Duke entered the year ranked #2 behind Connecticut in both major polls. With that lofty ranking came unreal expectations that included finally getting over the drought of losing in the Sweet 16 for two straight seasons. Certainly everything seemed to be in place with a beefed up roster, a ton of size, and reportedly the best college bound high school prospect in the nation.
After falling behind 12-0 to Detroit, the Blue Devils were able to rally back to beat the Titans by 11 in the season opener. While the game worried some, the general consensus was that the young Blue Devils were just looking ahead to the Alaska trip. However Duke looked less and less spectacular in close games against Liberty and Pacific before losing to Purdue in the championship. At that point the sky began to fall in Durham. The big guys were soft, the guards were overrated, and this great team just wasn't great.
To compound the negativity, the Devils were due to face #5 Michigan State at the Breslin Center. And if things weren't bad enough, seldom used center Michael Thompson decided he wanted to take his ball and go home to Northwestern. At that point many fans were openly wondering if Coach K's troops would be able to finish in the top five of the conference, to say nothing of being successful in March.
With many expecting a loss, Duke walked in and hammered Michigan State 72-50 on national television. It would be more than two months before the Blue Devils would suffer a second loss on the year. During that time Duke won 18 games with the nation's best defensive team including big wins over Wake Forest, Texas, NC State, Georgia Tech, and a thrilling overtime victory over rival North Carolina.
If the Blue Devil nation was too low after the Purdue loss, they were probably too high after 18 straight wins. People were actually expecting the team to go undefeated during the ACC regular season, despite many picking them to lose between two and four games in the preseason. That talk was halted as NC State upset top ranked Duke in Raleigh, and then Wake Forest did the same in Winston Salem.
In all Duke would counter the 8-0 mark in the first half of the conference slate with a 5-3 record on the home stretch to finish 13-3, which was still good enough to win the regular season title by two full games over the Wolfpack. At this point the pulse of Duke nation was optimistic about a sixth straight ACC title. After all, sweeping your rival makes any glass half full.
The conference tournament looked to be going according to plan as Duke beat Virginia before pulling away from Georgia Tech late in the second half to advance to the chamionship game against upstart Maryland. After floundering throughout the first half, Duke appeared to wake up in taking a double figure lead midway through the second half, making a sixth straight championship seem like a foregone conclusion. Then the Blue Devils lost a big lead in two minutes and all of a sudden it was Maryland celebrating a tournament victory.
Once again many Duke fans began to worry about this team's ability to break the streak of Sweet 16 exits. Those fears came to the forefront when it was announced that Duke was in a bracket that featured six of the nation's top 15 teams including a potential second round match up with Arizona, and a potential regional final match up with the hated Tar Heels.
After losing in the ACC title game in such dramatic fashion Duke looked vulnerable and uncertain. Much of the national media began to pick this up and promptly jumped off the bandwagon to the tune of predicting second round exits at worst, with many doubting Duke's ability to get out of the Sweet 16 yet again. Virtually no major analyst was picking Duke to make the kind of noise everyone comes to expect from Krzyzewski coached teams.
After rolling over Alabama State and Seton Hall, Duke found battles against Illinois and Xavier, two teams who had combined to win 35 of their previous 38 games. Still the Blue Devils were able to emerge victorious in both instances to reach the team's first Final Four since 2001. Once there Duke fell short against preseason favorite UConn thanks in large part to a number of questionable fouls and poor shot selections that allowed the Huskies to rally from eight down to take a 79-78 win in the final three minutes.
The final buzzer signaled the end of a terrific ride for this year's team, but also the end of a terrific career as Chris Duhon's tenure as the Duke point guard finally came to an end after 123 victories in four seasons. While many will define the 2003-2004 season by a pair of championship debacles, it's probably wiser to look at the year for what it was: one of Krzyzewski's better coaching jobs.
This was by no means Coach K's most talented team. There was no National Player of Year caliber stud, though Luol Deng is certainly headed in that direction. There wasn't a lot of real experience – four of the top seven players in the lineup were sophomores or younger. And this team wasn't going to simply out score its opponents as Duke had done in the past. In fact this group never cracked the 100-point mark, and averaged a decade low 79 points per game.
Despite all of that, this group of Blue Devils battled against unreal pressure, expectations, and controversy to post 31 win in 37 games, while taking us all on a terrific run that ended one rimmed out jumper from a shot at a fourth national championship. Who would have thought that kind of success was possible back in late November as we all wondered aloud if the season was already doomed.
It's been a great and wonderful ride throughout the 2003-2004 season, and for that we should all be grateful. Perhaps the only regret is that Midnight Madness is six months away.
Tomorrow: Part Two -- Season Awards