When Greg Koubek went home to Clifton Park, N.Y., over Christmas break this past December, he was a couple of days removed from the worst moment of his Duke basketball career and seemingly light-years removed from his best.
In a nationally televised victory at Oklahoma earlier that week, Koubek had not played a second. It was the first time since he had put on a Blue Devils uniform four years before that he hadn't taken off his warm-ups during a game.
His career, he thought, was over.
"Part of me didn't want to come back," Koubek recalled last week.
That part -- the insecure player who had been looking over his shoulder for most of the past two seasons -- merely wanted to finish out his classes in Durham, get his degree in sociology and leave the bittersweet memories behind.
But the competitive part of Koubek rejoined the team for its next game.
"I didn't even know that he was thinking about that, so obviously it was his decision," said Koubek's father, John, an engineer. "He always had confidence, and I don't think the coaches ever lost confidence in him."
Koubek said he doesn't even want to imagine what would have happened if he had quit the team, now that he has gone from the end of the bench to the starting lineup and the Blue Devils are going back to the Final Four for the fourth straight year.
When sixth-ranked Duke (30-7) plays top-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas (34-0) in the semifinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament Saturday at the Hoosier See DUKE, 6D, Col. 3DUKE, from 1DDome in Indianapolis, its senior co-captain will be making a little college basketball history.
Koubek will become the first player to appear in four straight Final Fours. Duke teammate Clay Buckley also will have gone to four straight, but didn't play as a freshman. The Blue Devils are the first team to go to four straight since UCLA in 1973.
"I definitely feel a little spoiled," said Koubek, a 6-foot-6 swingman. "A lot of guys dream of going to the Final Four and never get there. I obviously picked the right place to come."
There were times during the past two seasons when Koubek didn't feel that way, as his playing time decreased along with his confidence. After being used as a three-point threat off the bench as a freshman, Koubek's shot deserted him as a sophomore.
With other, more talented perimeter players joining the team -- first Brian Davis, then Thomas Hill and finally Grant Hill this season -- Koubek's court time, like his play, became sporadic.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was sympathetic, but only to a point.
"We never lost confidence in Greg," Krzyzewski said Sunday in Pontiac, Mich., shortly after the Blue Devils had defeated St. John's, 78-61, in the Midwest Regional final at the Silverdome. "I remember telling my staff in December, Koubs is going to win some games for us. But playing time is not a Christmas gift at Duke, and you play only if you practice well. He wasn't."
Krzyzewski's promise to his assistants came true in an Atlantic Coast Conference early-season game against Georgia Tech. With the score tied at 75, Koubek dived for a loose ball off a missed free throw by Thomas Hill and shoveled it to Bobby Hurley, who fed Hill for a layup at the buzzer.
"As long as I'm coaching, I'll always remember Greg getting to that ball," said Krzyzewski.
His role steadily increased, and Koubek, who had started earlier in the season, returned to Duke's starting lineup after a scoring a career-high 21 points in a disheartening, 22-point loss to archrival North Carolina in the final of the ACC tournament.
For for the first time since his freshman season, his jump shot became more than just a sometime thing. That was evident in Duke's 81-67 victory over Connecticut in the Midwest semifinal, when Koubek had 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting.
"I felt I was holding something back before," said Koubek. "I wasn't playing aggressively. Now, I feel I'm back playing the way I should be. I've been on the low side. I don't have much time left at Duke, so I want to play as hard and as well as I can."
Said Hurley: "I think it started with the first game against Carolina at Cameron. After that game, he really started to play well. I don't think the guys ever lost confidence in Greg, but we wouldn't be playing now if he wasn't playing this way."
And Koubek wouldn't be making college basketball history this week in Indianapolis.
Duke at a glance
Location: Durham, N.C.
Record: 30-7, Midwest Regional champion, ACC regular-season champion
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (Army, 1969), 334-167 (16 years overall at Duke and Army), 261-108 in 11 years at Duke.
How Duke got to the Final Four: Beat Northeast Louisiana (102-73) and Iowa (85-70) in Minneapolis; beat Connecticut (81-67) and St. John's (78-61) in Pontiac, Mich.
History in the NCAA tournament: Record: 42-15. This will be its ninth appearance in the Final Four (1963, 1964, 1966, 1978, 1986, 1989, 1990). The Blue Devils have reached the championship game four times, losing to UCLA in 1964, to Kentucky in 1978, to Louisville in 1986 and to Nevada-Las Vegas last year.
Most underrated player: Thomas Hill, sophomore guard, who has become the team's defensive stopper.
They went there: James Madison and former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, former President Richard M. Nixon (graduated from Duke Law School), Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Gene Corrigan, television newswoman Judy Woodruff, American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole, Gen. Walter Boomer (directed Marine forces in Persian Gulf), bandleader Les Brown.