From the first practice, even from before the season started, back at the N.C. Pro-Am over the summer, Duke’s players made a point of talking about how this season would be different.
They knew the questions would come about last season, how it ended, what went wrong against Lehigh, and they fended them off with simple declarative answers. We’re a different team. Different players. Different present. Different future.
And they were right. Duke made it clear just how different with that 15-0 run to open the season, including a six-game stretch of wins over Kentucky, Florida Gulf Coast, Minnesota, Virginia Commonwealth, Louisville and Ohio State that felt like a run to the NCAA tournament title.
Ryan Kelly’s injury changed the dynamic, but even with him out the Blue Devils did a good job putting last season in the rear-view mirror, where it belongs – at least until the ACC quarterfinal loss. The last three times the Blue Devils failed to make it to the ACC championship game, they also failed to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament – 2007, 2008 and 2012.
So they’ll have to go through it all again now. Duke’s players once again will have to prove that this season truly is different.
“Obviously, we’re asked that all the time,” forward Mason Plumlee said. “But the postseason, this is where you make a change. Because, really, up until this point we had a good team last year. I’ve said this a couple times, but a lot of teams would have loved to have had our regular-season record last year. We’re not focused on the regular season this year. We want to make our mark in the postseason.”
To an extent, they’ll even have to prove that 2010 wasn’t different as well. At the time, that national championship season appeared to be the culmination of a progression taking Duke back to the top of the college basketball pyramid. But the 2010 national champions are the only Duke team in the past eight years – since the Final Four team in 2004 – to make it past a regional semifinal.
In the two years since, Duke was blown out by Arizona in the regional semifinals before the historic upset by 15th-seeded Lehigh in Greensboro last year. As much as the title lingers for Plumlee and Kelly and Seth Curry, who was with the team in 2010 but sat out as a transfer, those two losses hang over this team now.
“You bring up that you didn’t play well last year, in the first round, but you don’t belabor it,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We want to be in this moment, and not bring a lot of stuff from other moments – including championships, because that might make you soft.”
That means this team has something to prove not only for its own purposes, but the program as well. There’s no question it’s capable of doing that. But so were many of the other Duke teams that were home by the second Saturday of the tournament.
“You can’t focus on that,” Krzyzewski said. “You talk about it, like we weren’t ready, or we weren’t as together or whatever the heck happened. The main thing that happened was C.J. McCollum and an outstanding Lehigh team. You gotta do right now.
“With the seniors, I want them to focus a little bit on when they were freshmen. That was pretty good. They won a national championship, remember? That did happen here. Those are good things to remember, too.”
A national title provides no end of validation. But as the last players from that title team depart, there’s no question they’d like some final validation of their own.