After escaping against 15th-seeded Belmont, Duke’s players were pleased to be practicing Friday. Oh, yes, it sure felt good to be preparing to meet No. 7 West Virginia in the NCAA tournament’s second round Saturday instead of packing up bags and traveling to campus.
“We could have been back in Durham today. We could have been back home, watching games,” said forward Lance Thomas, who like his teammates was happier than usual to go through the grind of getting ready to play. “We’re fortunate enough to still be here, playing games.”
Every year for 10 years, Duke notched at least one victory during March Madness, a streak that ended with an opening-round exit against Virginia Commonwealth in 2007.
The thought of that disappointment hasn’t been far from the Blue Devils’ minds.
“It did sting. You carry that on to this year, thinking about it all the time: 366 days ago, that happened,” sophomore guard Gerald Henderson said. “That was tough to swallow.”
It was Henderson’s end-to-end drive and layup with 11.9 seconds left Thursday night that erased Duke’s final deficit and allowed it to eke past Belmont 71-70 in the West Region. Without his basket, the No. 2 Blue Devils might very well have been saddled with a three-game tournament losing streak.
“We all just really breathed a sigh of relief,” center Brian Zoubek said. “It doesn’t matter how you win. It’s just that you win.”
And no one has done more winning at this time of year than Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who hopes to add to his record total of 69 NCAA tournament victories by beating the Mountaineers and their own well-known coach with more than 600 career college wins, Bob Huggins.
Krzyzewski acknowledged the obvious: The most recent editions of his squad have not been as talented as those that reached 10 Final Fours and won three national championships.
“We could impose our will certain years. The last two teams have not been that way,” an ailing Krzyzewski said, his hoarse voice a whisper a day after his fever spiked to 104 degrees. “However, this team has been an exceptional team for us. And it needs to regain a little bit more of a verve. Winning yesterday helped, especially the manner in which we had to win.”
While Krzyzewski is in his 28th year at Duke (28-5), having long ago established a reputation and a style, Huggins is in Year I at West Virginia (25-10).
And what a remodeling project it’s been, going to Huggins from departed-for-Michigan John Beilein.
Holdover players such as star Joe Alexander had to adjust to a new offensive approach, the switch from zone to man-to-man defense—and a new personality from the man in charge. And Huggins, he of the three-hour practices, leaves no doubt who’s in charge.
“The reality is, it’s not a democracy. They don’t get to vote on it. They don’t get much choice. You can do it enthusiastically or you can fight it. And they have not fought it for a second,” said Huggins, who’s been known to raise his voice once or twice.
“Generally,” he noted, “they’re more afraid of me that they are who they’re playing.”
His players confirm that.
After playing for Beilein, playing for Huggins “is a lot different. It’s a lot more up-in-your-face, yelling and screaming, and being a tough-minded person,” sophomore Joe Mazzulla said. “He tries to make us tough and prepared for situations like this.”
And Krzyzewski? How do Duke’s players characterize his approach?
“Coach and his staff are the same way: They’re very encouraging,” Thomas said. “They know we’re all in this together.”
Krzyzewski was not about to endorse the story line of squeaky clean “Coach K” against the man who earned a reputation as “Thug-gins” during his time at Cincinnati.
“This is definitely no ‘Good and Evil’ or whatever,” Krzyzewski said. “I really like him a lot. He’s got a coaching background. His dad was a coach. He’s just been a basketball guy his whole life. He’s done a great job everywhere he’s been. He’s a survivor.”
One might expect the coaches to have nothing but nice things to say about each other on the eve of their matchup.
Huggins, though, cracked wise when talking about appearing on his counterpart’s radio show.
“Well, he’s so dry and boring that he needs somebody to kind of give it a little bit of life. So I try to help him every chance I get. That’s just the kind of guy I am,” Huggins said, drawing laughter.
“Can you imagine listening to him for an hour? It would be brutal. It would be awful. That’s why he has guests.”