INDIANAPOLIS -- After his players left the podium at Monday night's postgame press conference, Mike Krzyzewski reflected on what he'd just seen.
"The game was so good that anybody could have won," he said of the Duke's 61-59 victory. "I don't think we were lucky to win because we earned it. But there is something ..."
Krzyzewski trailed off, took a second, and began to speak again.
"I think we won because of these guys," he said. "And as good as the Butler story is, was, and will be, our story is pretty good too."
You have to hand it to him. When the man's right, he's right.
Duke's story is good. That goes for the off-the-court stuff Coach K was referring to, of course -- the success of players who aren't likely to make much money playing basketball at the next level, but who represent the Platonic ideal of smart, veteran college hoopsters. That also goes for the special relationship Coach K shared with his players, for Coach K's legacy, for the redemption story of Brian Zoubek, who spent two summers on crutches before making the key plays in the final seconds of a classic national championship game.
But just as interesting as all that is the way this Duke team developed on the floor throughout the season -- most noticeably in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. We shouldn't be surprised the Blue Devils won the title. They were this good. Here's why:
Offensive rebounding. This is the stat that pushed Duke over the top, morphing an already good offense into a brutally efficient one in March and April. Duke was the sixth-most effective team in the country at rebounding its own misses over the course of the season, and at 16.8 second-chance points per game, the Blue Devils were the best team in the NCAA tournament at converting those rebounds into points (stat courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information). In the first half of Monday night's game, Duke didn't get to the offensive boards, grabbing only 20 percent of its misses. But in the second half, the Devils grabbed eight offensive rebounds, good for 47.1 percent, and subsequently scored eight points. It was a fitting end to Duke's tournament run. The Blue Devils won with offensive rebounding yet again.
Offense in general, actually. Duke scored 1.24 points per possession this season, a potency that showed up in the Blue Devils' torrid performance against West Virginia on Saturday night. It wasn't evident on Monday -- Butler's defense held Duke to its third-lowest point total of the year and a mere 1.0 points per possession, an OK tally for an average team but a Saharan drought in comparison to the Blue Devils' usual rainmaking. But there is no discussing this Duke team without reiterating just how good they were on offense all season long. Rebounding and all, offense got the Dukies here. And then ...
Interior defense. Duke was probably a little underrated on the defensive side of the ball for much of the season. Maybe it was hard to see this team's defensive quality in comparison to that offensive juggernaut. Maybe it was because these Blue Devils didn't have a signature defender like the vintage Duke teams of the past. But this group finished the season with the No. 3 most efficient defense in the country, and it was interior defense that won the game for Duke on Monday night. Butler had, count 'em, 11 missed layups in its loss. Duke had seven blocks in its win. Zoubek, Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas and even the Plumlees made everything difficult for Butler when it got into the paint, which helped lead to an eight-minute stretch in the second half when Butler was held without a field goal.
Brian Zoubek. Two questions: Does Duke win this national title without Zoubek? And, four months ago, if I had told you that I'd be writing that question from deep within the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5, would you have believed me? No and no. But it's true: Zoubek's sudden transformation from a disappointing, lumbering big man into an interior terror -- especially on the offensive glass -- turned Duke from a good team with a vague chance of postseason success into a thoroughly dominating one. Zoubek did it again Monday night. He grabbed six offensive rebounds in the game, four of which came at key moments in the second half. Zoubek gave the Dukies the kind of size and interior presence most programs only dream of, the kind of ability he promised when he first arrived in Durham. Four years and two foot surgeries later, Zoubek just made me write the first two questions in this paragraph. Here's a third: How crazy is that?
Of course the big three of Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith deserve most of the credit; they provided the backbone for what this team would accomplish. But Zoubek was the X-factor. He made Duke a different team. He rewrote his story -- and his team's -- in the process.
"It means a lot to me," Zoubek said. "It's really hard to imagine being in this position when you spend two summers on crutches. People told me to keep fighting. It's hard to believe sometimes that good things are going to happen."
OK, so Duke's story doesn't have the appeal of Butler's. But whose does? Coach K's right. This team -- and its story -- were pretty darn good, too.