Duke in decline? Call it rebuilding

January 29, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- Don't count them out. Don't ever count them out. They're still the Duke Blue Devils. They didn't make the Final Four seven times in nine years and suddenly forget how to play.

So, never mind the Maryland fans who took great delight in chanting "0-7" yesterday, stormed the court in Ex-stasy, raced outside to build snowmen as tall as Bill Russell, er, Joe Smith.

It had been 10 years since Maryland last beat Duke at Cole Field House, so the celebration was in order. But don't be surprised if two, three years from now, Duke remembers this game more than Maryland.

This was the day Duke rallied from a 14-point deficit on the road against the No. 8 team in the country. The day Trajan Langdon emerged as the next great Dookie. The day the Blue Devils wouldn't die.

"They have this thing," Maryland coach Gary Williams said, shaking his head after the Terps' 74-72 victory. "They just know they're good."

They're not as good, and might not be for a long time. But they still were ranked No. 6 at one point this season. Even without Mike Krzyzewski, even without Grant Hill, even without an ACC victory, they can't be dismissed.

Fifteen straight times, they had beaten Maryland. It would have been 16, if not for Smith's two blocks in the final 26 seconds, if not for Exree Hipp's five three-pointers, if not for Keith Booth's eight points in the final 4:20.

"By no means are we in decline," senior center Cherokee Parks said. "We're going to turn it around. You can't judge a couple of games in the middle of a season and say the program is in decline."

Not yet, anyway, and not even after this week, with Duke expected to fall to 0-8 in the conference when soon-to-be No. 2 North Carolina visits Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday.

There isn't much hope right now, not with Coach K out for the season, not with a 12th straight NCAA tournament bid unlikely. In fact, it probably will take a few years for Krzyzewski to rebuild, assuming he even returns.

Parks and senior center Eric Meek will be gone after this season. Sophomore forward Greg Newton faces possible suspension from the school for an academic dishonesty conviction.

The loss of Newton would be another blow to a program that lost Joey Beard as a transfer to Boston University. Newton and Beard were expected to replace Hill and Antonio Lang. As it stands, Duke lacks a true forward.

Any time a player leaves, it snowballs: Meek planned to red-shirt this season but changed his mind after Beard transferred. In effect, Duke lost two players who would have been significant contributors next season.

Meanwhile, Steve Wojciechowski, the freshman point guard from Cardinal Gibbons, shows no signs of becoming the next Bobby Hurley. And the only recruit signed for 1995-96 is Caymon Domzalski, a 6-foot-10 center from New Mexico.

Of course, there's always Langdon, the 6-4 freshman from Anchorage, Alaska, who spends his summers playing baseball in the San Diego Padres' organization.

Yesterday, he scored a career-high 20 points, 18 in the second half, and 13 in a span of 4:02 when it appeared Duke was on the verge of getting blown out.

"Unbelievable," Williams said.

"Unbelievable," Parks said.

Duke also started freshman Ricky Price and sophomore Jeff Capel yesterday, and Wojciechowski was the first player off the bench. Price, coming off an ankle injury, scored only two points, but supposedly is better than Langdon.

Wojciechowski? He missed an open jumper with 19 seconds left, scored only three points in 22 minutes and looked a step slow throughout. But at least he penetrated on the final possession, and got Meek the ball on the baseline.

The Blue Devils planned to run a double screen for Langdon, but the inbounds pass went too far back, and Maryland's pressure took them out of their offense. Meek ended up with a decent look.

But Smith blocked his shot as time expired.

In one sense, it was a crushing loss for Duke, especially on a day it held Smith to a career-low six points. But the outcome wasn't as important as the effort. And, on a day the Blue Devils easily could have folded, the effort was there.

"It felt really good," Meek said. "This game, I felt great compared to all those other games. The chemistry between the perimeter people and the big guys feels so much better than it ever was."

"Duke basketball is alive and well," said assistant coach Tommy Amaker, the former Duke point guard. "Hopefully, we can add some wins, and put an exclamation point on it."

The best sign is, the younger players are impatient. Langdon said his high school team lost only seven games his final three years. Capel said, "there are no more moral victories." And Wojciechowski spoke most eloquently of all.

"I don't want to say we're encouraged," he said. "I'm tired of being encouraged by losing. That's not my style. It's about time we win. It's about time we win right now."

Right now might be a little soon, but don't count them out, don't ever count them out. Those blue uniforms still mean something. That was obvious to Maryland, on the day the Blue Devils wouldn't die.

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