RALEIGH, N.C. – The championship machine Mike Krzyzewski has operated here on Tobacco Road for 25 years is built on a simple, basic foundation: talent. Lots and lots of talent.
It's not that Duke hasn't played hard or smart. But there were plenty of nights Krzyzewski saw the ball get tossed and knew that all those All-Americans he had in blue and white stacked the deck in his favor.
And then there is this year, where a thin and (by Duke's standards) moderately talented team has been racked by injury and illness only to keep winning anyway.
Which explains the satisfied smile Krzyzewski wore Thursday after his fifth-ranked Blue Devils battled back to beat North Carolina State 86-74 here in Raleigh and move to an unlikely 12-0 on the season.
"I know we're not Laettner or Brand," he said. "[But] I really like my team. They've been a lot of fun. I love watching the evolution of these kids. I'm just so proud of what they are accomplishing.
"Those are big things in coaching."
Krzyzewski is not about to apologize for generally having the best players all these years, but you can tell the old coach is relishing his new role as a relative underdog. No one likes being the bully. All coaches like getting more out of less. They all secretly wish they were Gonzaga or Valparaiso, at least every once in a while.
It's a satisfying badge of honor that Krzyzewski, as a victim of his own success, hasn't worn in decades.
So don't hate him for enjoying the moment.
Duke basically has a six-man rotation right now, and that includes a bunch of guys playing out of position. Unheralded Lee Melchionni and David McClure play critical roles. Yes, the Blue Devils still have some McDonald's All-Americans, but this group is in the top five because of how it plays, not who it plays.
"We've had injuries and we were a bit thin to start out the year, but we have good players who work together and are very unselfish," Krzyzewski said. "We know we're not that good, but we're going to try to play hard and play together and see what happens.
"So far it's worked out."
The Blue Devils' mental toughness is the reason why – and they grow tougher with each passing game. These guys just find ways to win.
On a dark, rainy night here against a State team (10-5) desperate for a victory, Duke fell behind by 10 in the first half. The defense was a cluster of confusion as the Wolfpack took turns making highlight-reel dunks to get the RBC Center rocking.
"We were ready to get blown out of here," Krzyzewski said.
Instead Duke slowed things down, showed poise and resolve and rode the inside strength of Shelden Williams (22 points) and Melchionni (16). Then the Blue Devils did all the little things. They hit free throws (25 of 29). They got seven rebounds from a guard (J.J. Redick). They committed just three second-half turnovers.
They were the tougher team, mentally and physically.
"We have to be mentally tough because we don't have the depth of some teams we've had here or teams we had my freshman or sophomore year," said Williams, a burly junior forward. "We don't have the team to blow people out so we know we're in for a fight every game.
"It's a different angle this year," he continued. "A lot of [years] we rely on talent to win. Now we rely on each other to win."
So we have a Duke team that appreciates every victory. The Blue Devils have won 22 of the last 25 games against the Pack, but this win was treated like it were the other way around. The locker room was jubilant. The normally serious Krzyzewski spent half of his postgame press conferences cracking jokes.
With teams that have grand expectations, victory often brings more relief than rejoicing. This still is Duke, but this is different.
"I'm having more fun with this Duke team than any I've been on," said Redick, a junior. "We're a blue-collar group."
Redick paused for a second, realizing he was using a term not often associated with the Blue (blooded) Devils.
"We really are."
- Mike Krzyzewski
- Blue Devils