Duke keeps its focus, avoids talk of a dynasty Repeating as champ will be big challenge

November 24, 1991|By Don Markus

The Duke players barely had finished their celebration at the Hoosier Dome last April, and Mike Krzyzewski was still in the middle of accepting congratulations for his team's 1991 national championship when someone popped the question: Can you do it again?

"Let us enjoy this one for a while," Krzyzewski said.

The Blue Devils certainly reaped the rewards for their victory. They met George Bush and signed Cherokee Parks. They said goodbye to two players who graduated and two others who transferred, and didn't wonder how the dearly departed would be replaced.

And every time Krzyzewski was asked that question, he mentioned how the official Duke dictionary was minus one very significant word. "Defending," said Krzyzewski, "is not part of our vocabulary."

It seems to be on everybody else's mind these days, as the college basketball season begins. With four starters returning, with depth and balance and, in senior Christian Laettner, one of the best big men in the country, Duke is a nearly unanimous No. 1 team.

Whether the Blue Devils become repeat defenders is another matter entirely.

Before putting down the money you've socked away for your kid's education on Duke's winning it all this season, consider this: No team has won back-to-back NCAA titles since UCLA in 1972 and 1973, when the Bruins were in the midst of their run of nine championships in 10 seasons.

And before proclaiming Duke as the sport's next dynasty, consider this: The Blue Devils are no more the prohibitive favorites, and possibly less so, than Nevada-Las Vegas was last season, when it lost to Duke in the semifinals, or than Georgetown was in 1985, when the Hoyas were upset by Big East rival Villanova.

"When you're expected to win, that's when you usually don't," said Louisville coach Denny Crum, whose Cardinals failed to repeat after winning NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986. "And when you're not, that's when you do."

Crum, an assistant to legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for three seasons, said there are a number of factors that make it more difficult, if not impossible, to repeat than it was 20 years ago.

* The size and quality of the NCAA tournament field. When the number of teams was expanded, from 23 in 1968 to 32 in 1975 to the current field of 64 in 1985, it diluted the overall talent, but

added to the number of early-round upsets.

* The exposure teams receive. Because of the saturation of regular-season games on ESPN, most top-ranked teams are on television at least 10 times. Duke has 18 regular-season games televised, as well as the ACC tournament. "It's easier to pick apart a team's tendencies," said Crum. "It makes the better teams more vulnerable."

* The large turnover in personnel. Louisville lost only one starter from its 1980 championship team, but that was star guard Darrell Griffith. "If you lose one starter on a basketball team, it's 20 percent," said Crum. "If you lose one starter in football, it's only 1/22."

One of the reasons UCLA was so dominant was an abundance of talent. If it wasn't Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard, it was Lucius Allen, Mike Warren and Lew Alcindor. If it wasn't Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, it was Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes.

UCLA might have been the last dynasty, but the Bruins were not the first. Except for UCLA, since the NCAA tournament began in 1939, there have been four repeat champs. In each case, the teams won no more than two titles in a row.

When told that Krzyzewski's approach to this season is trying to unburden his players of the pressures or thoughts of repeating, Wooden said: "I don't think that's any different for any defending champion. It was the media that was constantly reminding us."

Everyone reminded the Runnin' Rebels throughout last season, when they won their first 34 games, including a midseason blowout of then-No. 2 Arkansas in Fayetteville. On top of that, after having its NCAA probation put back until this season, UNLV had to fend off questions regarding allegations of more infractions.

Even Wooden, retired and living in Encino, Calif., got into the act when he was asked during the season about a new dynasty in the desert.

"Tark [coach Jerry Tarkanian] was a little upset when I said last season that a lot of teams have won one in a row," Wooden said recently.

Wooden is part of a shrinking school that believes it was more difficult to defend in those seasons when UCLA was winning than it is today. He said a smaller field, though it made for fewer games, made for tougher early-round opponents.

"We really had trouble getting by some of those first-round games," Wooden said. "And you had to win your conference just to get in, which usually meant that the teams were better."

Wooden said that, in the regular season, those UCLA teams were in a similar position to UNLV's last season and to Duke's likely one this season: They were not expected to lose -- ever.

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