The monkey is off their backs.
After a six year hiatus from a Final Four and three disappointing post seasons in a row, the Duke Blue Devils have finally advanced to the third weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
While this year's team is clearly the best team they've had in that six year span, their appearance in the Final Four comes as a surprise to many.
Despite a preseason ranking of No. 8, Duke was not seen as much of a national contender. There were still too many weakness and too many question marks.
As of now those questions should have been answered.
Heading into the tournament there were also questions. Why was Duke a No. 1 seed? Could they get past the second round? Could they defeat a team seeded higher than fifth?
Over the past two weeks the Blue Devils have answered with a resounding yes, and win or lose in the Final Four they have re-established themselves as a premier program.
Questions Still Remain
Duke is in the Final Four and they aren't going to be making apologies for it.
As I had predicted prior to Blue Devil's tournament run, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Following Sunday night's victory over Baylor, the Blue Devils were showered with credit but more questions were generated. And some weren't very new.
In a post game report, an ESPN news anchor asked former UCLA coach and college basketball analyst Steve Lavin why there weren't more questions about Duke's "easy road" to the Final Four.
Lavin ducked the question for the most part, but give me a break.
While I knew the question was bound to come up I didn't think it would be 20 minutes after the final horn blew that I'd hear it.
The conspiracy theorists are going full steam ahead as well as trying to explain why the Blue Devils have made it this far, and at this point I just don't care anymore.
Duke's road wasn't easy
All the hatred for Duke is easy to see; from the conspiracy theorists, to the media's portrayal of the Blue Devils being handed a trip to the Final Four.
The fact is the Blue Devils played the highest seed they could possibly face in every round except the Elite Eight.
Duke knocked off Arkansas Pine Bluff (No. 16), California (No. 8), and Purdue (No. 4). With the exception of the Golden Lions, every team the Blue Devils have beaten, including Baylor (No. 3) is in a power conference.
But the fact is that no matter how far they get, to some people, Duke still shouldn't be in the Final four.
The Blue Devils played only one team that was a double-digit seed, and Baylor, arguably played the best of any three seed in the tournament.
The Bears may have been the best team Duke has played this season outside of Wisconsin, Georgetown, and Maryland.
They clearly presented match up problems with their athleticism and size but in the end Duke's experience paid off.
And that is the mark of a Final Four team.
Poise, Defense, and Rebounding
Like Kramer urging Ms. Rhode Island to demonstrate poise as she sang for the first time, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils got and delivered on his message.
Perhaps it was three years of frustration and tough experiences that allowed Duke to make plays in the clutch.
First it was against Purdue, when Duke had an answer for every Boilermaker run.
Then the Blue Devils poise and experience proved decisive against a very game Baylor team. Just when you thought the Bears would pull off the upset, Duke found an answer.
Like most of the season, that answer came in the form of rebounding and defense.
Baylor had not yet faced the type of defensive pressure that Duke brought Sunday night. And while Bear's guard LaceDarius Dunn showed he is the real deal, even his stellar play couldn't put Baylor over the top.
Down the stretch against the Bears, Duke's offensive rebounding proved to be the decisive blow. The Blue Devils netted 17 offensive rebounds in the second half.
Those rebounds led to second chance points many coming in the form of three point shots.
None of the second chance opportunities was more important than Lance Thomas' put-back off a Kyle Singler missed three. The dunk and the foul gave Duke a nine-point lead and the game effectively became a free throw shooting contest from there.
Duke's defense has been very good for most of the year and it showed when it counted Sunday night.
Ultimately it looked as if the Blue Devils poise, even with a five-point deficit with less than four minutes to play, allowed their defense to force shots from the much tenser Baylor squad.
Kudos to the Secondary Players
Against Baylor, Duke was able to count on contributions from its non Big Three contingent to keep them in the game and provide a major lift when the team appeared to be struggling.
Andre Dawkins, who has played sparingly the last few rounds, was forced into action when Kyle Singler picked up two early fouls. He acquitted himself nicely, hitting two big threes, one of which helped keep Duke within three at halftime.
Thomas, his put back aside, played his usual game picking up some junk points, and Mason and Mile Plumlee both provided some athleticism in the post against a very impressive front line for Baylor.
Nolan Smith plays one for Dad
Duke would not be in the Final Four without the amazing effort and play of Nolan Smith.
Smith scored a career high 29 points against the Bears. He did it with his three point shooting, mid-range jump shot and his ability to get to the rim and in the lane.
He also played solid defense on Baylor point guard Tweety Carter and helped force the Bears into a slower half-court offense.
After the game Smith, who features a tattoo of his late-father Derek Smith on his arm, admitted he played for his dad.
I can't imagine he could be any prouder.
On to Indy
Duke moves on to Indianapolis the sight of its first National Championship in 1991. While it is a new arena and different opponents, the Blue Devils appear to have some of that swagger back.
They bring in three of the best players in the nation in Singler, Smith and Jon Scheyer, who has bounced back nicely from an early tournament slump.
Nothing is a given though, and West Virginia is sure to give Duke all they want and then some.
The Blue Devils would love to pay the Mountaineers back for knocking the Devils out in the second round in the 2008 tournament. West Virginia would love to knock off another No. 1 seed on its quest to get coach Bob Huggins his first every National Championship.
Whatever happens, no one can deny that Duke's season has been a success; one that exceeds what even the most optimistic Duke fan could have hoped for.
While a National Championship would be the best any Blue Devils could hope for no one can deny that this trip to the Final Four may be the sweetest one of all.
It may be old hat for all the Duke fans but for the players this is the first time for all of them so I hope they can enjoy it.
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