INDIANAPOLIS -- When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski looked at a tape of last year's championship game against Nevada-Las Vegas in the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, he didn't like what he saw. A scared team. A tired team. A team about to be blown out by 30 points.
"We had a hollow look," Krzyzewski said yesterday. "There was no spark."
A year later, the Blue Devils have gone from hollow to hellacious, from a record-setting defeat to a nation-stunning, 79-77 victory over the previously unbeaten Runnin' Rebels in Saturday's semifinal. A year after its most humiliating loss in the Final Four, Duke again is on the verge of its most significant victory.
For the third time in the past six years, and for the fifth time in school history, Duke (31-7) will try to do what its recent and not-so-recent predecessors couldn't when it meets Kansas (27-7) tonight in the NCAA championship game at the Hoosier Dome.
The Jayhawks will merely try to do what they did in 1988.
"I think I can help my team, in that you learn from your disappointments as much as your successes," said Krzyzewski, who has led the Blue Devils to four straight Final Fours, and five in the past six years. "I think I can be a better coach. It's very important in college athletics to talk about this year. If you have children, you know that they don't remember the past very well. All they care about is right now."
Beating UNLV was a matter of pride, of standing up to the neighborhood bully. Beating the Jayhawks will be a more than a matter of simple execution, more than coming down from what Duke point guard Bobby Hurley called "the best feeling I've ever had after a game," more than wanting to exorcise the ghosts of past big-game defeats.
It is something Duke hasn't done very well this season. Krzyzewski talked of how his team has not played well this year after emotionally draining, physically taxing victories. It happened most recently in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final against North Carolina.
"We've gone through periods when if we don't invest the same emotional and physical effort, we're a very ordinary team," Krzyzewski said. "If we ignore that fact, we're foolish."
The Blue Devils certainly won't disregard, or disrespect, Kansas. The Jayhawks players might not be as gifted or as well-known as UNLV's, or even as Duke's, but they are to be taken seriously. Ask Indiana, which lost by 18 points in the semifinals of the Southeast Regional. Or Arkansas, which saw a 14-point lead turn into a 12-point loss in the regional final.
Or ask the Tar Heels, whom Kansas beat here in the other semifinal, 79-73. If any game got Duke's attention, it was Jayhawks' victory over North Carolina. "You know if they can do that to Carolina, and we couldn't, they're a really good team," said Hurley, neglecting to say that Duke beat their archrivals in both regular-season meetings.
The Jayhawks are so used to playing the role of underdogs in this NCAA tournament that you would expect that they'd be barking by now, instead of talking. But while some still are trying to squeeze more out of that kind of story line -- "At least one more game," junior forward Alonzo Jamison said yesterday -- others are a bit more realistic.
"Earlier in the tournament, it was a much bigger factor," said senior forward Mike Maddox, the only remaining player from the 1988 NCAA championship team. "I think this team has gotten the respect it deserves. I don't think there is an underdog."
Said Kansas coach Roy Williams: "It's not a miracle that we're here. The reason we're here is that we're a good basketball team."
Krzyzewski and his players couldn't agree more. They don't buy into the theory that the pressure is back on Duke, regardless of what the Blue Devils did here Saturday night. But as much as they'll try to tell you that they won't be a trifle disappointed should Kansas win, don't be fooled.
While sophomore guard Thomas Hill, junior center Christian Laettner and even Krzyzewski talked yesterday about how happy they would be with the season no matter what the outcome, it was left for freshman forward Grant Hill to reveal a deeper look at Duke's feelings.
"If we do lose, it would be a letdown of sorts," said Hill, who had a strong 11-point, five-rebound, five-assist performance against UNLV. "Anything else would not be satisfying to me. It would be pretty devastating."
Said Krzyzewski, "There's a big difference between not being satisfied, and thinking you've failed. We want to win this game. But you've got to look at the big picture."
A victory for Duke would elevate Krzyzewski from the respected to the revered in his profession, from a coach who has come close to winning the big one to one who won't have to answer questions about why he hasn't.
"But if we win this year, and we don't win next year, people will be asking, 'When are you going to win again?' " Krzyzewski said yesterday.
The Jayhawks have been trying to answer that question since upsetting Oklahoma in the 1988 final in Kansas City, Mo. Since then, the team has lost one coach (Larry Brown), been put on NCAA probation and banned from postseason competition for a year and lost in the second round last year after being ranked No. 1 or 2 for much of the regular season.
"It's been a long road to hoe," Maddox said.
Said Williams: "Great opportunities come to those who make the most of little opportunities. We've made the most of the little ones, and now we have a great opportunity."
So does Duke.
Most Final Fours without a title
4--Arkansas, 1941, 1945,1978,1990
4--Illinois, 1949, 1951-52,1989
3--Iowa, 1955-56, 1980