Defending champ Duke loses that dynasty look Threepeat unlikely after recent fade


They have lost their past two games and looked lousy and lethargic more often than not. They just got their best player back after a month's absence, but he is far from the dominating force he was earlier this season. They are questioning each other, privately and publicly.

Is this any way to defend a national championship?

When 10th-ranked Duke begins play Thursday in this year's NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils will be one of the most underwhelming favorites to repeat in recent memory. The only threepeat they're talking about this week in Durham, N.C., is not losing a third straight game.

"Nobody has asked us about winning again, maybe because nobody believes we can," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "But I think we believe we can. With accomplishment comes confidence, and with confidence comes belief."

Said junior forward Grant Hill, whose slow-to-heal toe injury has been the focal point of the Blue Devils' recent malaise: "People are writing us off. At the same time, I don't think they want to play us."

While Duke's chances of losing to Southern Illinois at the Rosemont Horizon outside Chicago are remote, so is the likelihood of its becoming the first team to win three straight NCAA titles since UCLA's dynasty ended with six from 1967 to 1973. The Blue Devils have been been given 6-to-1 odds to win again.

"The way we're playing right now, I think it would be hard for us to win six straight games," senior point guard Bobby Hurley said at last week's ACC tournament in Charlotte, N.C., after Duke (23-7) was upset in the the opening round by Georgia Tech, the tournament's surprise champion.

From start to finish, the Blue Devils clearly didn't resemble the team that had begun to put it together last month when they took apart North Carolina down the stretch at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Against the Yellow Jackets and the against the Tar Heels five days before in Chapel Hill, Duke wasn't playing with its head or its heart.

"We don't have the same fire and intensity," said Hurley, who, along with Grant Hill, might be paying the price for last summer's competition against the Dream Team. "Let's say we win two or three games in the NCAA tournament. Who's to say this [another loss] isn't going to happen again? We haven't shown the maturity all season."

For all that was said about how much the Blue Devils were a combative team the past few years with Christian Laettner, they were immeasurably tougher because of him. He took a lot of shots because of his seemingly arrogant personality, but Laettner also took most of the big shots Duke needed in its run to two straight NCAA championships.

It was Laettner who made the 17-foot turnaround prayer at the overtime buzzer last year against Kentucky in the East Regional final at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, sending the Blue Devils to the Final Four. It was Laettner who did the same thing against Connecticut at the end of regulation the year before.

Said Duke assistant Mike Bray: "We didn't show signs of the fight we needed to win. Maybe we'll learn from this. But I don't know if there's any fight left in us."

Emotionally or physically. Krzyzewski tried to shake things up a few weeks ago. Before a key ACC game against Florida State, he took the pictures of the current Duke players out of the locker room and replaced them with pictures of players from the teams that have gone to four straight Final Fours and six in the past seven years.

Even Hurley and fellow senior Thomas Hill, who have played in the NCAA championship game in each of their first three years, didn't escape what Krzyzewski downplayed later as "a little rearranging." Though Krzyzewski joked, "With four women in my house, I'm used to doing things like that," the message was clear: the lack of commitment wasn't acceptable.

It worked for a while. Even without Grant Hill, who badly sprained a toe against Wake Forest on Feb. 13 and missed the team's last six regular-season games, the Blue Devils won four straight and seemed to be getting ready to make their annual run through March Madness.

Then came the 14-point loss at North Carolina. Though Hill returned against the Yellow Jackets, he was limited in what he could do. Without the explosiveness above the rim, without the confidence to cut on his injured foot, Hill has been reduced to another 6-foot-7 jump shooter.

"He couldn't be the same kind of force he was before," said Georgia Tech assistant Sherman Dillard.

Last year, Hurley and Hill suffered foot injuries during the regular season, one right after the other. But the Blue Devils had them back in the lineup before the ACC tournament, and both seemed to be rejuvenated by the time off they had. It didn't work out quite that way this year.

"It's a lot different than last year," said Krzyzewski, who'll be returning to his hometown for this week's subregional. "When we lost Grant and Bobby for a while, we were a better basketball team overall. Last year's team was one of the best teams to have ever played in our conference."

This year's team has had its problems getting consistency from several players. Until Hill got hurt, Collins was hardly a factor. The lack of depth, combined with Duke's relentless style, has seemingly worn down the Blue Devils. After setting the all-time NCAA career assist record against Maryland on March 3, Hurley has had a letdown.

But Krzyzewski, as is his habit, will look for bright spots, one of them being the extra rest provided for Grant Hill by Duke's earliest ACC tournament exit in six years. He is hoping that his players can forget the past, the past two games as well as the past two years, and approach this year's NCAA tournament with more a sense of purpose than a sense of making history.

"If you can have that great confidence of a team that believes there is nothing you can't do, but somehow keep the hunger of a poor person, of someone who's never won a thing, then you've found the right combination," said Krzyzewski.

It doesn't seem as if the Blue Devils have it.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad