Tudor: Duke nears 4th title

Staff ColumnistApril 4, 2010 

— This national championship now is Duke's for the taking, and that's not to discredit the heart-warming journey made by long-shot Butler to reach Monday's NCAA tournament title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But based on the way Mike Krzyzewski's team played in Saturday's 78-57 win over West Virginia and throughout the postseason grind, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Devils could be denied at this point.

Rating the performance as Duke's best of the tournament, Krzyzewski said nothing less would have worked.

"We weren't going to beat West Virginia without a great game," Krzyzewski said. "They're just too good a team for that, but we got a great effort. Our defense was outstanding. So was our offensive rebounding. It just was a complete game."

Monday will give Duke a chance to win a fourth national title - second in Indianapolis - and that outcome seems likely.

Aside from having a talent advantage over the Bulldogs (33-4) who pulled out a grueling semifinal win over Michigan State in Saturday's first game, the Blue Devils (34-5) are playing with total abandon.

That's been their personality since returning from a loss at Maryland on March 3 and smashing North Carolina in the final game of the regular season.

Duke long ago earned a high perch on the list of college basketball royalty, but these players have never once allowed themselves to buy into the theory that jerseys win games.

During what is now a nine-game winning streak, the Devils haven't always shot accurately or looked precise. During most of the NCAA, they have been forced to get by on grit, defense and more rebounding production than anyone could have possibly predicted early in the season.

That rebounding again was key against the Big East champion Mountaineers (31-7).

When WVU ended Duke's 2008 NCAA run in the second round, 73-67 in Washington, D.C., the Devils were out-rebounded 47-27. The game ended with several of the Mountaineers mocking and taunting Duke.

In Saturday's game, Duke dominated the boards when it mattered, although the margin at game's end, 29-27, was deceptively close.

Technically, Duke had control of the game from the start even though Nolan Smith was in foul trouble most of the first half. That didn't stop him from getting 11 of his 19 total points in the first half. Kyle Singler added 14 en route to 21 (plus nine rebounds and five assists), and Jon Scheyer had eight (23 for the game) to stake the Devils to a 39-31 intermission lead.

It was clear by that point that WVU was unable to stop Brian Zoubek (six points, 10 rebounds, three assists), Lance Thomas and Singler from getting enough offensive rebounds to pile up a big advantage in second-chance points. In fact, WVU didn't get a second-chance bucket until almost midway through the second half.

By that time, Duke had a double-digit lead, and Mountaineers star Da'Sean Butler was on the sidelines with an injured knee.

Surprisingly, WVU coach Bob Huggins rarely used the 1-3-1 defense that stopped Kentucky in the East Regional title game. Instead, he primarily used a man-to-man, which opened the door for Zoubek to work the backboards.

The Duke foul count continued to climb, but so did its shooting percentage, 52.7 for the game and 52 percent on 3-pointers.

"We shot a lot better tonight than we've been doing lately, but we still won this game with defense and rebounding," Scheyer said. "We gave it everything we had on defense, and they're definitely not an easy team to try to contain."

In the first game, Butler denied Michigan State's bid to go from 2009 runner-up to 2010 champion by going inside in the second half. But Brad Stevens' hometown team shot only 30.6 percent for the game, getting field goals from four players and 11 of 15 field goals from two - Gordon Hayward (six) and Shelvin Mack (five).

The Horizon League champion Bulldogs do have plenty of quickness in Mack, Willie Veasley and Ron Nored, but it's going to take a lot of offensive improvement - and fast - to match Duke's combination of perimeter shooting and rebounding.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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