For the first time in six years, Duke is back where it belongs: in the Final Four. After gritty wins against Purdue and Baylor this past weekend, the Devils will be heading to Indianapolis next weekend to face West Virginia in the national semifinals.
While it seems like familiar territory for Coach K, it is just the opposite for each one of the players on this Duke team. None had ever gone past the Sweet Sixteen until this year. Despite being the most maligned number one seed in the tournament, Duke was the only top seed to earn a trip to Indianapolis.
Let’s be honest here. Who would have thought at the beginning of this season that we would be going to the Final Four? We had two scholarship guards on the roster. Our big men were unproven. We had too short of a bench. The Olympics had jaded Coach K, and the game had passed him by. Hell, Pat Forde wrote that Duke was the only top ten team in the country that could not win it all.
But all of that makes this team and this tournament that much more incredible. While this team is not devoid of stars, it excels at playing team basketball. On a night when Kyle Singler failed to make a field goal – for the first time in his three years at Duke – the rest of the team more than made up for him. The King of Jersey, Lance Thomas had an absurd eight offensive rebounds and a tip dunk and-one that was the best play of his four year career. Dre’ Dawk joined the party with two beautiful three-pointers at a crucial juncture in the first half, including a deep shot that cut the halftime deficit to three. Jon Scheyer, who had not shot well at all thus far in the tournament, came up huge with five three pointers and 20 points.
But most impressive was the performance of a Nolan Derek Smith, who had the most phenomenal game of his college career when Duke needed him the most. At around 2:30 pm yesterday, Nolan posted an update to his Twitter account that brought tears to my eyes.
After watching a screening of the Outside The Lines feature on Nolan and his father, former NBA star Derek Smith, on Saturday morning, Nolan dedicated what was arguably the biggest game of his life to his greatest inspiration. And boy, did he deliver. With a game and career high 29 points, all of which came at critical moments throughout the game, Nolan earned South Regional MVP honors and certainly made his father more than proud.
We all know that this journey is not yet over. Duke will face a very tough West Virginia squad on Saturday night. But for now, Crazies, enjoy this moment. This has been the most enjoyable and incredible season I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never been prouder to be a Duke Blue Devil.
As the team returned from Houston at approximately 1:30am last night, hundreds of Crazies welcomed the Final Four bound Devils back home. Check it out.