Loss turns Blue Devils' season around Players listen when Coach K speaks

February 09, 1991|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

DURHAM, N.C. -- Mike Krzyzewski talks about the players on his sixth-ranked Duke basketball team the way a teacher might about her students: They play together nicely and are very good listeners.

Those reasons are as good as any to explain why these supposedly green Blue Devils have a 19-4 record and are leading the Atlantic Coast Conference at 7-2 going into today's 1 p.m. game against Maryland (12-9, 2-6) at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

"We've had an opportunity to be knocked out a couple of times," Krzyzewski said after Thursday night's 86-74 victory here over Virginia, the team's fourth straight and ninth in its past 10 games. "But we've been incredibly consistent."

The one major blip in the pattern came last month, when Duke was soundly beaten, not to mention thoroughly embarrassed, in a 17-point loss to the Cavaliers in Charlottesville. When the Blue Devils returned to campus early that evening, Krzyzewski brought them out for a little, post-game workout.

Except for the broken nose suffered by blue-chip freshman Grant Hill during the impromptu practice, the blowout defeat turned out to be a blessing.

"You've heard of wins that turned around a season; this was a loss that turned around our season," said junior forward Brian Davis.

Not that the Blue Devils -- a team that, despite its relative youth, was picked by some to win the ACC -- were headed for oblivion. But the points Krzyzewski had been trying to get across suddenly seemed more valid and his audience became more attentive.

"That loss made the younger players grow up," said forward Greg Koubek, one of two seniors on a team dominated by underclassmen. "After that game, the players started to listen more to what Coach K was saying. We believe in him and believe in the system."

Said Krzyzewski: "I think they feel they need more coaching on the floor than a lot of the recent teams here. When you're a senior, you already have the confidence and, either consciously or subconsciously, you probably feel like you know everything already. And I think they like each other. They like playing with each other."

Despite Duke's success over the past five seasons -- four Final Four appearances since 1986, including a current string of three straight -- this hasn't always been a happy camp. Some players were jealous of the attention given former All-American Danny Ferry. Former guard Phil Henderson criticized his teammates last season for not being tough enough.

But this year's team, led by junior Christian Laettner and sophomore Bobby Hurley, appears to be a bit more cohesive on the court. Five players are scoring in double figures. Nine players have started at least two games. "Everyone knows they're going to get a chance to be the star on a given night," said Grant Hill, the son of former National Football League running back and Baltimore Orioles executive Calvin Hill.

Mostly, the spotlight falls on Laettner, the sleepy-eyed, 6-foot-11 center who is starting to evoke comparisons to Ferry; or on Hurley, the team's point guard, who is playing more under control and starting to live up to the reputation that followed him from high school. But it can be any number of players.

Take Koubek, for instance. After playing well off the bench as a freshman, Koubek lost confidence in his shot and slumped badly his next years. But he recently became a hero in Duke's last-second victory at Georgia Tech -- diving for a loose ball to set up the winning basket -- and his career suddenly has been rejuvenated.

"I think other coaches would have given up on me," said Koubek, whose back-to-back three-point shot and three-point play in the second half Thursday night broke open the game. "But Coach K always was trying to pump me up and I was able to keep a good attitude."

Said Krzyzewski: "I think Greg has given a lift to the whole team, especially to the younger guys. They see how hard he has worked to get back to where he is."

There are those, of course, who are tired of hearing about how young and precocious the Blue Devils are. The truth is that Hurley and Laettner started all of last season, that Koubek, Davis, sophomore guard Billy McCaffrey and sophomore forward Thomas Hill were all part of the regular rotation. The only significant newcomer is Grant Hill.

NOTES: Williams said that junior G Walt Williams, who suffered a fractured left fibula in a 94-78 defeat to Duke Jan. 12, has started to do some light jogging, but probably won't be back until the middle of next week at the earliest. The Terps, who have lost two straight ACC road games, return to Cole Field House Wednesday against Georgia Tech.

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