Monday, March 20, 2006
Updated: March 22, 9:32 AM ET
The Blue Devils' run rivals UCLA's from a prior era
By Andy Katz
John Wooden's seven straight NCAA titles (10 total) at UCLA might be the hardest college basketball record to break.
Don't be surprised, though, if Mike Krzyzewski's nine straight Sweet 16 appearances at Duke ends up being just as difficult to approach.
Duke's regular run to Sweet 16 elite actually works in concert with the fact that, for the fourth straight season, there won't be a repeat Final Four team. Regardless of where you are seeded, getting to the Sweet 16 still is a tall task. Winning two more games to get to the Final Four on any type of regular basis in an age when players regularly bolt early for the pros is becoming tough even for elite programs.
"What Mike has done is certainly in the same category as what John Wooden did," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "It's an awfully, awfully impressive thing in today's world."
"What's amazing to me is that they didn't have one bad second-round game," said Pitt's Jamie Dixon.
Part of the reason for Duke's success has been its seeding -- the Blue Devils have been a No. 1 seed in eight of the last nine seasons and the only time they weren't was in 2003, when they had to beat No. 11 Central Michigan in the second round. That means Duke has caught either a No. 8 or No. 9 seed in the second round, usually coming off a gritty first-round matchup. Still, that seeding is due in large part to the tremendous consistency of regular-season performance the Blue Devils have had through the nine-year run.
"We've been to nine of 12 [Sweet 16s] and that's a good achievement, but nine straight is incredible," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "Mike has had terrific players."
The trick, at least from the Duke perspective, is how Krzyzewski prepares the Blue Devils for the first two rounds. Duke assistant Chris Collins, a former player under Krzyzewski, said his coach instructs the team to look at it as a four-team tournament. They focus only on the four teams involved in their pod. Even though you would think human nature makes you look at the entire bracket, Krzyzewski claims that he sees only who is in front of him. That's what he said last week in Greensboro, N.C., and Collins is reinforcing that fact.
"You might have to play Texas or Villanova but we're not looking at that the first weekend," Collins said.
That still doesn't mean Collins doesn't appreciate the magnitude of the achievement.
"It's one of those stats that gets overlooked, but once Coach K is done coaching, people will look back at how dominant a run it has been," Collins said.
Still, Duke has taken this glorious run only so far. The Blue Devils have lost in the Sweet 16 four times in the past eight seasons. They won the title once (2001), lost in the championship game once (1999), reached the semifinals once (2004) and the Elite Eight once (1998). Duke plays LSU in the Sweet 16 Thursday in Atlanta.
Duke is favored once again to get to the Final Four, in large part because of the skill and senior leadership of J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. The current landscape in college basketball weighs heavily toward senior-driven teams making the Final Four. That's why no one is surprised that Illinois, North Carolina and Louisville are done playing. Michigan State had a core group of seniors but still lost three key ones from a year ago in Alan Anderson, Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert.
"None of these games are really upsets, like Wichita State or George Mason winning, because if you watch them they are really good teams," Boeheim said. "There's so much equity it's scary. Remember back in November when we said how good Drexel was and couldn't believe that was the sixth or seventh place team in the Colonial? Well, that's where they finished."
Looking at the other top seeds, Connecticut and Villanova also might not be expected to make Final Four runs next season, as both will suffer heavy graduation and/or early-entry losses. The only team that potentially has the makeup for a repeat run is Memphis -- and that's still a big if, considering the Tigers could have early-entry defections.
"That's where we are right now," Calhoun said. "We could have new teams in the Final Four every year."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.