CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—On ESPN at approximately 10:53 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, last night—about 8 1/2 hours after Duke sealed its 70-65, overtime win against Virginia Tech—Syracuse finished fending off a second-half comeback by the hungry but overmatched Connecticut Huskies and prevailed. Analyst/screamer Dick Vitale started talking about "the will to win"—Syracuse's, that is. That's what the best teams have: the will to win.
For all we know, Vitale was at Cameron Indoor Stadium earlier that day, and slipped into the press room in disguise (and why not? Rob Lowe was sitting in the second row behind the scorers' table). Or maybe he watched Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski's postgame commentary on television from his hotel room in Storrs, Conn. It wouldn't be a surprise, really: Vitale loves Mike Krzyzewski. Maybe he was looking for something to poach for later use.
If so, he found it. You might have expected Krzyzewski to be disappointed with his team's poor shooting yesterday (38.5 percent, which included an unsightly 6-24 three-pointers and some shaky free throw shooting that could have cost Duke the game). You might have supposed he would say something about the frustration of having to survive an overtime dogfight, at home, against an NIT-bound team that was just 15-13, 4-9 in conference play coming into the game. You might even have imagined that Krzyzewski would perhaps say something about some good luck that went his team's way, such as the Hokies missing a pair of makeable, game-winning shots in the waning seconds of regulation.
Instead, he talked about Duke's fatigue. His team had just outlasted Florida State in what he called a "hellacious game" down in Tallahassee late Thursday night; they got home at 2:00 a.m. Friday and barely had time (or energy) to practice before Saturday's noon tipoff. "Whatever reservoir we had there at the end, we were able to get through."
Instead, he called Virginia Tech an "outstanding team," using as evidence for the Hokies' competitiveness their habit of constantly losing games on the final possession, which they have done repeatedly this season. Win some of those, and Virginia Tech would be a first-division ACC team, Krzyzewski said. "I think they're really good."
Instead, he said "this team has a really good will to win."
He continued: "They have some shortcomings, as all teams do, but at the end of the day they have a will to win."
You got that, Dickie V?
Krzyzewski is right, of course: His team does have a really good will to win. Yes, Duke lost two close games to Florida State and Miami, both at home, earlier this year. But look back further. Look back, in fact, to the very first game of the season, when the fresh-faced Blue Devils were nearly beaten at Cameron by Belmont, winning by a single point. Then take a trip in your mind to Maui (not that it's been cold around these parts this winter), and recall how Duke held on in the championship game over Kansas—currently ranked one spot ahead of Duke in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, and which also found the will to win yesterday, rallying from a 19-point, second-half home deficit to No. 3 Missouri and winning in overtime, as Duke did yesterday.
Let your mind linger in Lahaina for another moment. It's nice there, what with the banyan tree and the tattoo parlors and all. What do you recall from that win over Kansas? If it's only one thing, what you probably remember is Tyler Thornton, Duke's last scoring option any time he's on the court, making two three-pointers in the game's final minute—one of them a desperation flail from the left wing with the shot clock winding down and Duke clinging to a two-point lead—to give the Blue Devils the Maui trophy.
You know who Krzyzewski spent the most time talking about yesterday after Duke beat Virginia Tech? Tyler Thornton.
"Tyler really epitomized the grit that we had as a basketball team," Krzyzewski said. "There's no way our team wins without Tyler Thornton today. That kid just played so darn hard—and got his bell rung right there at the end." Thornton was laid out flat when he ran into a ball screen near the end of overtime. He got back up, played it out. "You okay?" Krzyzewski said he asked Thornton. "I'm okay," Thornton replied. "I'm not coming out of this thing."
Thornton, with his look of perpetual worry and what my friend Stephanie calls his "old-man shorts," hiked way up to his belly button, played 38 of the game's 45 minutes yesterday: that's by far the most time he's logged in any game in his career to date. Freshman Quinn Cook, who looked like he might take over the starting role early this season, was reduced to a Stillman White level of playing time yesterday. Krzyzewski was asked if the increase in playing time had to do with needing to have Thornton cover Erick Green. The Virginia Tech guard, his team's best player, was held scoreless in the first half, needing 19 shots to eke out 16 points, his season average, by the time it was all over.
Sure, Duke needed Thornton for the defensive assignment, Krzyzewski agreed—"I thought Tyler did a great job just trying to control Green," he had said—but "we just needed him," he clarified.
"The really good teams we've had here—we've had a lot of them—there are players on those teams that will fight whether they're fresh, medium or completely exhausted. If you have a team of them, you might win a national championship. Tyler's like that. As long as Tyler's on the court, he just gives it to you. It won't show up stat-wise"—six points, three assists, two turnovers, five rebounds—"but just attitude-wise and toughness-wise, what he was saying in huddles and on the court, understanding game situations, encouraging his teammates—you know, it was like a Wojo-type performance," a reference to erstwhile Duke point guard (and current associate head coach for Duke) Steve Wojciechowski. Krzyzewski made the comparison just as I was about to ask him which former Duke player Thornton most reminded him of. A few games ago, he said that Thornton was the Blue Devil that former players were fondest of when they came back to visit the alma mater and met the current team.
"I could talk a long time about that kid," and Krzyzewski did just that. He praised Thornton's—you guessed it—"will." "It's just beautiful," Krzyzewski said, twice. "I'm a winning coach as a result of him."
It seemed quite appropriate that, in the postgame locker room, while most of the media flocked as usual to golden boy Austin Rivers and elder statesmen like Ryan Kelly and Miles Plumlee, Thornton sat mostly unvisited at his locker. Posed a few questions, Thornton gave straightforward, simple answers, and it was telling that one of the questions he was asked had to do with the triumvirate of scoring guards who overshadow him: Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Austin Rivers.
"We all bring different things to the table, but at the same time we all love to win and we all bring our drive to win"—he almost said "will to win," minutes before Krzyzewski did—"so whatever plays we need made down the stretch, we're able to do that."
Naturally, he said that Duke isn't tired—players will seldom confess to that—despite having just played 36 hours earlier at Florida State. Nor was he surprised by Virginia Tech's stiff challenge. "It's an ACC game. It's always going to be tough, regardless."
And asked why the Blue Devils seem inconsistent, Thornton said, "We're a young team." Right. And he's talking about himself as much as anyone: he's a sophomore. One sign of Thornton's important presence on the team, and in Krzyzewski's eyes, is that he seems substantially older than a second-year player who averaged just 10 minutes per game as a freshman. He's the steady, seaworthy presence Duke needs—his two first-half three-pointers, his only buckets of the game, provided essential ballast—stocked as it is with erratic mates who can be electrifying or limp from game to game, even play to play. Andre Dawkins, for example, had a game-high 22 points on 6-9 three-point shooting against Florida State on Thursday, but was scoreless in only 10 minutes of action yesterday.
Thornton was the grit, and Krzyzewski had another unattractive but essential weapon yesterday. He called Austin Rivers a "battering ram." Late in the game, when it was clear that no one was going to get hot, Krzyzewski just kept getting his team to give the ball to Rivers, who would then charge by his defender, draw contact in the lane, and go to the free throw line. Rivers shot nine free throws in the game's final nine minutes, six of them in overtime. He went to the line 17 times in all, and had he made better than 11 of them, the game might have been over sooner, or at least with less anxiety. Rivers is making only 65 percent of his free throws this year, a rate he'll need to improve if Duke is to have any hope of winning the national championship.
Is there an opposite of the will to win? There isn't really any such thing as the will to lose, but whatever the actual thing is, Virginia Tech has it. It's not just that they've lost innumerable close games this year; it's that they have had good chances to win them and blown those chances. Yesterday, they shot just 7-16 from the free throw line, mainly because freshman forward Dorian Finney-Smith, like Rivers a 65 percent free throw shooter, went 1-8, missing his first six. Erick Green turned the ball over with 40 seconds left in regulation and the Hokies up by a point. Tied at 58 and holding for a last shot, Virginia Tech inexplicably set no screen at all for Green. He got half a step on Thornton anyway, but missed a jumper. Cadarian Raines, who is seeing a spike in minutes with Victor Davila out with a groin injury, got the rebound of Green's miss, but his off-balance putback attempt was too strong.
In overtime, Virginia Tech missed its first four shots and went 3-9 in all from the field. After Dorenzo Hudson, who hit two huge baskets to keep his team in the game in the extra period, airballed his third attempt with 34 seconds left to play and the Hokies trailing by two points, Virginia tech inexplicably waited 17 seconds to commit the necessary foul, halving the length of Duke's path to victory.
After the game, Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg said the sorts of positive-minded things you expect coaches to say in that situation—which I'm afraid he is quite accustomed to this year—but the important thing was not what he said. It was how he said it, i.e. so quietly, and with such obviously depleted energy and faith, that you could barely hear him. He must have known that his team's best remaining chance to sneak into the NCAA Tournament had just escaped their grasp. He was pleased with the effort but "obviously you want a reward."
The thing is, at the end of a close game, one team earns the reward, and Duke did that. There was not only Rivers, the battering ram, insisting upon his way into the lane and to the free throw line; there was Mason Plumlee grabbing two crucial offensive rebounds on a single possession with about a minute left in regulation, and finishing with a layup to bring Duke back within one point. There was Seth Curry pulling off a difficult drive and reverse layup to give Duke a five-point lead early in the overtime, their largest in nearly 10 minutes. There was Miles Plumlee pulling down two big defensive rebounds in overtime, as well—he had 15 overall—and drawing first blood in overtime with his only field goal of the game, a 15-foot jumper from the right of the free throw line.
I'm a skeptic about grit, heart, guts, effort: all those puff-words people throw around when they don't have the skill or attentiveness or articulation or whatever it takes to talk about the actual action on the court. (It's why listening to Dick Vitale wears thin on me so quickly.) But there's no doubting that these intangibles, vague as they may seem, are currently the difference between a Duke team that could easily be in, say, third place in the ACC and one that in fact leads the conference and hears its name mentioned as a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Krzyzewski, who spoke with bitter disappointment about his team's effort, grit, etc. after Duke squandered a big lead and squeaked by St. John's at home less than a month ago, now regularly reminds the media of his team's excellent record and high RPI rating. He has embraced what his team actually is: young and unpredictable, not among the elite squads of his career (1992, 1999, 2001 et al), awkwardly rostered. And really good.
The ranks of a power college basketball team are permanently closed, so we have no way of guessing what happens behind closed doors—it might be that Krzyzewski and his staff have berated, micromanaged, manipulated and drilled this team with even more extreme prejudice than usual in order to get them to their somewhat improbable 25-4 record. But let's not forget that Krzyzewski also gave Bobby Hurley, another gritty player with a will to win, the keys to the hardwood kingdom when Hurley was just a scrawny, sensitive freshman. He knows when to trust what he has. Addressing the media's concerns earlier this year, he said that "we're not trying to have an identity; we're just trying to be good." The thing is, winning forges an identity. If Duke 2011-12 is basically in the image of Austin Rivers, then perhaps the image is painted on the tightly stretched canvas that is Tyler Thornton. Would you have predicted that?
There was some talk of yesterday's contest being a "trap game." I didn't really think so, but the next one might be. On Tuesday—really soon—Duke travels to Winston-Salem for a rematch with Wake Forest. The Blue Devils handled the Demon Deacons at home without much trouble back on January 20. (In that game, Krzyzewski gave a very public verbal thrashing, during a timeout, to none other than Tyler Thornton.) Wake, 13-15, hasn't been good all season, but they just crushed Boston College at home by 29 points, and the Duke game is the final home contest of the season for the Deacs—they'll be pumped up and aiming for revenge. They'll also be rested, having had a week off from February 18-25.
Duke, on the other hand, will not be. Krzyzewski said after yesterday's sweaty-palmed win that his team needs some rest, but that will not come immediately. Duke will have played three games in six days by the time they're done at Wake Forest. In place of rest, they'll have to reach back down into their well of will.