DURHAM, N.C. - It's easy to walk through the hallway that wraps around Cameron Indoor Stadium, check out the Duke team photos, and start to compare teams.
And, to compare, there's no need to look for a change in hairstyle or dress code, even though most of the faces are different.
Take your pick, really. Blue Devil teams have been a staple of consistency not only in the ACC, but nationally, for over a decade. But one only has to go back two seasons ago to remember a Duke club on a similar path to the one being taken by these Blue Devils.
The 1998-99 Blue Devils were the team to beat because of their dominance inside in Elton Brand; a money shooter in Trajan Langdon; the athletic point in William Avery; a rising star defender in Shane Battier; and an 'X' factor off the bench in Corey Maggette.
But, in the end, the '98-99 team was stopped by Connecticut in the national title game. And while this year's Blue Devils aren't as dominant athletically as the team that lost to UConn, they have a chance to be better and accomplish what Brand, Langdon, Avery and Maggette couldn't.
Why? Because few teams who start as dominant as Duke (19-1) has this season can continue to improve throughout the season. The '98-99 team didn't. This team is.
Jason Williams can continue to play under control and make better decisions at the point. Mike Dunleavy can continue to play at a higher level offensively each game. Battier and Carlos Boozer can, and are learning, to play with fouls. Chris Duhon can be more of an offensive scorer off the bench.
"Our main thing is to stay fresh and healthy where you don't wear your team out in the third leg of a mile run," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "God forbid a team gets injured. You can improve by improving a player. We like the improvement of the player as the thing that gets us better."
There's a team out West (Stanford) that can match the Blue Devils this season in basketball smarts and execution. There's one in the Southwest (Arizona) that can match Duke's talent. And there's one in the Midwest (Michigan State) that can be just as physically tough and, at times, athletic. Stanford has already beaten Duke once. Maryland had the Blue Devils down for all but 54 seconds last Saturday.
But few feel the national title can be won without getting Duke out of the way first. Such was the case in 1999.
"This is a much different team than '99 because that team had great athletic ability -- not good, but great -- and it disguised some of the skill weaknesses," Krzyzewski said on the eve of Thursday's first of the two rivalry games against North Carolina.
"And I think overall that hurt us. We didn't develop fully in the skill aspect as well as the mental aspect and it's my responsibility for that. This team has really good athletic, but not great athletic ability. But it could become a better basketball skilled team, and as a result, we felt it was more capable of losing (during the season). We still have to learn how to think the game. The '99 team was so athletic that it didn't have to think the game. It just played it."
Duke didn't play smart in the Stanford loss. The Blue Devils unraveled defensively over the final six minutes, allowing the Cardinal to continue to execute without too many problems inside. Having Battier and Boozer foul out contributed greatly to the loss with the only true frontcourt reserve -- Matt Christensen -- unable to go in cold and contain the Collins twins.
Since, Boozer and Battier have stayed on the court in every game that mattered. Doing the same against Carolina is a must.
"Whether you're in the theatre, a singer ... or doing your job, the more you do it, the more comfortable you become," Krzyzewski said. "We'll let our guys play with two fouls. In Shane's case, he had two fouls where he didn't even guard a big guy in the Stanford game. He didn't have the discipline. Carolina will put us in that position with their size and strength."
Williams tired in the final minutes against Stanford. That shouldn't be a concern against Carolina and it wasn't against Maryland. His wind wasn't a question in coming back with two 3-pointers in the final 54 seconds to push overtime.
Williams said he saw the mistakes he was making throughout the first half against Maryland. But the fact that the Blue Devils didn't quit gave them hope.
"One of the things we learned in that game was how well, and how hard, a team could play against us," Krzyzewski said of Maryland. "Their determination and fight knocked us back. It was good to see us hanging in there, not just during the game, but to be in striking distance."
But herein is the comparison between '99 and '01: Duke is taking everyone's best shot, every night and for the most part handling every punch.
"One of the great things about being a champion is the ability to play and win when you're not a good basketball team," Krzyzewski said. "In order to do that you have to hang around and something has to change. Something did, and our kids took advantage of it. It was a great win for us.
"It's a compliment when people come after you. We try and put our guys in environments with the crowds, too, in non-conference scheduling (like Stanford) and in the long run it makes you better. I would rather be the hunted, than the hunter. But it's a place where you better be ready all the time."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
|Shane Battier was close in 1999. His improvement since makes Duke a title contender again in 2001.|
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