Coach K Does It Again
I’m not typically one to praise Duke basketball (Dick Vitale does enough of that for every analyst in America), but after watching the Blue Devils play a near-flawless second half against Illinois on Friday night, you have to wonder, how does they do it? After a somewhat sloppy first half by both teams, a half in which Duke was pounded on the boards by the supposedly weaker Illini, Duke held a slim one-point lead. The Devils were in shaky position, especially considering Deron Williams’ and James Augustine’s foul troubles in the first half, and J.J. Redick’s cold hand.
In the second half, Duke solved its rebounding woes the most effective way possible: by not missing their shots. And when they did miss, their tenacity on the glass drew a foul on the Illinois big men on almost every possession. Their interior passing was as good as I’ve seen all year, save maybe Kentucky’s performance against Florida in the SEC title game. Their perimeter defense held sharpshooters Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head to a paltry number of threes (I’m not sure of the exact statistic). The only Illini player who did any real damage was the tenacious Roger Powell, who did his best to get Deng and Randolph in foul trouble.
But foul trouble for Duke wasn”t really trouble at all. Coach K didn’t radically adjust his lineup, but continued to make the same rotational changes he’s made throughout the year. People can talk about Chris Duhon’s unflappable leadership all they want (and deservedly so–it was a great performance), but the real reasons Duke doesn’t get rattled are a) they’ve been there before and b) Mike Kryzyzewski.
There’s a certain inevitability to this team, and to every Duke team, no matter where they’re playing, no matter whom the opponent. You just sense when they have the four-, the six-, the five-point lead, they’re just toying with the other team, who’s trying to hang on for dear life. True, Illinois’ guards missed some wide-open looks in the second half that could have ignited runs. But you run down to the other end of the floor, and you get a Ewing drive-and-dish to Williams, a Deng high-low with Randolph, a couple of threes by J.J. Redick, who finally wakes up in crunch time, and the game is all but over. It’s the same story every time. It’s roundhouse punch, all of a sudden, deep in round eight, that just drains the will out of the opponent to get up off the mat. And Duhon doesn’t even have to score.
So as much as you might hate seeing the refs give Duke players the benefit of the doubt on every foul call, Redick’s cocky post-bucket showmanship, or the hyped-up commentary about what a warrior Duhon is to be playing through pain in what might be his final college game (and believe me, I hate ALL of it), you have to respect this team. Because if there’s one thing that defines Duke basketball, it’s a remarkably strong will to win. Every player on the floor for Duke comes to the same conclusion at the same point in the game: “Let’s just finish this thing.” You can almost always point to one two- or three-minute stretch in the second half where Duke just kicks it into another gear. Illinois held off the punch longer than most teams, but in the end, the Big Ten champs succumbed too. It gets tougher and tougher to swallow each time, but never ceases to impress.
And now, having purged my system of this nauseating admiration for Duke, I can with clear conscience root for underdog Xavier in the Elite Eight.