DURHAM, N.C. -- Excuse Mike Krzyzewski for feeling much the same way as previous seasons -- championship seasons, that is.
The coach with 20 years on the Duke bench and two national titles, is as excited about coaching this particular group of Blue Devils as he has been about any of his past teams. Yes, that includes the back-to-back title teams of 1991 and '92.
"I really like all of these kids, not that I haven't liked my other teams," Krzyzewski said as he took a break last week from conducting a clinic for 488 coaches, all looking to capture some of the magic that Krzyzewski seems to have bottled up and stored away for only himself. "Last year was one of the most special years for me in coaching. With all of the gloom and doom projected for us, with guys leaving the program, to finish the (regular season) No. 1 was unbelievable."
Krzyzewski said he marveled at the commitment of that team, to each other and to him. What amazed him, however, was how the final product was much better than the sum of its parts.
Krzyzewski summed up last season's squad pretty easily: "I loved that team,"
This season's team has Krzyzewski even more energized. And why not? He's not the only person in the country who believes a third national championship is at the end of Tobacco Road.
With Shane Battier, a senior and two-time National Defensive Player of the Year, and sophomore point guard Jason Williams, Krzyzewski sees a tandem that will be hard to contain. But Duke is more than just Battier and Williams.
Krzyzewski has a group of NCAA Tournament-tested players in Nate James, Carlos Boozer and Michael Dunleavy. Add to Duke's core of veterans the addition of freshman guard Chris Duhon and Coach K has a lineup more flexible than last year.
"We have some experience, and experience is so important, especially in today's game," Krzyzewski said. "After seeing them practice, I feel great about things. We have two players in Jason and Shane that are as good as anyone in the country at their positions. Well, Shane doesn't have a position. He's a Player of the Year guy.
"We'll be able to press more, and we have a lot of scoring options."
But the focus will be Battier.
"He needs to build on the second half of last year, when he was just spectacular," Krzyzewski said. "Kenyon Martin
was the Player of the Year last year, no question. But Shane was better
than anyone in the country in the second half of the season."
Krzyzewski knows that there are other teams out there with similar talent and similar good feelings about their chances. "But there's not a group out there our players look at and say, 'They're more talented than we are.' We have really good talent."
With eight trips to the Final Four and two national titles, Krzyzewski should know what is needed to get to Minneapolis this March. He's a pretty fair judge of what is around him this season, having coached 12 All-Americans in his 20 years at Duke.
"We know we're in a position to do that," said Krzyzewski, when asked about another trip to the Final Four. "But we also know (the chance) is very fragile. We got
two kids hurt in our first practice (Casey Sanders with a hamstring and Nick
Horvath with a groin), and that's always a possibility."
But Krzyzewski believes futher injuries are the only thing that can keep this team from an
opportunity to win it all.
"We may get beat. But we will not get beat because of a poor attitude. In other words, we won't beat ourselves," Krzyzewski said. "We will take the attitude that the championship is not ours, we must win it. But, can we win it? Absolutely."
But it won't be easy, and Krzyzewski knows it. He'll go so far as to say this season's champion will travel the toughest road of any team in recent memory.
"This year, there are more teams that really seem to believe that they can win it. A lot of people say that they
believe it, but not that many really do," he said. "I sense that there are at least 10 teams right now that believe they can do it, and we're one of them."
The pursuit of this season's title, fueled by the belief that it can be returned to Durham starts next month. Today, the championship belongs to no one.