Durham, N.C. -- As telling as the number of losses the Duke Blue Devils have suffered this season were the number of tents outside Cameron Indoor Stadium yesterday. As telling as the team's place in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- last -- was how quiet this place has become.
A little more than 24 hours before Duke was to play sixth-ranked Maryland (22-5, 11-3) here tonight, there were less than a handful of empty tents and waterlogged sleeping bags strewn about. One was numbered "27," a remnant from the days when big games brought 300 or more happy campers to a place appropriately called "Krzyzewskiville."
But there is no joy in "Krzyzewskiville."
Mighty Coach K has sat out.
The mood around campus has grown increasingly bleak since Duke began its startling free fall from the top of the college basketball world to the very bottom of the ACC. The drop has coincided with coach and icon Mike Krzyzewski being sidelined nearly two months ago with complications from October back surgery.
"I think it's been tough on everyone," Steve Wojciechowski, the freshman point guard from Baltimore's Cardinal Gibbons, said yesterday before practice. "From the perspective of the seniors, they've been to the Final Four and they've won a couple of national championships. From the perspective of the freshmen, the reason we came to Duke was to play for Coach K. Not being able to has been very hard."
Duke (12-15, 2-12) has lost more games overall than in any other season since 1982-83 and has clinched its first last-place finish in ACC history, guaranteeing inclusion in the play-in game to this year's ACC tournament March 9 in Greensboro.
But despite winning only one league game this season on a court on which many once considered them invincible, the Blue Devils say they can still win their final home game. It would prevent the Terps from winning here for the first time since 1987-88.
"It's important for us to finish strong," said senior center Erik Meek, who along with Cherokee Parks and Kenny Blakeney will be honored before tonight's game. "And it's important to the seniors to win our last game in Cameron."
Krzyzewski hasn't been seen around campus much since being sidelined one day after Duke lost its ACC opener at home to Clemson on Jan. 4. The 47-year-old coach has visited with the team a couple of times, most recently before its victory at Florida State.
There have been as many rumors about Krzyzewski's physical condition and mental state as reasons for the team's disintegration. The rumors will likely be cleared up when Krzyzewski holds a press conference here Monday, but the problems might not. A siege mentality has set in.
"Between Coach K, some injuries and the fact that we still have a lot of young guys, everything sort of flooded over us," said junior guard Chris Collins. "Every emotion you can go through has happened to us at one time or another. Everyone has a lot of pride, and individually, it's been a little bit embarrassing."
Said assistant coach Mike Brey: "They're still getting a lot of attention, but it's a different kind of attention. We've told the guys that how they handle this situation will be just as important as how they handled all the success. And I think they've handled it with a lot of character."
Because the fall has been as spectacular as the team's dominance the past decade was remarkable, it is still somewhat surprising to see the Blue Devils play with little confidence, especially down the stretch. It happened again Sunday when now-top-ranked UCLA turned a close game into a nationally televised, 100-77 rout at Pauley Pavilion.
The Blue Devils' lack of an experienced point guard has contributed to a breakdown in a once textbook offense, and their inability to stop other teams defensively is still shocking to those who watched Krzyzewski coach Duke to back-to-back national championships in 1991 and 1992 and seven Final Four appearances in nine years.
"It surprises you because of how good they've been," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team's 74-72 victory at Cole Field House on Jan. 28 was his first over Duke since coming to College Park.
"You didn't expect it this year because they were ranked so high early in the year. But everything they've gone through this year adds up. I've been there. When you lose a lot of games, there are periods of a game where sometimes your players don't have a lot of confidence."
Said N.C. State coach Les Robinson, whose Wolfpack has beaten Duke twice this year: "Just as winning is contagious, losing is contagious, too."
The Blue Devils have not given up hope of continuing their streak of 11 straight NCAA tournaments, though even getting a bid to the National Invitation Tournament with a losing record is a long shot. But those hopes seem as empty as the tents and sleeping bags outside Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"I think other teams are waiting in line for us," said Collins. "They're saying, 'Duke's human. Duke's mortal.' I think everyone is getting a little chuckle out of it."
Except here in Krzyzewskiville, where mighty Coach K has sat out.