Posted: 2:35 a.m. Friday, March 29, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS — When did the Sweet 16 – the round of 16 – become Duke’s bugaboo?
Once upon a time, Duke consistently breezed through the Sweet 16 round. Long before Mike Krzyzewski arrived on the scene, Duke was perfect in the regional semifinal round.
It wasn’t always easy. Duke’s first Sweet 16 win in 1960 was a thrilling 58-56 victory over St. Joseph’s in Charlotte, a game that ended in controversy.
Duke blitzed NYU in the 1963 Sweet 16 – en route to the school’s first Final Four. A year later, Jeff Mullins turned in one of the great NCAA performances in Blue Devil history as he poured in 43 points to turn back No. 7 Villanova in the regional semifinals in Raleigh.
Two years later, Duke faced one of the highest ranked team it would ever face in the Sweet 16, edging No. 5 St. Joseph’s in Raleigh to get within one game of the Final Four.
That’s a 4-0 record under Vic Bubas in Sweet 16 games.
A little more than a decade later, Duke returned to the Sweet 16 under Bill Foster, after a thrilling victory over Rhode Island in Charlotte to advance. This time the foe was No. 20 Penn in Providence, R.I. It was an interesting matchup since Duke and Penn had gone head-to-head on the recruiting trail for two top players. Duke won the battle for Gene Banks (Penn was one of his five finalists), but Penn beat Foster for point guard Bobby Willis.
For 35 minutes of the Sweet 16 game, it looked like Willis would prevail, but Mike Gminski turned things around with a couple of blocked shots and Duke pulled out an 84-80 victory. Two years later, No. 14 Duke stunned No. 4 Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Not only was that the highest ranked Sweet 16 opponent the Devils had ever faced, the game was played on Kentucky’s homecourt – Rupp Arena.
For those of you who are counting, that’s 2-0 for Foster in the regional semifinals … 6-0 for Duke basketball.
Mike Krzyzewski breezed through his first Sweet 16 with ease – coasting past DePaul in the Meadowlands as Johnny Dawkins scored 25 points.
A year later, he lost in the Sweet 16 – the first Sweet 16 loss in Duke history. But it was hardly an embarrassing or unexpected loss – No. 17 Duke fell 88-82 in Cincinnati to No. 3 Indiana, which would later win the national championship on Keith Smart’s clutch shot.
But that was just a blip in K’s performance. Starting in 1988 and ending in 1999, he led Duke to the Sweet 16 eight times – and won all eight.
That brought his Sweet 16 record to 9-1 and Duke’s to 15-1 all-time.
Then it changed.
The first disturbing sign was a Sweet 16 loss to No. 11 Florida in 2000. Duke led most of the game, but in the final minutes, the Gators hit a couple of clutch 3-pointers and Duke couldn’t convert some good chances of its own. Florida went on to reach the national championship game.
That seemed a minor aberration at the time, especially when K’s 2001 team routed No. 15 UCLA in Philadelphia in the Sweet 16, en route to the 2001 national championship.
Instead, the 2000 loss proved a harbinger of the 21st century. Duke has reached the Sweet 16 eight times since that 2001 title and is a mere 2-6 in Sweet 16 games.
Think about that – between 1960 and 1999, Duke was 15-1 … in the 2st Century, Duke has been 3-7. True, the three winning teams have all reached the Final Four (and two have won the national title), but still that’s been a hung roadblock. Only in 2003 was Duke facing a higher seeded team (No. 3 seed Duke vs. No. 2 seed Kansas).
The Sweet 16 record is so out of line with every other stage of the tournament.
Since 2000, Duke is:
– 11-2 in the first round
– 10-1 in the second round
– 3-7 in the Sweet 16
– 3-0 in the Elite Eight
– 2-1 in the national semifinals
– 2-0 in the championship game
Put it another way – in this century Duke is 28-4 (87.5 percent) in NCAA player other than the Sweet 16 round. In the Sweet 16, Duke is 3-7 (30.0) percent).
What is the problem?
At every other stage of the tournament, Duke is a juggernaut. In the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils have been patsies. Is it a fluke? Is it merely an oddity created by a small sample size?
One of the theories I’ve heard about Duke’s postseason stumbles in recent years have dealt with complaints that Coach K doesn’t develop his bench and hence his starters wear out late in the season. To me, that idea is contradicted by the team’s record in the ACC Tournament – three games in three days – where Duke has enjoyed the greatest success in its history (or that any team in ACC history has enjoyed) since 1999.
And, think, if fatigue (either mental or physical) was the problem, wouldn’t it show up in the second weekend game more than the first? Duke always goes into the Sweet 16 with 5-7 days of rest … but the Devils are 5-0 over the same span in the Elite Eight and the national championship game, when they have barely 48 hours to rest and prepare.
If fatigue – either mental or physical – was a factor, wouldn’t that show up more in those two short-rest games than in the Sweet 16?
The current crop of seniors are 1-1 in the Sweet 16, beating No. 10 Purdue in 2010 and losing to No. 17 Arizona in 2011. They didn’t make it to the Sweet 16 last year. None of them could explain why this round has been such a problem.
“I have no clue,” Seth Curry said. “I’ve only played in one [a Sweet 16 loss to Arizona in 2011] and it was just another game.”
Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t aware of the contrast between the team’s recent Sweet 16 problems compared to its success in other rounds.
“I don’t know that – thanks for making me worry,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know … maybe matchups, the level of team we had. Sometimes you get to the Sweet 16 with a team that shouldn’t have been in the tournament and it’s your time to go. Sometimes you wonder, ‘How did we play that level of opponent in that game?’ I would look at who we were at that time and who we’re playing.”
He doesn’t think the Sweet 16 numbers are relevant.
“The thing about stats over the years … they’re not stats from the same year,” he said. “They’re stats from the program. I don’t know what the ’98 team has to do with the 2013 team. I just don’t understand those stats. When you look at [Derek] Jeter … or basketball, guys like LeBron [James] or Kobe [Bryant] – that’s different. It’s the same person.
“I’m the same person. I guess I’m not because you grow as a person. I don’t pay any attention to those things. I don’t think they’re relevant.”
So Duke’s poor Sweet 16 record in this century doesn’t mean that this year’s team is doomed against Michigan State.
And if Duke does get past the Spartans in today’s Sweet 16 game, the fact that K’s last four teams to reach the Elite Eight are unbeaten in that round (and all his teams are 11-1 in the regional finals) will not mean that the Devils are a lock against Louisville or Oregon on Sunday.
But it sure is an interesting pattern.
For anyone who is interested, here’s a chart of Duke’s top-ranked Sweet 16 opponents:
– Duke’s seniors have some fond memories of this city and of the Lucas Oil Arena, where the Blue Devils won the 2010 national title.
“We even have the same locker room as we had for the Final Four,” Mason Plumlee said.
Plumlee noted that the court – set in the center of the giant football stadium in 2010 – has been moved.
“I know we’ll be in the end zone this time as opposed to center court or center field, but it’s a great venue,” he said. “We love playing here.”
Ryan Kelly noted that the interview room is in the same place. He didn’t actually visit the interview room officially in 2010 – he was a little-used forward who didn’t get off the bench in the title game – but he stilled recalled his unofficial foray into the interview area.
“I remember coming in this room and ripping down the bracket with out name in the middle,” he said. “So there are certainly some good memories from the building and we look forward to making some better ones.”
– The skies were clear and the temperatures were climbing in Indianapolis Wednesday, but there were still huge mounds of snow piled everywhere from a heavy snowstorm early in the week.
The question is – does that qualify for Duke’s long history of good luck in snowy locales?
– Tom Izzo was a bit embarrassed when his 12-year-old son told a reporter earlier in the week that he has Duke beating Michigan State in his NCAA bracket. It was doubly embarrassing when Izzo admitted that he helped his son fill out the bracket.
“I said, ‘Steven, who are we picking here and who are we picking there?’” Izzo told the media. “Our bracket was the only one that wasn’t filled out to the end and I said, ‘You haven’t finished this one.’ He said, I’m having trouble with a game.’ I said, ‘What game?’ He said, ‘I’ve got you getting to Duke, Dad.’”
But it was clear that Izzo’s son wanted to pick Duke … but didn’t want to pick against his father.
“I tried to be a real parent – you know, not push your kid. Help him make intelligent decisions like we all do. And I said, ‘Steven, I love you, man. Do it with your head, not your heart. Don’t worry about Mom or Dad.’
“The damn kid didn’t do it – he didn’t worry about us at all. He picked Duke.”
Krzyzewski said he understands how Izzo feels.
“One of my granddaughters picked Montana to win the whole thing,” he said. “She had them beating us in the national championship game.”
But the Duke coach couldn’t help ribbing his friendly rival about his son.
“For Tom to share it, that’s a good thing,” he said. “And by the way, his son will be sitting on our bench and has a scholarship to Duke. He didn’t know that on Facebook and on Twitter, I’ve been communicating with him and have arranged that deal. So he sold him out. But he sold him out for a good price.”
– The news that Chris Collins was leaving Krzyzewski’s staff to take over the head coaching job at Northwestern was a hot topic of conversation at the Lucas Oil Arena.
“He has been big for me,” Blue Devil point guard Quinn Cook said. “He recruited me when I was in high school. He has been a key aspect for my development because he has worked with the guards every day. He told me what I needed to hear – not what I wanted to hear. He taught me what I needed to know to play at this level.”
That’s why Krzyzewski was sorry to see Collins go. But he was pretty emphatic that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“He’s perfect for the job, and I’m so excited for Chris,” Coach K said. “Chris hasn’t actively pursued a lot of jobs because he had a great job and loved being at Duke. We’ve loved working together. But Northwestern provides an opportunity to be at a great school, a private institution with an A. D. and president who are totally committed to building a great program and upholding the standards of their school. It’s just perfect for Chris.”
K’s comments about the administration are significant. In the early 1990′s, Duke assistant Tom Amaker turned down a chance to coach at Northwestern after looking at the situation and deciding that the support for the program was not there.
In many ways, Northwestern basketball is similar to the state of Duke football in the decade or so before the arrival of David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devil program had terrible facilities and the toughest academic standards in the ACC – and there was very little flexibility in admission. In recent years, Duke’s administration has poured money into the program, improving the facilities and paying top dollar for a first-rate coaching staff.
Northwestern has the worst basketball facilities in the Big Ten and the toughest admission standards – standards with almost no flexibility. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo hinted at the problem when he talked about Coach Bill Carmody, who was at Northwestern for 13 years before being replaced by Collins.
“There are a lot of factors that go into being successful,” Izzo said. “I’ve been fortunate with what I’ve had at Michigan State. I think if you put a good coach in a situation where everybody from the top down is focused on the same goal, you’re going to get it done.
“I love Bill Carmody. There are a lot of different reasons [why he failed]. There are some better coaches than myself that are being fired. You’ve got to be lucky in this profession too.”
K’s comment that the Northwestern A.D. and president being “totally committed” might suggest that Collins is lucky enough to be taking over the Wildcat program at the right time.
That’s not to suggest that Northwestern is about to become a powerhouse, but Collins won’t have to make any Final Four appearances to be a success in Evanston. Northwestern has NEVER played in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the only BCS program that has never, even gotten a bid.
For Collins, leading Northwestern to the tournament – even to the play-in round – would be as significant an accomplishment as Cutcliffe leading the Duke football program to a minor bowl game.