By then, a season of hype had turned into one of worry.
Duke was embarrassed in its Jan. 11 game at Clemson, a sizable loss for a team that was off its bearings in many places.
The Blue Devils started the season ranked fourth, and only added to their potential with a Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins showdown in Chicago in the second game of the season. Though Duke lost to Kansas that night, it was a game filled with brief periods of excellent basketball.
But the loss to Clemson promised something much different. The Blue Devils were 1-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and nearly fell out of the top 25 for the first time in seven years.
Parker wasn’t scoring like he had been expected; he was out of sorts, both with his new role and using his natural abilities.
Rodney Hood had his good games, but he went into a shell if he missed too many shots, something true of the entire team. If the shots didn’t fall, shoulders slumped. Mouths shut. Other areas of Duke’s game shut down, too.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t himself, either. After his older brother, Bill, suddenly passed away the day after Christmas, Krzyzewski didn’t have the same flare for basketball that he normally has. On a human level, he was hurting.
But Duke was able to tough out a win against Virginia in the next game, the start of a five-game winning streak.
“I got knocked back right after Christmas and I’ve been knocked back for a couple of weeks. It’s on me, not on my team,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “We’re human beings and human beings have setbacks. You don’t get a lifetime membership to the (NCAA) Tournament.”
He looked poignant when he said Duke would improve. Composed but emotional, Krzyzewski said this season would not end the way the ACC campain started.
“We’re starting to pay our dues better. The head coach is going to do a better job,” Krzyzewski said.
So, after losing a classic game at Syracuse and blowing out both Wake Forest and Boston College, there were three key home games left for Duke, all on Saturdays. Most schools have long since abandoned the small arena in favor of more seats and more money, but 9,314 people at Cameron Indoor Stadium waited to see Duke’s three biggest home games.
And in that unrivaled, blue-painted hotbox of noise, Duke changed its 2014.
February 15, 2014
Duke and Maryland haven’t exactly liked one other in the past (See: Maryland’s student section chanting profanity in unison at J.J. Redick) but there has been begrudging respect on both sides.
Respect or not, both sides and their fans desperately want to win the send-off game before Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten. In its final trip to Duke as a member of the ACC, Maryland nearly gave the final punch in a conference rivalry that has created decades worth of memorable – and often contentious – games.
The Terrapins survive foul trouble to big man Charles Mitchell to stay in the game and look to have an edge when Dez Wells sticks a three-pointer with 2:45 to go, giving Maryland a three-point lead.
Hood then makes two free throws, and after a Duke stop, Parker throws down a tremendous one-handed dunk in traffic, setting off Cameron and swinging the advantage back to Duke.
In the moment, Duke’s players said, it felt like the nervous tension of an elimination game.
“Every possession was intense,” Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon said after the game. “It was one of those games where, if you make a mistake on any possession, that could cost you the game.”
With hard work set to prevail, it was a little luck that decides a winner.
Maryland, down one with the ball on its final possession, finds Mitchell with a mismatch on the much smaller Hood. Mitchell lets go of a hook shot with two seconds remaining. It hits the front of the rim. Then the back iron. Then the front iron, where it briefly stops. Then it falls out.
Duke holds on to win.
“They called on the Duke Gods,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the game.
Everyone present seemed to understand there was a broader scope to what happened on that first of three Saturdays.
“This wasn’t only a great win for our team this year,” Sulaimon said. “It was a great win for our program.”
The Duke fans take particular delight as they bellow chants of “A-C-C!” as Maryland walks off the floor.
“Yes, I am going to miss this,” Turgeon said. “What a great place to come play.”
February 22, 2014
A pony-tailed girl in a sports bra and blue body paint does not care for Michael Gbinije.
The Duke transfer now plays for Syracuse and is making his Cameron return. She did not forget, and is trying her best to make sure that Gbinije didn’t either.
“I hate you, Michael Gbinije!” she screams. “You’re an embarrassment to Duke basketball!”
She pauses to take a breath, or to regain consciousness. It’s hard to tell.
“Coach K should have never recruited you!” she picks up again.
She waits for a slight pause. Gbinije is subbed out.
“That should be familiar, Gbinije, you’re back on a Duke bench!” she shouts. Her fellow students, after ignoring her original vitriol, laugh when it turns at least partially creative.
The game itself is a repeat epic, but of a different sort. The offensive power in the matchup at Syracuse cedes to defense in the Cameron game, and Duke takes charge by scoring on six straight possessions midway through the second half.
On its final possession, Syracuse trails by two with the shot clock shut off. C.J. Fair receives the ball on the left baseline and drives on Rodney Hood, making a lay-up as the whistle sounds: An and-one with the potentially game-winning free throw coming up.
Except the official signals something different. Charge on Fair. Duke ball.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim explodes off the bench and nearly removes his jacket while running to half court. The officials give him two technicals and eject him, all but concluding the game. Duke wins.
Syracuse, ranked No. 1 at the time, loses its second straight after starting the year 25-0.
“I just don’t know what to do, I’ll probably cry all the way home,” Boeheim said after the game. “I don’t think we’ll probably play anymore, I think we’ll just give up.”
The environment, anticipatory of the rematch, again is worthy of an elimination game.
Again, Duke wins.
“I love the NBA to death, but this is something they can’t do,” Krzyzewski said. “We should always recognize that.”
And Hood, who has a tendency to be hard on himself, takes a huge risk in the final seconds, and it works.
“I came up short sometimes and I came up big sometimes. That’s part of being one of the best players on the team,” Hood said after the game. “You have to take the chance every time.”
Vs. North Carolina
March 8, 2014
In Krzyzewskiville, the tent city set up near Cameron where the basketball-loving students stay during the basketball season, the air is rich with a combination of body paint and stale beer. Mud is everywhere. Rich Homie Quan thunders from speakers near the building. A male in a Kyle Singler jerseys shotguns a Bud Light along with his friend, who is wearing a Jason Williams jersey and a backwards snap-back.
Two hours before tipoff, everyone is having an awesome time.
Meanwhile, an academic scandal is ongoing at North Carolina, and all the evidence seems as if UNC athletes were beneficiaries.
The Duke students are aware.
A blue-painted Gandalf holds a sign that says “UNC SHALL NOT PASS.” Another holds a sign that has a picture of a hoop with text that reads “UNC Literacy Test.” During the game, the Cameron Crazies sing the ABCs when North Carolina is at the foul line. During a timeout, they shout “Academic!” and point to Duke’s bench, then shout “Fraud!” and point to North Carolina’s bench. They repeat, louder each time.
The game itself belongs to Parker and Hood. Parker, in particular, scores in every way. He hits jumpers, both pull-ups and step-backs. He makes free throws, a beautiful up-and-under and a clutch three. Nothing North Carolina does influences him.
By game’s end, he has 30, the most a freshman has scored against North Carolina. Hood has 24. Duke wins by 12.
All the troubles seem to be gone.
Andre Dawkins, who sat out last season to properly grieve his sister’s death, laughs and has fun on the bench. His left wrist – tattooed with 12-5-09, the date his sister passed away – hangs around a teammate as he celebrates one of Hood’s threes. Basketball is fun again.
“It’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of this group of guys with these group of guys. We have a ton of fun, so I’m just excited to be out there with them,” he said.
Parker, whose welcome to the ACC was difficult and plagued by criticism, has turned into the player he was expected to be. When asked if this is what he wanted out of college, his best game in the biggest environment at Cameron, he cracks a smile.
“Yeah,” he said. “I knew the Crazies came and supported us. Shout-outs to them. They spend their time all day out in the cold, and (they’re) the only fans in America that do that. A lot of people can’t resemble the hard work and desires that the Cameron Crazies (have).”
And Krzyzewski, who has had a tough year in his own right, makes his way to the front of the Cameron Crazies and applauds the fans after the game. What he calls an “emotional two months for me” is finished, and Duke heads into the postseason.
These three emotional games have taken a toll on Duke at times, he said. But it might be these three exhausting Cameron games that prove to be the crux of something more important.
Once more, Duke has to recover from a Cameron high.
“It’s a different season for our team than most teams because of that level of emotion in a game. It takes a toll on a team,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s almost like we needed to decompress, and you can’t completely decompress in a season.
“Hopefully from this game, we will be back.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com