Duke turns questions to exclamation point COUNTDOWN TO CHARLOTTE -- FINAL 4 PREVIEW

March 29, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

The preseason prognosticators reserved their acclaim for North Carolina. The Tar Heels were a deeper, more athletic version of the team that won the national title last year, the reasoning went. They were a lock to return to the Final Four, where they would be the clear favorite to repeat as national champs.

At least the predictors had the right state in mind. And they only missed the correct campus by about nine miles.

Duke, an old friend of the Final Four, will revisit the party on Saturday for the seventh time in nine years. North Carolina will be watching, having been ousted by Boston College in the East Regional's second round.

The Blue Devils (27-5), who are pursuing their third national championship in four seasons, earned a date with Florida in the national semifinals with a knockout performance in the Southeast Regional in Knoxville, Tenn.

Duke prolonged its season by elevating defense to an art form. It capped a two-game clinic by holding Player of the Year Glenn Robinson to a season-low 13 points in a 69-60 victory over top-seeded Purdue in the regional finals. Duke survived Knoxville after giving the ball to freshman guard Jeff Capel with stunning results. And the Blue Devils are two victories away from cutting down another net because they have yet to find a task that All-American senior swingman Grant Hill cannot perform.

The Blue Devils weren't exactly sleepers coming into the NCAA tournament. After edging North Carolina to win the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title, Duke lost to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament semifinals, but was strong enough to draw a second seed in the Southeast.

Five months ago, however, the Blue Devils were on the outside looking in, the fallen champions who had receded into the background of a picture now dominated by Carolina blue. And questions swirled around them.

With Bobby Hurley gone, who would run the offense? How much would Hill have to carry the team, particularly on offense? Would Cherokee Parks and Antonio Lang, two solid frontcourt players from a year ago, take their games to another level? What kind of consistent backcourt help could Duke expect from Marty Clark, Chris Collins and Capel?

"There were so many questions, except for Hill. You had guys stepping into new roles, and the team kind of struggled early to find themselves," said Jay Bilas, a Duke radio broadcaster who played on the 1986 Blue Devils team that started the current Final Four run.

"They had a lot of unimpressive early wins against weaker teams, like Northeastern and Western Carolina. They weren't able to blow anyone out," Bilas added. "I think it's amazing that they ended up losing to only three teams [North Carolina, Wake Forest, Virginia] before the tournament. If you're going to give credit somewhere, it's got to go to the boss."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's summation of the season mirrored Bilas'. Minutes after Duke had beaten Purdue, Krzyzewski looked at Hill, Lang and Capel.

"Nothing against you guys, but I'm a little bit shocked -- not at this point -- but looking back," said Krzyzewski, who recalled back-to-back road wins in December as a sign that maybe the Blue Devils would be worthy of the Final Four.

"When we won at Michigan and Iowa, I thought we would be a good team, because good teams win games like that," Krzyzewski said. "We've had a chance to win and lose every game this year. That hasn't always been the case at Duke.

"Like in '92 [with Hill, Hurley and Christian Laettner], we were just going to win. This year, it hasn't been that way. We've had a lot of close games. We don't have illusions of grandeur. We don't think we're better than we are."

Unlike the powerful early-'90s Duke teams that won back-to-back national titles, this one has thrived on a delicate balance with little margin for error. All along, Hill has been the steady hand. In the beginning of the season, Krzyzewski decided to sacrifice Hill's explosive scoring ability by giving him point guard duty.

Hill responded by running the offense deftly, and his unselfishness helped Parks and Lang develop into a fine scoring duo down low. Meanwhile, Hill took the team lead in scoring, steals and assists, a lead he still holds in all three categories.

"Grant does so many different things," said Parks, who has averaged 14.5 points and 8.3 rebounds and gives the defense an imposing presence in the paint.

"Compared to the '91 and '92 teams, we aren't as talented, but we complement each other very well," Parks added. "Grant, Antonio and Marty have the experience. I'm fired up. I want the seniors to win three national championships. The most important thing is we're playing our best ball right now. We're really coming together."

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