For the first nine weeks of the 2003-04 season, the No. 1 team seemed afraid of heights. No team -- not Connecticut, Kansas, Florida or Kentucky -- could stay atop the polls for more than two weeks. All, as it turns out, were just delaying the inevitable:
A team comfortable with No. 1 before its name. A team that annually plays its way to the top of the national rankings.
A team called the Duke Blue Devils.
It happened this season on Jan. 19. That's when Duke was voted No. l by pollsters for the seventh straight season, a streak that ranks second only to UCLA's run of 10 straight years at No. 1.
Since returning to the top, the Blue Devils (18-1 overall, 7-0 ACC) have remained in their familiar perch, becoming the first team this season to hold No. 1 for three consecutive weeks.
All of this leads to a burning question: Should anyone be surprised by Duke's sustained success, not just this season but over the years?
"They're good. They're very, very good," said Georgia Tech coach
Paul Hewitt, whose Yellow Jackets are the latest to fall short in their bid to upset Duke, losing 82-74 to the visiting
Blue Devils on Saturday.
"We're in an age in college basketball where you certainly have to admire and respect what
they've done," Hewitt concluded.
Yes, since the 1996-97 season, Duke has experienced one of the greatest runs not only in ACC history, but also nationally. Under coach Mike Krzyzewski in the past seven-plus seasons, the Blue Devils have:
Won five regular-season championships and the last five ACC tournaments, setting a league record with a current 15-game winning streak in the ACC tournament.
Reached two Final Fours in the past five seasons, winning it all in 2001 after losing to Connecticut in the '99 title game.
Won at least 11 ACC games in each of the past seven regular seasons, and recorded the conference's only undefeated 16-game regular season (1998-99).
Compiled a 102-12 ACC regular-season record, winning 38 of the last 47 ACC road games.
This season, Duke is one bad night in Alaska from being perfect, losing to Purdue in the Great Alaska Shootout. Led by senior guard Chris Duhon, sophomore shooter J.J. Redick and freshman phenom Luol Deng, the Blue Devils rank first in the ACC in among other things: scoring margin (plus-13.6 points per game), 3-point accuracy (39.2 percent), field goal defense (38.2 percent), rebounding margin (plus-5.3), defensive rebounds (25.4 rpg) and scoring defense (62.4 ppg).
Oh, and did we mention the 36-game home winning streak?
"Duke has had a reputation of being extremely aggressive," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "They take a lot of things away from you with just their presence and their style, and they have to be commended for it. I'm not sure that we're that kind of team. Our system might be a little different, but we hope that it ends up being as effective as Duke's defensive system has been over the years."
No one has had more respect or admiration for Duke and the job Krzyzewski has done in Durham than North Carolina coach Roy Williams. He respected Duke during his youthful days on the Carolina bench, when he was one of Dean Smith's top assistants for 10 seasons. The past 15 seasons, he has admired the Blue Devils from afar, matching X's and O's with Krzyzewski a handful of times during his 15-year stint as head coach at Kansas. His Jayhawks lost to Duke in three of four meetings while in charge of KU, winning last year's Sweet 16 encounter.
Thursday night, Williams will get his first chance to respectfully defeat the Blue Devils as head coach of No. 19 North Carolina.
"Over the years, it doesn't matter who's coaching or who's playing when these two schools, when they play basketball, the attention perks up everywhere," Krzyzewski said.
Reeling from an 82-71 loss at Clemson on Saturday, the Tar Heels (13-5, 3-4) will attempt to rebound from their third conference road loss in as many tries when they host the 216th renewal of this uber Tobacco Road rivalry (ESPN2, 9 ET), ranked in an ESPN.com poll of coaches and players across the nation last year as the fiercest in college basketball.
"I don't know how it makes it any easier, because you do have to compete with them," Williams said, when asked about the difficulty of trying to restore Carolina's prominence with a program such as Duke's nearby. "It might give you an example, if you want that. I think that's something, and [it] gives you something to aspire to be.
"For us, I do have total respect for what Duke's program has meant and for what Mike Krzyzewski has done. There's no question about that. It's a very genuine respect, it's a very truthful respect."
Ironically, the Blue Devils vaulted to the top of the polls in part due to their rival's upset of then-No. 1 UConn. That 86-83 victory was also at the Smith Center, where the Heels are 11-1 this season, their only loss coming in triple overtime to Wake Forest. UNC has beaten Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Virginia at home this season.
"We've got a ways to go and several steps to take before we can get our program back to where it once was," Williams said. " ... which I think was like Duke's and what Duke has done."
Yes, Duke is where UNC wants to be. But it wasn't that long ago that the Heels were No. 1. That ranking in 2001 seems long ago for a team that has missed the past two NCAA Tournaments. However, for teams that aren't No. 1, beating No. 1 is the next best thing. Which brings us back to Thursday night.
"You have to make sure that it's kept in perspective because the season goes on," Krzyzewski said. "This is not a championship game. It's a big game, but we have another one right after it, and we have to keep it in perspective."
That, in part, explains why Duke has enjoyed such programmed success. It's not not only the constant influx of talented players. It's also because Krzyzewski has never lost his management or perspective of his program's success.
He refuses to get caught up in minutiae such as the mind-boggling fact that Duke has been ranked in 141 consecutive polls, or that
Duke has reached the top spot in either national poll for seven consecutive seasons (second only to UCLA's run of 12 consecutive seasons from 1964-75).
While the No. 1 ranking gives most teams a certain aura, Krzyzewski believes it will add no more intensity when Duke and Carolina meet on the court.
"They've played against us when we've been No. 1, and we've played against them when they've been No. 1 ... and in between,'' said Krzyzewski, during whose tenure Duke has been ranked No. 1 in 12 previous meetings against Carolina, winning seven of those games. "For me, it doesn't bring anything because both these programs have been No. 1 -- a lot. It doesn't mean that much."
Does that mean being No. 1 has become old hat to Duke?
"It's not a matter of old hat, it's a matter of keeping things in perspective," Krzyzewski said. "Being good, it never gets old hat. And if by being good, you are No. 1, then that's fine, but you're focus is on being good, not on being No. 1. You want to be No. 1 in April, in the
tournament, even though you may not be ranked No. 1 at that time. It's
winning the tournament, that's the ultimate focus."
So being No. 1 is no heavier a burden than, say, being undefeated?
"People have different burdens," Krzyzewski added. "All I can say is that we've been No. 1 ... I think I've coached 160 games when my team's been ranked No. 1.
"We can't make a bigger to-do about it because we know eventually we won't be ranked No. 1. Whether it's next game, next season or whatever. (We'll) give it its due, but not to focus our attention or base our attention on that, I think is a healthy perspective. At least it's been healthy for us."
Cleaning up Comcast
In an attempt to get the Comcast Center crowd to clean up its act, Maryland coach Gary Williams took it upon himself to address the crowd before the Terrapins suffered an 81-69 loss to visiting North Carolina State on Sunday. In Maryland's previous home loss to Duke (Jan. 21), several students chanted profanities at J.J. Redick and wore wore T-shirts with an obscene reference to Duke.
"We cannot have obscene chants. We cannot wear obscene T-shirts to games. We're too good for that," Williams told the crowd.
Evidently, Williams' appeal to "people's human decency" did not fall upon deaf ears.
According to The Washington Post, Maryland fans reacted by refraining from any obscene chants. Aware of the controversy their behavior had
caused, some students held up signs that read I dislike the other team and I disagree with that call.
Asked why Duke seemed to bring out the worst in his fans, Williams said, "It's been a great rivalry for the last four years, five years when
we were able to get competitive with Duke. Most of our students have handled it in the right way. We've had a group of students who haven't, but
it really hasn't been a factor at other games.
"Things are yelled everywhere. I've heard everything on the road this year, especially some directed at D.J. Strawberry (son of
former Yankee Darryl Strawberry), which I'm not real happy about. But nobody
writes about that, they just seem to write about our situation here."
Maryland students, however, are not likely to mute their loathing for Duke in the future.
"It's the home team's job to create an atmosphere that makes it unwelcome for the away team and gives us any advantage we can get," Danny
Cohn, a sophomore from Gaithersburg told the Post. "I guess people think
it creates a bad image for our school, but I don't think it's any worse
than any other school. It's a little worse at the Duke game, but at other games, it's much more toned down."
Around the East
Saint Joseph's 19-0 start has far eclipsed the best in school history. The Hawks, whose No. 3 ranking is the highest by an A-10 team since Massachusetts was ranked No. 1 in the final 1996 polls, remains one of two undefeated teams in the country along with Stanford.
Can the Hawks run the table? With a Feb. 11 home date against Dayton, the A-10 West Division leader, remaining as the only potential stumbling
block, Saint Joseph's looks like it would be poised to become the second team to go undefeated in A-10 play (Temple went 18-0 in 1987-88 and
1983-84) and first in league history to go unbeaten for the entire season.
No. 4 Pittsburgh (20-1, 6-1) became the first team in the nation to win 20 games after defeating Boston College 68-58 on Jan. 28. The
victory also extended the Panthers' home winning streak to 38 consecutive games, ranking as the nation's longest, including a Big East record 18
straight conference home games.
Michael Vega covers college basketball for The Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.