Let's face it: Duke is and will probably always be the most widely hated team in college basketball.
Unless you are a Duke fan, you probably can't stand the program's pretty-boy image, and its long history of star players who just annoyed the crap out of you.
First, there was Christian Laettner—the arrogant jerk who hit the game winning shot in OT in the greatest game of all time, shortly after stomping on the chest of a Kentucky player.
Then there was Steve Wojciechowski, a 5-foot-11 white kid who somehow won the 1998 national defensive player of the year award with his floor-slapping antics.
Let's not forgot about J.J. Redick, who flashed a smug look of satisfaction every time he buried a deep three in your face.
You hate that Duke has a spotless NCAA record; you hate that they consistently recruit high school All-Americans; and you hate that Coach Mike Krzyzewski does everything right and just keeps winning.
Okay, fair enough, even us Duke fans understand all that, but this year's team is different. It is a completely new kind of Duke team. As a lifelong Duke fan, I've seen many squads come and go, including the three that won it all (and the one in 1999 that should have won it all), but this team is special to me.
I have followed this team more closely than any other team that I can remember, and during the process, have become incredibly attached to them because they are such a likeable group. Here are five reasons why I think that they deserve your cheers as well:
1. Coach K is a national hero.
Like him or not, Mike Krzyzewski (and only a Duke fan would know how to spell his name without cheating) brought USA basketball back from the depths of Athens, Greece, where UNC alum Larry Brown brought home bronze. . . . Really Larry, bronze? You had the greatest power forward of all time, in his prime—Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony and you brought back BRONZE?
Okay, enough Larry bashing.
Coach K took a USA basketball program that finished sixth at the 2002 FIBA world championships and 3rd at the 2004 Olympics and went undefeated in Beijing in 2008, crushing the opposition by an average of 32 points—including the hometown Chinese squad and the vaunted Spaniards.
USA basketball is back to its rightful place way, way above the rest of the world, and you can thank Coach K.
2. Freshman Andre Dawkins has been playing with a heavy heart this season.
Andre's story is particularly touching.
Here's a kid who shouldn't even be in the big dance by all rights. He should be getting ready for the other big dance: the prom. Andre graduated from high school a full year early to join the Blue Devils because of the transfer of Elliot Williams to Memphis and the loss of Gerald Henderson to the NBA draft.
A month into the season, Andre was averaging double figures, while shooting a ridiculous 23-44 (52%) from beyond the three point line. He also had a 7-9 FG game against Radford for 20 points and a 4-4 3-point FG game (all in the second half) at one of the most hostile venues in all of college basketball, Wisconsin's Kohl Center, in a loss to the Badgers.
After the St. John's game, 'Dre was informed by his father that his sister had been killed, and his mother had been seriously injured in a car accident that occurred while the two were driving down to Durham to see his game.
Following these events, 'Dre just wasn't 'Dre.
His shooting percentage plummeted and his once overflowing confidence was all but gone. He registered two DNPs in that time.
He questioned whether he had made the right decision coming to Duke. But after he witnessed how his teammates and coaches rallied around him, cried with him, and attended the funeral with him, he knew he was in the right place.
Dawkins has come back of late, and hit two huge threes in the elite eight win over Baylor—one from nearly half court.
You truly have to root for this 18-year-old kid; he's been through more than most of us who are twice his age.
3. Brian Zoubek stepped out of the phone booth and became Zouperman.
Seven-foot-one Zoubek was a Parade All-American in high school. Three years into his career at Duke, he had been posting numbers that don't seem like an All-American stat line: 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.
I might also add that he probably (this is purely from observation) led the league in traveling, turnovers per possession, fouls, and disqualifications.
I hate it say it about one of my favorite guys on the team, but the man was a bust.
To his credit, Zoubek had been dealing with nagging injuries his entire career, and just never got a chance to shine during his first three years. This year has been an entirely different story.
Since Zoubs was inserted in to the starting lineup for the home game against Maryland, he has averaged 6.6 points and 10.1 rebounds a game—including 5.9 offensive boards a game. And that's while playing only 23.1 minutes a game!
He's learned how to play smart defense—without fouling—and has become one of the best passers on the team.
Zoubek was essential against Baylor's 2-3 zone, grabbing offensive boards and kicking the ball out to wide-open shooters.
I almost can't believe it myself, but Zoubs might just be more important to this team than any of the "big three."
You gotta feel great for the kid though, because he's such a good person, an academic all-american, and one of the toughest guys in the ACC.
4. Nolan Smith is playing in the memory of his late father.
Now, here is a story that made me start getting teary-eyed.
At the age of eight, Nolan Smith's father, Derek Smith, passed away on a cruise ship—victim to a heart attack.
Nolan was so devastated he almost quit basketball.
He loved his father—a nine-year NBA veteran who retired after Nolan was born to devote all of his time to raising his son.
Shortly before his father's death, Nolan had been playing a one-on-one game with an older boy on the ship. After losing, Nolan heaved the ball into the ocean in frustration.
After seeing this display, his father grabbed his boy by the wrist and told him that if he wanted to play this game, that he needed to get his head on straight and have the right attitude. Little did Nolan know at the time, this would be the last father-son talk he would ever have.
To this day, Nolan still remembers that conversation.
Without a paternal figure, Nolan was taken in by his father's NBA organization, the Washington Bullets, where he had been coaching. The Bullets reserved a courtside seat every game for Nolan, and the players helped school him in the game that he loved to play.
One particularly prominent figure in his life was a former teammate of his father, Johnny Dawkins, or "Uncle Johnny" according to Nolan. Instead of going to Louisville, where his father went, Nolan decided on Duke, where Dawkins was the head associate coach.
Prior to last week's game against Baylor, Nolan caught the end of the ESPN Outside the lines documentary featuring himself and his father, which prompted him to post on Twitter the following morning: "This one is for you Dad!! I love you! #43..... Let's go Duke!"
Smith went on to post a career high 29 points, including four clutch threes which sealed the Blue Devils victory against the Bears.
He claimed that he felt that his dad was with him. Now Nolan is headed to Indianapolis, where Derek Smith helped Louisville win its first national championship 30 years ago.
5. This is may be the most tight-knit group you will ever see.
Two words that describe this team well are "togetherness" and "chemistry." These kids are really all on the same page.
After the Baylor game, an emotional Lance Thomas said, “We always hang together off the court, there are no cliques on this team.”
When asked if he had ever played on a tighter team, the senior captain shook his head and said “Never, never. We’ve worked so hard for this."
Lance is one of three seniors on this team with the aforementioned Zoubek and Jon Scheyer, none of whom had ever been past the sweet sixteen until this year.
Scheyer in my opinion, is one of the most underappreciated players in the history of college basketball, and is one of the most clutch players to ever put on a Duke uniform.
In his senior year of high school, Scheyer scored an Illinois state tournament record 52 points in his final high school game, including five threes and six free throws for an unreal 21 points in the game's final 75 seconds.
He hit the nail in the coffin to bury Carolina at the Dean Dome earlier this season. More recently, he has hit the shots that sealed victory in the ACC championship game against Georgia Tech and the elite eight game vs. Baylor.
Coach K says Scheyer is one of the best kids he's ever coached, and his constantly positive attitude is "infectious."
After the victory against Baylor that put Duke in the final four, Coach K said, “This team will really be brothers forever. It’s as close a team as I’ve had. You want great things to happen for people who are great with us. I mean, they’ve been spectacular to coach. You can tell they’re really close and I’m ecstatic about it. I can’t tell you how happy I am about them taking our staff to Indianapolis."
There you have it.
How can you root against these guys?
Coach K has said it time and again; this is not a great team. This is not Laettner-Hurley-Hill, or Williams-Battier-Dunleavy-Boozer. This is a very good team that plays together, that plays hard every possession, and does whatever it takes to win.
If you can't root for that, then you are probably a UK fan. (I've never seen a collective fanbase that hated a single program more, oh yes, even more than UNC.)
Yes I know, we're the only No. 1 seed left, yes I know, we are the favorites, and yes, for the love of God, I know Butler is playing in their hometown and their stadium is where Hoosiers was filmed, but I'm going for The Blue Devils.
LET'S GO DUKE!!!
This article can also be found at my new blog: Doin' Work