INDIANAPOLIS — The talking is over.
It’s time to play some basketball.
“The waiting is definitely the hardest part,” Duke guard Nolan Smith said on the eve of the Final Four. “We were here four days before our game. We were excited to get here and play, but there are all these other things … we all just want to get out on the court and play.”
Four days may seem like a long time to Nolan Smith.
West Virginia, Duke’s opponent in the national semifinal that starts at 8:47 p.m. after a pair of No. 5 seeds, Michigan State and Butler, match up, has waited 51 years to get back to the Final Four.
Both teams are on a mission.
The Blue Devils, the No. 1 seed in the South Regional and 33-5 for the year, believes it is its birthright to be in the Final Four, a place Hall of Fame Coach Mike Krzyzewski has taken them 11 times.
But they haven’t reached the Final Four in the last five years, something that digs hard at the Blue Devils senior class that includes leading scorer Jon Scheyer, 7-1 center Brian Zoubek and forward Lance Thomas.
Compared with the success in the past, this Duke group had fallen short and they didn’t like it.
“At times I felt earlier in our career, we felt like we had to live up to past players, things teams have done before us,” Scheyer explained. “I think finally when we stopped worrying about that, that’s when we started to really hit our stride and just start playing.
“Of course, each year we didn’t make the Final Four, we wanted to do it that much more. I think it was a little more frustrating that we didn’t. I think we put all that aside and said, ‘Don’t worry about what we’ve done in the past, let’s just go play.’”
Again, that does not compare to 51 years of frustration, 51 years since West and company fell a point short of winning the title against California, 51 years of coming up empty.
Then Bob Huggins arrived. He instilled a new attitude, a different playing style. He bulked up his players physically and mentally.
They became a Top 10 team, then Big East champions and then they stunned Kentucky and now find themselves looking at the legacy of Duke basketball, staring it in the eyes in what figures to be a physical, defensive war of wills.
West Virginia is still upset they missed a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
“We thought we should have been a 1 but, at the end of the day, you have to go out and play,” the Mountaineer star Da’Sean Butler said. “[The seeding committee] has a job to do. We had a job to do. We went out and did our job. We didn’t think they did there’s.”
Interestingly, while he believed WVU should have been a No. 1 seed, Butler understands that his team is not exactly filled with superstar talent.
“Coach Huggins has had Kenyon Martin and Nick Van Exel and so many great players but never won the NCAA. Now he may win it with us,” Butler said.
The “us” part of that is important, for while there may not be a Magic or Michael, there is a team that has bonded together and grown over three years, and may do what far more athletic players have done.
“It would be great if we could look back and see that Huggs didn’t win a national championship with all those great players but won it with Cam Thoroughman,” Butler said.
There is some history between these two teams, interesting history, at that. Two years ago they met with the Sweet 16 on the line and West Virginia, with then freshman Joe Mazzulla scoring 13 points, tearing down 11 rebounds and getting 8 assists, took Duke apart.
The Mountaineers beat them physically, outrebounded them by 20 and when it was over Mazzulla said that Duke would be about 7th or 8th in the Big East and embarrassed them at one point as he slapped his hand to the floor after a strong move.
Mazzulla said he wasn’t trying to show Duke up slapping the floor.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing,” he said. “You don’t think you get a chance to play Duke that many times in your career. They obviously are a team with such great history and tradition. You get caught up in the emotions.”
Duke claims that doesn’t drive them, but they remember.
“I definitely remember the game. You do remember parts of what people say,” Scheyer said. “But for us, we know we were a different team and they were a different team. For us, we’re not using that as a payback-type thing, using that too much. Of course, we want to beat team that knocked us out two years ago. Who wouldn’t? That’s our approach.”
Duke has changed into one of the nation’s better rebounding teams, perhaps spurred by the embarrassment of WVU pushing them around.
“Rebounding was the reason why we lost games that year and this year rebounding is the reason why we win games,” Zoubek said.
Duke has three top-line scorers in Scheyer, who averages 18.2 points a game, Smith who averages 17.4 and Kyle Singler, who averages 17.6.
Asked if there was one thing Duke did well, Butler said, “Shoot. Those three guys, we have not seen a team all year with three guys who can shoot like they can.”
But WVU, who is 31-6 and on a 10-game winning streak, has defended almost every challenge all year.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.