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."
The ingredient that may put Duke over the top is Capel. After accruing minutes at shooting guard early in the season, Capel began to get more time at the point, allowing Hill to roam the floor as more of a scoring threat. Capel has run the point almost exclusively in the tournament, and he was superb in Knoxville.
He took over the offense in the second half against Marquette, helping Hill to score 16 second-half points to lead Duke to a 59-49 semifinal win. Against Purdue, Capel made a handful of stellar plays and took extraordinary care of the ball. His 19-point, seven-assist, one-turnover effort meant as much to Duke's victory as the draping defense Hill and Lang played on Glenn Robinson and Cuonzo Martin, the Boilermakers' leading scorers.
"He has been sensational throughout the tournament," Krzyzewski said of Capel, who committed just two turnovers in 72 minutes in Knoxville, while scoring 28 points and adding 11 assists.
If the Blue Devils win their third national championship, it will cap off a season that has been a rejuvenating one for Krzyzewski. Duke began the season in the shadow of the Tar Heels, with a superstar player, some question marks, and without some of the pressure of past seasons. Four months later, here are the Blue Devils, reminding observers why they have been one of the nation's top programs for so long.
"You know how you end one season? Last year, we kind of ended three seasons. We were dead," said Krzyzewski, recalling the Blue Devils' second-round loss to California.
"I think when you get so tired from being on the racetrack at such a fast pace, you lose sight of some of the neat things that are happening. This, for me, has been a great year personally. It's taught me that I still have those warm feelings about coaching. So much of it has to do with the kids I have this year. I'm as excited as I've been in the last five years."
COUNTDOWN TO CHARLOTTE
All games on
Channels 11, 9
Arizona vs. Arkansas, 5:42 p.m.
+ Florida vs. Duke, 8:30 p.m.
' Championship, 9:22 p.m.