The Absolute Champions

Coach K, the seniors and Nolan Smith look on as "One Shining Moment" plays on the big screens in Lucas Oil Stadium (courtesy DukeBluePlanet.com)

Before we discuss Duke’s incredible run to the National Championship this past weekend, let’s rewind a month to March 6th. Moments after defeating rival UNC 82-50, seniors Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek and fifth year player Jordan Davidson held court in front of a rabid audience of Cameron Crazies. Donning the fresh ’17-0′ t-shirts designed by Kyle Singler, our seniors recounted favorite memories from their illustrious Duke careers. Lance and Zoubek highlighted the ACC championship last season, and Davidson spoke of how fortunate he was to be on this team at all.

Jon Scheyer, however, took a different approach in his brief speech—he said his best moment was still to come. Would it be the 2010 ACC Tournament? Beating a fantastic Baylor team to reach the Final Four? Making it to the National Title game?

None of these. The Duke Blue Devils won the 2010 National Championship in a thrilling game over Butler—the best final game since Kansas-Memphis ’08 and perhaps one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking championship games of all time. Jon Scheyer’s best moment—and indeed, the best moment for each player on this special team—came on the latest possible date of his career: April 5th, 2010. Almost precisely a month after the victory over UNC.

It was indeed a banner year for Duke. Some of the statistics don’t appear on paper, but they are staggering: 31-0 in our home white jerseys, 35 victories overall and the trophy from every tournament we entered. We took home the Preseason NIT (UNC almost won the actual thing! Almost.), the ACC regular season and tournament crown, the South Regional championship, and the hardwood plank of the National Championship.

Here are some things to think about in remembering this tournament, this team and the young men who made it happen:

  • Jon Scheyer is one of the greatest Blue Devils of all time. Scheyer finished his career in the only appropriate manner—with a national title. His 15 points against Butler gave him 2,077 for his career, putting him at ninth all-time at Duke behind Jason Williams and Gene Banks, who each scored 2,079 points. We have lauded Jon all year on this website. He is the consummate leader by example, doing everything the coaching staff asks of him and quietly exuding the Duke way. In his career, he has been magnificent against UNC in both winning and losing efforts. Jon’s 2009 transition from shooting guard to point guard was so seamless and successful that he was a finalist for the prestigious Bob Cousy Award this season, which honors the nation’s best floor general. Somehow Greivis Vasquez took home that honor over Scheyer (and John Wall and Sherron Collins…). Nonetheless, Jon got the ultimate prize: the National Title, and in his senior season to boot. It’s been quite a ride for Scheyer, who has factored in K’s strategy from the first. Four years after taking a shot to the face from VCU’s Eric Maynor in the NCAA first round, Jonny gets the last laugh over all his detractors. We wish him luck moving forward from this pinnacle of basketball accomplishment. If his nearly flawless leadership, perfect jumper and proclivity to protect the pill doesn’t earn him a bench position on an NBA team, there is something wrong with American pro basketball.
  • Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek developed so much this year. It’s obvious at this point—we could not have won

    this championship without these two senior big men. LT and Z bore the brunt of extreme criticism from Duke fans over their first four years, and many predicted that Miles and Mason would bump them from the starting rotation this season. For the first few weeks of the season, these two still looked lost on the offensive end. But in the past semester, something clicked. We won this championship with rebounding and defense, and Lance and Brian were key in making those statistics the fundamentals of Duke’s success. Zoubek particularly has emerged and become the nation’s best offensive rebounder. His final rebound of Gordon Hayward’s miss was fitting—how else could his career have concluded? Thomas’ contributions this season have also been invaluable. As our best on-ball defender, LT has guarded future pros like Stanley Robinson, Craig Brackins, Ekpe Udoh and Devin Ebanks this season. A few of his plays have been absolutely crucial: his tip dunk and-one against Baylor (pictured at right) was particularly memorable. Unlike Scheyer, Lance and Brian haven’t always been a crucial part of Duke’s gameplan. But this year, when our frontcourt had to step up to support the 3 S’s, these two men answered the call. Without the toughness, selflessness and desire of Brian and Lance, Duke would have stopped dancing long before Indianapolis.

  • Coach K is the G.O.A.T. (of the modern era). Alright, so this is Duke’s fourth national title, all of which have been won by the architect Michael William Krzyzewski. It is presumptuous to call him the greatest basketball coach ever, but I think it’s fair to say that K is the greatest postseason coach since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Coach has led to Duke to 11 of our 15 overall Final Fours, taking the crown in four of them and falling just short numerous times (1999 and 1986 come to mind most clearly). Moreover, K just doesn’t lose when he reaches that critical juncture: he is 11-1 in regional finals, with the Baylor win sealing Duke’s trip to Indianapolis. Although John Wooden is the rightful pharaoh of the college game (and one of the most amazing people in sports history), the Wizard of Westwood only had to win three games to win most of his championships in the 1960s and 70s. It’s safe to say that winning six games over a month is a tougher feat. The New Jersey Nets are right to offer Coach all of their riches. K’s resuscitation of the Duke program in the early 80s, the amazing run in the early 90s and his astounding consistency since is something to hold in awe. Fittingly, the best veteran and the best young coach faced off in the title game—will Brad Stevens be the next Coach K? Steep comparison, of course. Regardless, K has set the standard of coaching success in college basketball. Even if ridiculous publications like the Indy Star denigrate him, all he has to do is open up the Duke trophy case and say “kiss the rings.”
  • It’s nice to win the right way, isn’t it? How cathartic, as true basketball fans, was it to watch two honorable programs play for the national title? In a year where powerful but troubled programs like Kansas and Kentucky were favored to take the championship, it seems like a dose of karma that Duke and Butler—two squeaky clean programs led by no nonsense coaches—were on the game’s biggest stage in April. I don’t want to delve into the nitty gritty details about why those other programs are corrupt (although The Onion did a nice job with Kentucky). But Duke and Butler represented the Platonic ideal of college basketball: two programs that develop players over four years, play team basketball within a system, and think of their teammates as much as they think of themselves. We cannot say enough about the grit and fortitude of the Butler Bulldogs, particularly the unflappable Gordon Hayward. We won the game, but Butler proved that hard work and persistence are just as important as flashy dunks and 5-star recruits.
  • Next year? It might be too early to start buttering ourselves up about next season, but at Duke we like to believe that

    championships come in twos. Although ‘predictions’ about next season are largely unimportant, the Blue Devils will absolutely factor in the title hunt next year. Returning Nolan Smith is a definite, and we await Final Four M.O.P. Kyle Singler’s verdict on his future. The Plumlees will be back, as will Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly. Seth Curry sheds the redshirt next season and he may be the most surprising player of all. Nolan said that one major factor in his incredible improvement this season has been playing against Seth in practice. With a year of practice under his belt, I think that he will be ready to contribute right away, and earn starter’s minutes after Christmas. There’s also no need to belabor our excitement for next season’s incoming recruits: Kyrie Irving, Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton were an excellent class even before Carrick Felix committed several weeks ago. Smith, Irving, Curry, Dawkins and Thornton on paper look like Duke’s best backcourt in a decade; it will be up to the Plumtrees, Kelly and Hairston to provide enough bulk down low to keep the Duke train rolling full steam ahead.

But lest we get too excited about next year…here’s Duke’s One Shining Moment. We will never forget this team, this season and the incredible run to a fourth National Title.

GO DUKE.

7 thoughts on “The Absolute Champions

  1. Also, K’s current stand at 868 career wins puts him in a position to become the all-time leader in NCAA wins in a matter of years. If he gets 35 victories next season (which means we’d be in the Final Four again), he could pass Bobby Knight’s 902 wins.

    Additionally, Coach K will likely pass Dean-O’s 879 wins by December. Got em!

  2. Congratulations Duke!

    Jake: I was wondering if you knew anything about the status of Kyle Singler….
    Thanks!

  3. Wooden actually had to win 4 games to win all but one of his titles. For his last championship in 1975 UCLA had to win 5 games. 75 was the first year the tournament expanded to include 32 teams. Before that the field was somewhere between 22-25 teams.

    Still, winning is winning and you can’t argue with 10 championships. I think there is a good argument though that K’s sustained excellence in the modern era with a much deeper tournament field deserves to be considered somewhere in the same ballpark as what Wooden did pre-March Madness.

  4. Hey Colin, thanks for the fact checking. That’s a good point. And by no means was I saying that Wooden doesn’t deserve his G.O.A.T. status—10 titles in 12 years is beyond anything anyone has done, arguably in any sport.

    I just wanted to use Wooden as the highest benchmark to aspire to. And K is probably the next most accomplished coach in CBB history along with Rupp.

  5. Rupp won 2 titles in an 8 team field, was head coach during the infamous point shaving scandal, and won all of his titles before the widespread integration of college basketball. I think K wins any debate with Kentucky fans about Rupp hands down. But then again I am biased 🙂

    By the way, I graduated from Duke 10 years ago and I really appreciate this site. It is nice from an alum’s perspective to have a fan site run by current students. Keep up the good work!

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