If 70,000 people can act in unison as a single living organism, that moment was when Butler’s Gordon Hayward put his shot into the air from fifty feet last night. The crowd, roaring its approval after Duke center Brian Zoubek intentionally missed his second free throw attempt with 3.6 seconds remaining, took a collective breath. All eyes bored through the orange ball as it sailed in the direction of the opposite goal, and when it approached the intended target, there wasn’t a soul in the house who believed that it would actually miss its mark.
The Dream Seemed Possible (Indy Star/S. Riche)
To the consternation of screenwriters, the assembled media, neutral fans, the entire Hoosier State, underdogs everywhere, and advertisers calculating their future CBS promos – pretty much everybody except Duke fans – it did. The ball hit the backboard, caromed onto the rim and popped off the front of it a little too hard, securing Duke’s fourth national championship in the last twenty seasons. It wasn’t supposed to end that way, said the storybook tellers. The tiny school from a few miles north of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis was supposed to give us the timeless Hoosiers story in modern form — with Gordon Hayward taking the role of history’s Bobby Plump and the Butler Bulldogs channeling Milan High. Instead, in a brutal reminder that real life isn’t Hollywood and history doesn’t often repeat itself, it was an old familiar face and and name who were left standing tall at the end of this night — Coach K and his Blue Devils.
As has been written numerous times in the lead-up to the Final Four and championship game, Duke may be the Evil Empire in the eyes of most college basketball fans, but this particular group of Blue Devils is eminently likable. Looking back at some of Krzyzewski’s more vitriol-inspiring teams, the 2009-10 national champion lacks an identifiable villain embracing his role as a coldblooded assassin such as Christian Laettner; there is no impossibly accomplished athlete-cum-scholar like Shane Battier on the roster; and the only people on the team who inspire a wipe-that-smug-off-your-face response in fans are assistant coaches Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins. The players themselves engender no such particular hatred.
Gotta Give Him His Due (Indy Star/S. Riche)
No, the only possible element of the 2009-10 Duke Blue Devils is the Darth Vader of Hoops himself, Mike Krzyzewski. Fans love to hate the man who has now surpassed his mentor Bobby Knight with the most titles in the post-Wooden era, and it’s in no small part because of his sustained success over three decades of college basketball. This site in particular has been very critical of Coach K’s recruiting strategy of the last half-decade or so, largely eschewing one-and-done type of players in favor of the three and four-year ones who develop over time from very good ball players to great ones. We didn’t think that his plan of focusing on those next-level recruits like Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and so on without the assistance of an elite NBA talent or two could result in a national championship. We were wrong.
And we were wrong because of Coach K’s brilliance as a sideline tactician and his ability to learn from personnel mistakes over time. There’s been a laundry list of big men in the post-Boozer era who have come to Duke and never amounted to much more than window dressing as K highlighted his perimeter attack — Michael Thompson, Josh McRoberts, Jamal Boykin, Olek Czyz, etc. — but his decision to stick with Brian Zoubek in the post this year despite three previous seasons of largely inconsistent play turned this team’s greatest weakness into a strength. While the bulk of the Devils offense still came from the perimeter, the interior defense and rebounding (esp. second chances) that Zoubek provided was an element that the team hadn’t seen since The Landlord was patrolling the paint in the mid-2000s.
Zoubek's Toughness Helped Duke Win the Title (Indy Star/S. Riche)
From our view, this was the difference in not only Duke’s season but also last night’s game. According to the stat-keepers, Zoubek blocked two shots but his presence was felt on numerous others as the Bulldog players had trouble finishing layup attempts in the lane all night long. His 7’1 reach was especially important in forcing Gordon Hayward’s potential game-winning fadeaway to hit the rim an inch long, and his six offensive rebounds resulted in seven additional points for his team. In a game as close as this one, it’s very easy to see his importance. In previous years, it’s unlikely that without Zoubek inside that the stable of Duke perimeter defenders would have been able to keep an offensively efficient team like Butler to a mere 34.5% shooting, one of their worst showings of the season.
It’s not likely that this particular Duke team will weather well in terms of historical significance, but because of that fact it may have represented one of Coach K’s greatest coaching achievements while cementing his place as the second-best coach of all-time. His three other champions were loaded to the gills with NBA talent, while it’s difficult to envision anyone other than Kyle Singler on the 2010 champs getting much of a look at the next level (and let’s be honest: Singler is nowhere near as talented as any of Williams/Battier/Boozer or Hurley/Hill/Laettner on the other Duke title teams). With the bulk of his team likely to be back in Durham next year and a couple of stud recruits joining the team, Coach K will have a good shot at moving past Kentucky’s Rupp with the second-most titles from a single coach and make a run at tying bitter rival UNC with a total of five national championships. At age 63, you have to figure that K will have several more good chances to get there in the next decade.