April 3, 2010

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By Anthony Oliva III

INDIANAPOLIS - For Duke forward Lance Thomas it happened as the team bus was driving past Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time.

As the senior looked outside his window and saw the Duke logo illuminated on the stadium’s vast exterior, the realization that he had finally made it to the Final Four began to sink in.

“It’s surreal man,” Thomas said, after pausing and taking a deep breath. “Driving past that building and seeing the spotlight shining with our logo on it, it just sent a chill through my body. I was ready to play once I saw that.”

No. 1 seed Duke will face No. 2 seed West Virginia at 8:47 ET in Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night. The winner will face either Butler or Michigan State in the national championship game.

At times, this momentous opportunity seemed so far away for this Duke team. Getting to the Final Four was a true obstacle, and the initial drive past the stadium really set the tone for the week.

“We were driving past and everyone was looking at the same thing,” Thomas said. “Nobody said anything, but it was like an internal feeling where we all knew we were thinking the same thing.”

While Duke rarely, if ever, plays the role of sympathetic figure in the college basketball world, the Blue Devils, especially this group of seniors in Thomas, Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek, have experienced more than their share of heartbreak.

In the previous three seasons, Duke had not advanced past the Sweet Sixteen. In the current senior’s freshman year, the sixth-seeded Blue Devils were ousted in the first round by VCU, 79-77.

“Losing that first game, you don’t expect that at all,” Thomas said. “It has definitely put a chip on my shoulder to continue to get better each and every practice, and to help my team win in any way possible.”

While Duke improved each year, the Blue Devils, who are expected to compete for nothing less than a national championship each year, still fell short of expectations. The year after the loss to VCU, Duke, a No. 2 seed, lost in the second round to none other than West Virginia, 73-67. Last year, the Blue Devils, again a No. 2 seed, bowed out in the Sweet Sixteen after a loss to No. 3 seed Villanova, 77-54.

“Being at this point and being able to look back, I don’t know if we’d be here without those moments, especially my freshman year,” said Scheyer, who is averaging a team-leading 18.2 points per game this year.

While winning a lot of games in the regular season and winning a game or two in the NCAA Tournament would be considered a colossal success for many programs around the country, that is not the case with Duke. This program is held to such high standards due to the longevity of its greatness.

“I think the guys in the past have put that upon us with the success our program has had in earlier years,” Thomas said of Duke’s high expectations every year. “People expect us to always be at this stage. Earlier in our career, speaking for my classmates right here, we didn't live up to that type of name.”

It is not easy for Duke players to live up to the legacy of past teams. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has taken Duke to 11 Final Fours, has won three national championships and has sent countless stars to the NBA.

“At times I felt   earlier in our career, we felt like we had to live up to past players, you know, things teams have done before us,” Scheyer said. “I think finally when we stopped worrying about that, that's when we started to really hit our stride, just start playing.”

Duke, for whatever reason, has become one of the more reviled teams in college basketball, and its recent postseason stumbles have only fueled the arguments of critics everywhere.

“I think it’s just added motivation,” said Zoubek, Duke’s 7-foot-1 starting center. “We just really want to prove ourselves to everybody. We’re a great team this year. We really work hard, and we just want to show everyone what we can do.”

Duke has done that in this year’s tournament. The Blue Devils have an average margin of victory of 16 points, its closest game being its seven-point triumph over No. 3 seed Baylor in the Elite Eight. The Blue Devils, currently with a 33-5 record, also won the ACC Tournament, as well as splitting the regular season conference title with Maryland.

Against West Virginia, Duke is expecting a physical game, a style that it feels comfortable playing. Not the stereotypical Duke team, this year’s squad has size and, maybe more importantly, an edge to it. The Blue Devils are tough, and that toughness was forged through some of the trials and tribulations that this team has endured.

“I think when you share experiences, positive and so-called negative, you grow,” Coach K said. “It’s like a family. We have really good guys that lean on one another in those times, and share in the really good stuff, too. We’re a very, very close group. I think we have really good talent, but I think we’ve been able to win because of how close a group we are.”

While Duke’s current freshmen have not yet suffered the hardships of coming up short while carrying the burdensome weight of wearing a Duke uniform, the younger players are grateful to have the leadership of Scheyer, Thomas and Zoubek.

“They talk all the time about games in the past,” freshman Mason Plumlee said. “They talk about what they’ve been through. We’ve been through ups and downs this year just like they have their whole careers. We want to end it right for them.”

Duke is only two wins away from its ultimate goal, and this senior class is ever so close to exorcising the demons of years past.

“We’re here on a mission,” Thomas said.

“We want to be that one team at the end whose logo is still up there.”