They were emotionally spent and physically drained a year ago, overwhelmed by a 22-point loss to North Carolina in the final of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, unsure what the NCAA tournament would bring, unaware that they would not lose again.
Now, as the Duke basketball team prepares to defend the school's first national championship, the Blue Devils are of a completely different mind and body. They are energized rather than enervated, enthused rather than confused, ready to take on the rest of the 64-team field in this year's NCAA tournament.
"Last year, we kind of sat back and let it happen," senior forward Brian Davis said in the team's dressing room Sunday at Charlotte Coliseum, shortly after Duke completed its 20-point blowout of the Tar Heels in the final of the ACC tournament. "We're going to attack. We know how to do it, and we're excited about it. We're not defending the championship. We're going out to get us another one."
Duke (28-2), the top-ranked team in the country the entire season and the No. 1 seed in the East Regional, will start its march toward what it hopes is a fifth straight Final Four Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., against Campbell (19-11), the Big South champion. The Blue Devils are looking to become the first repeat NCAA champions since UCLA in 1972-73.
A month ago, it didn't seem as if this was possible. Bobby Hurley, the team's junior point guard, had broken a bone in his foot during a 75-73 loss at North Carolina that ended Duke's 23-game winning streak. Three weeks later, just as Hurley was about to return, Grant Hill badly sprained an ankle in practice.
"When it was just the injury to Bobby, I felt yes, we could get back to where we were earlier," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday in Charlotte. "When Grant got hurt, I wasn't too sure. What was great to see was how fast Bobby and Grant came back, how hard they worked to get back in shape."
At the time of Hurley's injury, Krzyzewski spoke of turning the situation into a positive one for the other players. It would give Hill, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward with jaw-dropping talents, a chance to play some point guard. It would give Antonio Lang, a 6-7 sophomore who had backed up Hill, a chance to start at forward.
The Blue Devils won their first four games without Hurley, but the difference in their style of play was noticeable. They struggled at times in a half-court offense, and their defense was ordinary. They nearly lost at home to Maryland, then lost three days later after blowing a 10-point lead at Wake Forest. The only reason they held onto their ranking was that everybody near the top lost, too.
"We weren't playing like Duke," said senior center Christian Laettner, who had carried Duke back from the brink of upsets at LSU and against Maryland.
Then came the injury to Hill, which forced Hurley to return a little sooner than anticipated. Things started coming back a little for the Blue Devils in the last 10 minutes of a 10-point victory at UCLA, and with the return of Hill, a little more during a 12-point win to close out the regular season against North Carolina.
But Sunday in Charlotte, Duke played as it had in January, when it toyed with good teams and embarrassed average ones. In giving North Carolina coach Dean Smith by far his worst loss in 17 ACC finals -- Smith's five previous defeats were by a total of 13 points -- the Blue Devils sent a clear message to the rest of the country: we're baaaaaaaaaaaaack.
"Anything can happen, but it's going to be awfully hard for them to lose when they play like that," said Smith. "I think it's the best Duke team that I've seen, and I've seen about all of them."
At full strength, Duke is clearly a better team than it was a year ago. The Blue Devils lost outside shooters Greg Koubek, who graduated, and Billy McCaffrey, who transferred to Vanderbilt, but Laettner has become a phenomenal three-point threat and Hurley a more consistent one. They are a more athletic team than the one that upset UNLV and then beat Kansas for the championship.
And, mostly, they are a more experienced team, with players like Thomas Hill and Davis, the team's two best defenders, more skilled offensively; with a bench that includes a star in Grant Hill and a star-in-waiting in freshman center Cherokee Parks. Consider this: How many teams can afford to have a player of Grant Hill's talent, and temperament, coming off the bench?
"Not a bad sixth man," said assistant coach Mike Bray.
One of the reasons that Hill is the team's sixth man is that his ankle is still a bit tender. (You couldn't tell from the wraparound dunk he threw down against the Tar Heels on Sunday, one in an 8-for-8 afternoon.) Another reason is the play of Lang, who seems to be blossoming with each game.
"He's been solid throughout," Krzyzewski said of Lang. "He's been overshadowed by some of the other guys, but he's played very well. I think Cherokee has also played great. These seven guys we need. We'll need seven, and maybe one or two more."