moment like the team that had to win would win. Then Melchionni, who had missed all three of his attempts in the first half, hit two three-pointers. Manuel, having his most aggressive offensive game of the season, became Carolina's unlikely scoring star.
The Tar Heels had forgotten about center Sean May, who had already scored 23 points with jump hooks and offensive rebounds. They shot too quickly from the outside and made poor decisions with the ball during the most important part of the game. The anxious crowd groaned as one of UNC's worst stretches of the season unfolded painfully.
After Duke rallied to lead 64--62 on Melchionni's fourth three-pointer, a ball that hit the rim and backboard before falling through, Manuel scored his fifth field goal to forge a 64--64 tie on a fast break lob from Raymond Felton. Having been hammered on the glass and in the paint all afternoon, the Blue Devils gained strength from Carolina's confusion and inability to get the ball to May, who was easily bettering his career averages of 17 points and 18 rebounds in 3 full games against them.
Three straight inside baskets by Shelden Williams built Duke's lead to six points with under four minutes to play. The Tar Heels came out of the timeout determined to go back inside, but Duke knew what they'd do and double-downed on May, slapping the ball off his knee out of bounds. Ewing began a drive from the left front court, circled along the right baseline toward the basket and whipped a pass to Melchionni in the left corner. As his fifth three-pointer rattled in, the bench area behind him erupted.
The Blue Devils led 73--64 with three minutes left. Their phalanx of assistant coaches and managers, all dressed in dark suits, were acting out like smug adolescents.
"SUB! SUB!" they yelled when one of their players reported to the scorer's table, then stood and clapped at Isley when the horn buzzed him in.
How unbelievable was Duke's run? The last of Redick's 17 points had come with three minutes left in the first half, and the ACC's leading scorer missed all six of his second-half shots. Carolina had also kept the most feared free-throw shooter in the country off the foul line. Forward Shavlik Randolph played only fifteen minutes with foul trouble, meaning his team had just about beaten Carolina with five players.
Jawad Williams tapped in a May miss to cut Duke's lead to 73--66 with 2:40 left in the game. The Tar Heels called a timeout as their fans sat stunned. In the huddle, Roy Williams promised if they played "every possession from here on" as hard as possible, they would have a chance at the end. Several empty faces stared back at him.
The Amex commercial ran again.
When they get into the workplace, they're armed not just with a jump shot or a dribble. I want you armed for life.
Along the media table between the benches, the Tar Heel Sports Network radio announcers were quiet, contemplating what was ahead. Color analyst Mick Mixon wondered how he could ever find the words to explain yet another loss to Duke. "The specter of defeat has entered the building," he mumbled to himself.
Mixon could have said re-entered the building. Over the prior six years, the Tar Heels had lost 24 games at home compared to 18 during their first 12 seasons in the Smith Center, which opened with a victory over Duke in January of 1986. Five of those two dozen defeats were to the Blue Devils.
The first year of Roy versus K restored competitive drama to the rivalry, and both coaches spent most of the season mad---but not at reach other.
Despite his first Tar Heel team's 8--1 start that included a triple-overtime loss at home to Wake Forest, Williams's return to Carolina was not exactly triumphant. He looked more like he was homesick for Kansas than happier to be home. He was so mad after a half-hearted loss at Kentucky that he joked about jumping out of the plane on the way home and used the slang word "frickin"' so much that friends and UNC officials suggested he clean up his vocabulary.
Before they faced top-ranked Duke on February 5, 2004, the Tar Heels had fallen to 13--5, 3--4 in the ACC, and found themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble. "We've got to play," he told the national media, which had requested a record three hundred credentials for the game. "If we don't really play, Duke is going to kick our rear ends so far back up state, we're going to think Chapel Hill is on the other side of Murphy."
The Tar Heels had one of their best stretches of the season, leading Duke by seven late in the second half before the Blue Devils ran off a 12--2 spurt to climb on top in the closing seconds. Jawad Williams's awkward three-pointer sent the game into overtime, and McCants seemingly forced a second overtime with a long "three" from the right wing. But Krzyzewski's philosophy of moving on to "the next play" caught Carolina celebrating. Chris Duhon took off down the court, and Williams explained later that his team "failed to build a wall" to stop Duhon's coast-to-coast drive for reverse layup and an 83--81 victory.
As his teammates swarmed Duhon on the floor, the rivalry appeared rejoined. Although the TV ratings were typically high, the results were all too familiar to the Tar Heel faithful. Williams had his next shot at Duke a month later after Krzyzewski had stolen the headlines.
The Blue Devils' 41-game winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium had been snapped by Georgia Tech, and Krzyzewski got nailed with a technical foul in the first half. Courtside observers said he should have been thrown out for his verbal and vulgar assault on officials Karl Hess and Ray Natili.
"His manners were deplorable, his language galling," wrote Ed Hardin of the Greensboro News & Record after covering the game from courtside. "If Krzyzewski didn't get thrown out against Georgia Tech, then what does it take to get thrown out of a game in this league?"
Twenty years had passed since Krzyzewski leveled his famous double-standard accusation about Smith, whom he had replaced as the preeminent college coach and the ACC's alleged privileged character. He claimed Smith, and consequently his teams, received preferential treatment from both the officials and the media after Smith, ironically, caused his own scene at the scorer's table when one of his players couldn't get into a game at Duke.
Krzyzewski said he "must have believed it then because I said it," but that time had changed his perspective. Acknowledging that his success was similar to Smith's, he understood his old adversary's position better and actually reminded old-timers of Smith in some ways. "But I don't think I get all the calls; I got a technical Wednesday night," Krzyzewski said, smiling.
Early Saturday evening, the Tar Heel bus snaked through the crowd and passed dozens of Dukies dressed in Wizard of Oz costumes to remind Williams he was no longer in Kansas. Inside swollen and sweltering Cameron, an overweight student in a tight-fitting UNC uniform with Sean May's number (42) carried a sign that said, "I ate Matt Doherty." Mocking May's puffy body, the Duke fatty feigned hunger and groveled on his hands and knees for a McDonald's Big Mac box bobbing from a fishing pole. The Crazies went nuts.
Cameron overflowed well beyond 9,314, the number Duke always put out as the official attendance when, truth was, many more bodies were usually crammed into the rock-covered Gothic hall. Unlike the twice-bigger Smith Center, where some tickets could generally be bought outside, scalpers struck out on this night. One celebrity that did get in was Donald Trump, who flew up from West Palm Beach and sat under the basket near the Carolina bench as a guest of billionaire Duke alumnus John Mack.
At halftime, with the Tar Heels ahead by three points, a local TV reporter stuck a camera and microphone in Trump's face. "I like number two," he said, referring to Duke freshman Luol Deng, who had rebounded from missing 14 of his 15 shots in the loss to Georgia Tech.
Carolina survived its own poor shooting and four Blue Devils in double figures (led by Deng's 25 points) to trail by only 3 with eighteen seconds remaining. Duhon had sprinted back on defense after making a perfect feed to Daniel Ewing on the other end for a shot that could have wrapped up the game. Ewing missed and Carolina recovered the long rebound.
The mercurial McCants had the ball and a chance to make good on his words earlier that week, when he had called Redick "not too much of a factor" on defense or anywhere else on the court if he weren't burying long bombs from behind the arc. Even the Duke Chronicle gave the nod to McCants in his matchup with Redick.
As Cameron droned like a jet engine, McCants flew across midcourt. With only five seconds left, he headed for his favorite spot in front of the UNC bench, driving into the double-team of Redick and Duhon. McCants crossed over, quick-dribbling the ball from his right side to his left. He hoped to freeze them momentarily, creating enough room to elevate and quiet the Cameron Crazies just as Williams had asked him and his teammates to do. Then, with the pressure on Duke in overtime, the Tar Heels would steal a win on Coach K Court and return the favor from Chapel Hill.
But McCants never completed his crossover. He had driven too far and had stepped over the three-point line. As he pulled his foot back, he lost control of the ball. Redick beat McCants to it and, like a linebacker stalking a fumble, dove on the ball and slid across the floor---calling a timeout as he did.
Two seconds remained, Duke had the ball and the game, beating Carolina at the buzzer again. Beating Carolina for the fourteenth time in the last sixteen meetings. Beating Carolina for the seventh time in its last eight visits to Cameron.
Afterward, Redick said nothing of McCants calling him out. The Blue Devils celebrated another win over the Tar Heels in the foyer of their new locker room---in front of a large photo on which the word defense began with the Gothic "D" logo. The picture was a Duke classic: All-American Shane Battier trailing UNC's Joseph Forte on a breakaway layup---and blocking Forte's shot from behind.
The coaches stayed mad as their teams faced two more opportunities for the third meeting in the postseason. Carolina blew its chance when it blew a late lead to Georgia Tech in the 2004 ACC Tournament in Greensboro after rallying from a first half that had Williams beside himself.
"I have no idea what offense we were running; some of the shots we took, you wouldn't see on the playground," he said after the game.
Duke welcomed another shot at Georgia Tech in the semifinals instead of facing UNC a third time, the second within a week. Hess officiated the game and hit Krzyzewski with an early technical foul that looked like a statement from the flak he had taken ten days earlier in Durham. It only energized and united the Blue Devils, who turned a two-point deficit at halftime into a blowout win and moved on to the championship game against Maryland.
Duke squandered a 12-point lead to the Terrapins and eventually lost in overtime. As ACC regular-season champions, the Blue Devils' No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament was safe, but the weekend put Krzyzewski on the offensive after seeing how much of the Greensboro Coliseum rooted against his team.
At dinner Saturday night with his wife, daughter, and several Duke officials, Krzyzewski had asked, "How long have so many people hated us?" They reminded him it was part of being so successful, an obvious conclusion that had somehow escaped him.
"There were a lot of people happy that we lost," he said following the Maryland game. "The magnitude of it this year has been a surprise to me. I've never experienced that. It becomes cumulative. It really started going after we won our last national championship (2001), and the thing about how we get all the calls. I control the officials. Then all of a sudden, it's 'Yeah, that's how you win."'
The controversy carried into the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Duke was the top seed and UNC seeded sixth in the Atlanta region and could meet for a third time if both won three games, the first time in twenty-five years they had been assigned to the same region. Krzyzewski remained embattled, comparing his program's dominant era versus Smith's at UNC but claiming the Tar Heels were never as hated as his teams because "they were never a minority" in the state.
"As good as they were, and are, and will be, and deserving of everything, there was no run like the run we just had in this conference," he said, referring to Duke's six regular-season championships and five ACC Tournament titles from 1997 to 2004.
Redick broke out of a late-season shooting slump in Duke's two easy wins over Alabama State and Seton Hall in Raleigh. In Denver, the Tar Heels took the court with shaved heads, a curious, late-season gesture of solidarity that prompted Williams to wonder, "Why weren't they unified earlier?" They rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to beat Air Force before falling to taller, tougher Texas in the second round. Williams spent a good part of the second half kneeling in front of his players on the bench, clapping in their faces and delivering an animated lecture on what they weren't doing on the court and what they needed to be playing beyond the second round.
Always disconsolate when the season "ends so suddenly," Williams did not cry like he had when Kansas got knocked out. He found himself dealing with several aspects of college basketball that he had managed to avoid at Kansas, having to "coach effort" for the first time in his career. Because he had consistently recruited tough-nosed kids to fit his system at KU, Williams was rendered inexperienced in several areas. And as the season wore on, it appeared more and more as if he wanted it to end sooner than later.
The Tar Heels went home with a 19--11 record, the same number of wins that Doherty had posted in his last season playing all but eight games without May, his starting freshman center. They had everyone returning for the 2005 season, plus Williams's first full recruiting class, but could they ever become a team in their new coach's image?
The players Williams inherited from Doherty turned out to be a selfish group more worried about individual achievement than team accomplishment. They had to be constantly prodded about playing hard, playing together and playing smart, the longtime mantra of Carolina basketball. Some had inflated opinions of their own abilities.
Williams spent much of the season wondering whether these guys would ever get it or if he needed to get new guys. His "Ol' Roy ain't that good" phrase amused early, but turned out to be right on the money. He called it his longest year in coaching and second-guessed himself more than ever before.
Duke's draw opened up favorably the next weekend in Atlanta, when the Blue Devils faced fifth-seed Illinois. Writers from the Midwest reacted to a recent story in the Washington Post by John Feinstein in which Krzyzewski claimed jealousy had spawned widespread hatred for his program and, more outrageously, that some people actually hoped his players got hurt on the court.
Redick, picking up the gauntlet from his coach, told the media the day before the Duke-Illinois game, "There's great level of hate for Duke." He pointed to some aggressive fouls on Deng, recounted an incident from seven weeks earlier when a Georgia Tech player came off the bench to pick a fight with him, and spoke of the rude and crude behavior of opposing fans. That, of course, got the least sympathy, since Cameron Indoor Stadium had set the inhospitable standard for college basketball.
An anti-Duke contingent filled the gigantic Georgia Dome, which had plenty to boo during the tense battle against thirteenth-ranked Illinois. The Illini coach, Bruce Weber, was already pissed off at Krzyzewski over the head-to-head recruitment of Shaun Livingston, a high school star from nearby Peoria. Weber had learned that the Duke coach said Illinois played for Big Ten championships while his team played for national championships.
Duke defeated the Illini by 10 points and then used a late spurt to hold off upstart and unranked Xavier to win its fourteenth of 16 Elite Eight games since 1963, the last 10 of 11 by Krzyzewski teams. Their only losses were to Purdue in 1980 and Kentucky in 1998.
The Blue Devils had not won an NCAA regional since 2001, and this was only their third in ten years, yet a perception existed that they made the Final Four every season. Carolina had actually been there four times since 1995, but Duke's ten trips in nineteen years left the more indelible impression.
They carried that burden to San Antonio. Another ho-hum Final Four, and unless Duke beat Connecticut in the semifinals and made it to Monday might there really wasn't anything to toast. Krzyzewski's task was to keep that attitude from infiltrating his squad, which faced its biggest challenge from a UConn team that was a consensus preseason No. 1 and, after recovering from a January swoon, playing its best basketball.
Carolina had a presence in San Antonio. Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski were in newspaper comparisons and on constant TV graphics: the most Final Fours, the most NCAA appearances, the most tournament victories. Krzyzewski's tenth trip was 1 behind Smith's 11 and 2 short of Wooden's 12. His 4 NCAA Tournament wins in 2004 left him within 1 of Smith's record 65 victories, but he was still coaching, and passing the two retired legends was just a matter of time.
Krzyzewski was also trying to pass Knight in NCAA Championships. Both had 3, 1 short of Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and 6 behind Wooden's unreachable 10. Since Wooden retired in 1975, and the tournament began expanding toward its current sixty-five teams, just making the Final Four had become the equal of winning the national title in the days of twenty-five to thirty-two teams. Six victories were now required to take home the national championship, and the field was balanced geographically. So who really had more postseason success, UCLA or Duke?
UConn's All-American center Emeka Okafor sitting out most of the first half with two fouls was remindful of Smith holding Michael Jordan out of the famous 1984 upset loss to Indiana. Krzyzewski kept his big men, Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph, in the game with two fouls. Both picked up their third before halftime, a key development.
When the Blue Devils still led 75--67 with four minutes to play, the race against the clock began. Okafor had returned to take over the game, fouling out Williams, Randolph, and backup center Nick Horvath as UConn scored 12 straight points. Left to try to stop him was freshman Deng, who despite his strong postseason wasn't tough enough in the last minutes. He allowed Okafor to rip the ball out of his hands for the go-ahead basket. The Blue Devils needed one stop, one rebound, or one basket in the last six exchanges. Inexplicably, they stopped attacking on offense and played not to lose.
It came down to a missed three-pointer by Redick and his jump stop in the lane on the next possession, trying to draw a foul and the two free throws that could still pull out the game. He didn't get the call and UConn came up with the loose ball.
"You killed us! You cheated us!" Krzyzewski screamed at official Ted Hillary with three seconds left and UConn up by an insurmountable four points. Like five years ago in St. Petersburg, Duke lost a Final Four game to Connecticut that it seemingly could not lose.
Duke left San Antonio with a 31--6 record but without the national championship and a fourth consecutive loss to UConn, which was later deemed by NCAA insiders as the worst-officiated championship game in history. At home, the meltdowns to UConn and Maryland in the ACC Tournament drew new attention to the list of big games Duke had frittered away, dating all the way back to blown leads against Louisville and Arkansas for the 1986 and 1994 NCAA championships.
Although Dukies reveled in calling Carolina and Smith "chokers" in their decades of dominance, harping on 1983 and '84 NCAA losses to Georgia and Indiana with Jordan on the roster, and the string of Final Four failures in the 1990s, their team had now bombed out more dramatically than Smith's Tar Heels. The Blue Devils led Seton Hall by 18 points in the 1989 Final Four, Kentucky by 17 points in the 1998 regional final, and Indiana by 18 points in the 2002 Sweet Sixteen before losing all three games. They suffered upsets to Kansas in 1988, Cal in 1993, and Florida in 2000.
During the spring of 2004, Duke and Carolina found themselves strange bedfellows again. They had united the summer before against ACC expansion, hoping the league would not kill the golden goose by bringing in new members that ended the league's traditional round robin in basketball and, especially, the cherished home-and-away games between the Big Four---Duke, UNC, N.C. State, and Wake Forest. They lost that battle, as the ACC took in Miami and Virginia Tech and eventually added a twelfth school, Boston College.
This time, the two programs found themselves losing important players, in three cases, before they ever enrolled.
At Duke, Deng wanted to stay for his sophomore season but pressure from his family in England to support their Dinka tribe back in the Sudan made him enter the NBA draft, where he was the seventh pick in the first round by Phoenix (and later traded to Chicago). The Blue Devils also lost Shaun Livingston, who had signed the previous fall but never put on a Duke uniform. The high school star, convinced by would-be agents that he was an early pick, entered the draft before the May deadline. He also went in the first round to the Clippers, leaving Krzyzewski miffed at the system.
Carolina's losses didn't seem so damaging, given the depth the Tar Heels had coming back. Citing a university policy to expel any athlete committing a felony, Roy Williams rescinded the scholarship offer to JamesOn Curry, the leading scorer in the history of North Carolina high school basketball who had signed with UNC after originally committing to Doherty. Curry had been caught in a sting operation at his school in nearby Burlington. After plea-bargaining his fifteen charges of drug trafficking and possession down to six, he received a suspended sentence and eventually signed a second-chance scholarship with Oklahoma State.
New Jersey high school star J. R. Smith, who was first recruited by Doherty and later befriended by Williams's assistant Joe Holladay, also opted for the NBA draft to help his blue-collar family. He went on the eighteenth pick to the New Orleans Hornets.
The attrition severely hurt Duke's chances of returning to the Final Four. With Deng and Livingston, the Blue Devils were a certain preseason pick to get back and win the NCAA Tournament, but Krzyzewski, who was once immune to NBA pillaging, had now lost eight players early in six years.
It led to wild speculation, and hand-wringing anxiety at Duke, over the July 4 weekend that Krzyzewski, himself, was leaving to coach the Los Angeles Lakers.
Mitch Kupchak, a former UNC player and general manager of the Lakers, had first talked with Krzyzewski in June and began pursuing him as a candidate to take over one of the most storied franchises in NBA history.
Kupchak targeted three other coaches besides Krzyzewski, starting with Roy Williams because of Kupchak's association with UNC. Williams had a chance to get involved with the Lakers after 1992 season while still at Kansas (the Lakers eventually hired Randy Pfund) but insisted he was a college coach. He told Kupchak the same thing, and their conversation remained private.
Copyright © 2005 by Art Chansky