It's The Hard That Makes It Great

Mike Corey reflects on the recent news in and around the basketball program and reminds all fans of lessons learned in the past.

I remember April 2001. We'd just won our third national title. We had 4 of 5 starters returning, plus a high-flying transfer in Dahntay Jones and an incoming McDonald's All-American in Daniel Ewing. We had the best backcourt in America with Jason Williams and Chris Duhon, the best coach in America in Mike Krzyzewski, and all the expectations in the world that we'd repeat as national champs. 

That 2002 squad was an exceedingly good basketball team. We blew out #7 Iowa. And scraped by a top-10 Kentucky team. Crushed top-5 Maryland, and an excellent Wake Forest team. But for various reasons, we lost the hitch in our step, and got (very) unlucky against a determined Indiana squad in the tournament. 

I remember April 2004. We'd just lost a heartbreaker to UConn in the Final Four, but hope abounded for '05. "We are going to be back here next year," J.J. Redick said defiantly afterwards. "We're going to be back in the Final Four."

That seemed like a foregone conclusion. The bench would be comprised of DeMarcus Nelson, Shavlik Randolph and Sean Dockery, with a starting five of Redick, Shelden Williams, Luol Deng, Daniel Ewing and Shaun Livingston

Then, the going got tough. Luol Deng declared for the NBA Draft, at the urging of some of his family members. And Shaun Livingston opted to bypass college altogether. Duke was still extremely good, but the team wasn't nearly as good as I personally hoped it would be had that team arrived on campus in the fall as expected. And the next few seasons and years produced Duke teams that were not nearly as dominant or capable as those that had immediately preceded them. 

The comparison was unfair, of course. Those 2001 and 2002 Duke squads were sensational, and replete with future NBA players. And even though Duke was still an elite program, and was still churning out wins, there were just a few bad breaks, a few big recruiting misses, and a few national titles for our foes down the road. 

There were rumblings that K had gone the way of his mentor, Bobby Knight; that Duke bball had gone the way of Notre Dame football; that the game had passed this old Pollack by. 

There was a time early in K's career when Duke was clobbered by Virginia. Jim Sumner once wrote of the aftermath: "After the Virginia game, the Duke staff went out to get a bite to eat. Johnny Moore, a member of the sports-information staff, raised a glass and proposed a toast. 'Here's to forgetting tonight.' A defiant Krzyzewski interrupted, 'No! Here's to never forgetting tonight.' Duke won its next sixteen games against Virginia."

Duke suffered tough defeats the past few seasons, on the court and in recruiting. But rather than putting it out of sight and out of mind, K seized upon it all. And his players bought in big time.

We as fans seemed to identify 2010-11 as the season when Duke would make its return to the top of the NCAA. Coach K had a different timeframe in mind. He's playing chess while the rest of us are dabbling with checkers.

Before this season began, K told his staff, "I'm as happy with the state of our program as I've been." He knew what could come in the next few months. 

Coach K has many uncommon gifts, but his greatest is his ability to motivate. His experience as an Olympic coach famously resuscitated him. But energy and instruction can only get you so far. You need extensions of yourself on the court. And K had that this season. There aren't enough adjectives to describe what Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek accomplished this season. The arc of their careers will be instructive to generations of future Duke players; they've set a gold standard of their own.

With Ironman Kyle Singler returning for his senior year, along with the swashbuckling guard Nolan Smith and a host of talented underclassmen, Duke is certain to be preseason #1 in 2010-11. Repeating as national champions is extremely difficult, however, no matter who you've got coming back or coming in. Every season is a new season. Duke will have to fight and scrap just as hard if not harder than they did this past championship year. The target and the venom will be renewed at the Blue Devils, as will all the pressure of heightened expectations, and of having a freshman point guard. 

The great Cormac McCarthy has written, "You can't stop what's comin'." Few will be able to stop Duke. But no things in this life or in this game are certain. You never know how young people will react, how they will mesh, who will stay healthy, how other teams will develop, how brackets will turn out, or which way balls will bounce. Until then, Duke can proudly call itself, "National Champs."

Don't take a moment of it for granted. The "drought" of the past few years has made this title all the more invigorating. The hard times make the good times better. Now that we're back on top, revel in it, but do it with class and the perspective that hasn't been exhibited by our peers around the league. I've no doubt everyone will. 

And in the meantime, we as fans can celebrate the hard work, sacrifice and achievements of the outgoing senior class--model student-athletes--and the incoming one, too. 

Welcome back to Duke, Mr. Singler and Co. Thanks for the memories to come. 

Thank you, Coach K. For all you've done.

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