Burden of expectation was Duke's toughest foe

April 10, 1992|By Ron Green Jr. | Ron Green Jr.,Knight-Ridder

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If there was anything the national championship trophy didn't say about the Duke Blue Devils, coach Mike Krzyzewski found it with his words.

"It was the best year, absolutely the best," Krzyzewski said. "I put them through the toughest situations and they were great. There won't be very many teams like that one."

Not many at all.

From the time they convened on Oct. 15 to begin practice until they put the finishing touches on their championship odyssey in the Metrodome, the Blue Devils lived with the expectation of success.

That was their burden.

A second straight national championship and a special page in history was their reward.

Rarely has so much been expected of a college basketball team. But from the moment the Blue Devils beat Kansas a year ago to claim their first national championship, eyes shifted ahead. Their jTC quest would never be ordinary.

But theirs wasn't an ordinary team and that, as much as anything, was why the Blue Devils were able to stand on the podium Monday night in the Metrodome, reveling again in the ultimate accomplishment.

It became much more than a matter of talent. It was evident by the end of the NCAA tournament that the Blue Devils were playing on emotion and a sheer determination to succeed.

The Blue Devils had the personality to handle whatever came their way. Walking a thin line between confidence and arrogance, the Blue Devils were relentless in their pursuit of success. They didn't talk about winning the national championship, just of winning. And they always expected to win.

That will be the legacy of Christian Laettner, Brian Davis, Bobby Hurley and the Hills, Grant and Thomas. They always found a way to win games -- even under the most harsh conditions.

Laettner, who became college basketball's Player of the Year, refused to let the Blue Devils lose. That was never more apparent than when he kept their championship dream alive with his miraculous last-second shot against Kentucky in the East Regional final.

In Laettner, Duke had the ultimate warrior. Sometimes snarling, sometimes comforting, Laettner gave the Blue Devils an invaluable edge in both talent and temperament. He played on the ragged edge, occasionally stepping over the line. But Laettner was always there. His three-point shooting eliminated what was supposed to have been the missing link in Duke's championship chain this season.

Davis broke free from being typecast as a defensive specialist. He brought more offense to the Blue Devils and was the ever-present soul of the team. He had a way of making things happen and when the Blue Devils could get into a running game, Davis soared.

Hurley cemented his place as the best point guard in college basketball and as an undeniable winner. Grant Hill did a little of everything, all of it with a touch of grace. Thomas Hill picked his spots, finding what Duke needed and giving it to the Blue Devils. Antonio Lang went from being a role player to being a force. Cherokee Parks and Marty Clark responded, especially in the Final Four.

Several times Duke had five players score in double figures.

"We're not as deep a team as some people," Krzyzewski said. "But we had six kids who could play at a high level. Usually we could get two or three of them to step up when we needed it."

The Blue Devils always needed it. Because they were ranked No. 1 from the first day of practice, they were always a target. Even a trip to Boston University became a workout for the Blue Devils, who were never allowed to relax.

"That made us better," Krzyzewski said. "We always knew we were getting somebody's best shot."

The Blue Devils became stars along the way, drawing crowds on and off the court. Little girls squealed and grownups stared. It was something else they had to shoulder.

Krzyzewski kept the Blue Devils' attention directed ahead. He broke the season into segments to better gauge their development. The national championship was in the back of everyone's mind but it remained a fuzzy goal in the future until the very end.

In the meantime, Duke had to play its way through the ACC, through road games at Michigan, LSU and UCLA and, finally, through an unmerciful postseason.

"It all began with Coach K," Davis said. "He laid out a game plan. Even after winning a championship, he conveyed it to the staff and the team. Everyone had a part in it. It was a team effort."

It had to be when Hurley broke a bone in his foot during Duke's loss at North Carolina. It became imperative again when Grant Hill sprained his ankle before Hurley was completely recovered. Even on the last day of the season, Davis was limping with a sprained ankle. The Blue Devils always found a way to adapt.

They could adjust their playing style and their mind-set. What never varied was their place on the throne.

Duke became the first college team since North Carolina in 1982 to start the season ranked No. 1, be ranked No. 1 in the final poll and to win the national championship.

The day before Duke met Michigan for the national championship, Krzyzewski was explaining what it had been like for the Blue Devils this season.

"Our goal was to achieve things along the way and to have fun," he said. "Winning the national championship became a goal only after we got over beating Kentucky. It hasn't been a burden. It's been exciting."

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