When I first saw the Final Four pairings, I realized that every game would be good. I knew the teams weren’t exactly the four toughest teams in college basketball, but I knew it would be exciting to watch. Although I really had only one main concern. I told myself, “As long as Duke doesn’t win.”
I’m sick of the Duke Blue Devils winning national championships.
In the end, however, Duke did win, in typical Duke style. They proved that they are the most complete program in the country. They come at you from all over the floor, including four feet behind the three-point arc. They remained poised during stretches of adversity and they stayed mentally tough throughout the tourney.
In the semifinal game against Maryland, Duke looked as if Superman had no remaining kryptonite. They dug themselves into a 22-point deficit. They uncharacteristically were turning the ball over and bombing their usual three’s, but just weren’t connecting.
Maryland hardly looked intimidated as they were the aggressor, taking the ball hard to the basket and rebounding well.
Senior Shane Battier and his Blue Devils did not panic. Instead, they kept their composure and showed their basketball intelligence as they mounted a comeback. Like a smart team would, they attacked the basket when they weren’t hitting their shots. Easy for me to say. But somehow, someway, they “deviled” their way back into the lead and kept it.
In the championship against Arizona, I was confident that the Dukies would fall. It wasn’t Shane Battier or Jason Williams who haunted me in the Arizona game. It was Mike Dunleavy, who looked 13 years old and whiter than a ghost as he lunged three three-pointers on three consecutive possessions to give Duke a comfortable cushion before winning, 82-72, to give Duke its third national championship under coach Mike Krzyzewski. Dunleavy didn’t actually win the game for Duke, but I didn’t expect him to provide the role that he did.
So, what do we get from another Duke national championship? I will say this. As much as I hate the team from Durham, they remain as one of the few elite college programs with a real identity.
For many talented college players today, the game is about showcasing their own talent, not learning the team game. Duke is one of the few programs remaining where the team consists of gifted players, with respect for each other and their coach. So many players are too anxious to move on to the NBA where they will be yet another jersey number on a team full of millionaires with no identity. Maybe during a stretch playoff run they will come together more as a team, but it will never compare to the camaraderie that comes with a close collegiate ball club.
In the age of kids going to the NBA directly out of high school or after one or two introductory years of college, Duke still exists as one of those schools that keeps most of their players the entire four years. Although there was the rare case of Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and William Avery all leaving early after the same season.
It does say something about what it means to play Duke basketball, like it or not. Take Shane Battier, for instance, the man I love to hate – probably because he was the main reason North Carolina couldn’t find the key to unlock the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship safe. But you must respect his love for the college game. He easily could have left early for the NBA and signed a big time contract.
Instead, he continued in college, becoming Duke’s Mr. I-Can-Do-Everything, including reintroducing the lost art of taking a charge. In reward, he made his dream come true by finally winning himself a championship on a special team that credits a special program.