To Coach K, last year is just distant (albeit pleasant) memory

November 10, 1991|By Tim Layden | Tim Layden,Newsday

DURHAM, N.C. -- Seven months AI (After Indianapolis) and at last Coach K has latched onto a means for slowing the breakneck inertia that would call his Duke basketball program a dynasty and hoist him onto the throne. As if reading from stone tablets, he said recently, "Defending national champion . . . that's the last time you'll hear me say it."

It was two autumns ago that the naive and undefeated Steve Fisher of Michigan saw April become November before he could eat supper at home. It was last year that UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian went from a championship to NCAA damnation to greatest-of-all-time coronation before chewing a single towel. Each won the NCAA Tournament -- Michigan in '89, Vegas in '90. Each returned a batch of future draft choices to attempt a repeat and spawned dynastic fever.

Each failed, Michigan miserably and UNLV famously. No program has won consecutive NCAA titles since UCLA in 1972 and '73 (the last two of seven consecutive). So Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K of Tobacco Road, knows where this is headed and chooses to intercept it. "We're not defending anything," he said. "We won the national championship; no one can take that away from us. Nobody has won the 1992 national championship yet."

So there.

This, because none of them anticipated the rush to adoration in tTC the aftermath (duration: undetermined) of last spring's Final Four upset of UNLV and defeat of Kansas to win the first national title in Duke's history. Not since that Monday night in the Hoosier Dome when forward Brian Davis threw his arms around Krzyzewski and the two of them got their faces on every newspaper in the country, not since then has it all slowed even the slightest.

There was the celebration at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and another one in downtown Durham and, naturally, one at the White House (everybody showed up). There were classes and a summer in which Duke's top six players participated in basketball junkets ranging from the Pan-Am Games to the ACC All-Star Tour.

Krzyzewski has been under almost constant demand. "We've had to say no to more people than ever before," Krzyzewski said. "And even with that, we've also said yes more. There's just been many more requests."

There was immediate, low-level controversy after the Final Four when guard Billy McCaffrey, a star in the Kansas game, transferred to Vanderbilt. Center-forward Crawford Palmer later transferred to Dartmouth.

Still . . . 6-foot-11 center Christian Laettner, the most polished big man in the country, is back, along with junior point guard Bobby Hurley and precocious 6-8 sophomore forward Grant Hill. So, too, are all-purpose perimeter players Davis and Thomas Hill and 6-8 Antonio Lang. They are joined by 6-11 freshman center Gherokee Parks, one of the nation's best incoming low-post prospects, and Eric Meek, a 6-10 freshman.

It is a group that demands expectations, Coach K's best intentions notwithstanding.

"I know we're going to be a very, very good team," said Laettner, who would have been a high pick in the NBA draft had he chosen to enter it. "We might be the best team we've had in my four years at Duke, maybe the best team in Coach K's [12] years here."

Hurley, the disheveled point guard from Jersey City, N.J., said: "I'm sure our fans expect us to be back there again this year. I suppose some people would look at that as pressure, but it doesn't get old for us."

They have an odd mix of athletes this time, with only one player on the roster -- Hurley -- under 6-4. This demographic of rebounders and inside defenders has worked against Krzyzewski's attempt to keep his road-weary team from peaking, say, in October.

"We've been playing so hard every day in preseason," Laettner said. "I'll see students who were watching us and they'll say, 'Geez, I thought you guys were going to have some fights.' "

But it is also a team richer for the experience of winning one of the most compelling games -- never mind just college basketball -- in recent athletic times, that being the 79-77 semifinal against UNLV.

A tape of the victory plays regularly in the campus student union. T-shirts lampooning UNLV are still readily available. And the emotional memories are so vivid, so fresh, that most of the Duke players and coaches seek to restrain them, lest they become too potent, blurring the present.

"I can't watch it all the time," Hurley said. "It was an incredible thing, really. I have to say it's in the past. I have to be that way."

Krzyzewski watched a tape of the game every time he recruited a player. "You've got to be careful not to live in the past," he said. "But certainly last season was the best. It can't get better than that. We want to see if it can be as good."

Laettner, too. The projected first-round choice visited Dennis Scott this summer, saw his expensive car and expensive home. He was asked dozens of times -- why didn't you go? "I didn't want to," he said. "I want to defend my national championship."

2& Honest words, best spoken quietly.

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