No question about it: Duke is back

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HOUSTON -- What is wrong with Duke?

In the past few years, as the Blue Devils put more distance between themselves and 2004, the last time they made the Final Four, that has become a much-posed question.

Ludicrous as it was to suggest that a program that has made the Sweet 16 in all but two of the last 10 years might be flawed, there seemed to be something to it -- an element missing that hindered greater successes.

Friday night at Reliant Stadium in the South Regional semifinal, there was nothing wrong with Duke. Sure, the top-seeded Blue Devils at times chased the game against fourth-seeded Purdue, but there are no inherent flaws plaguing Duke anymore.

In winning 70-57 and advancing to the Elite Eight to play third-seeded Baylor on Sunday, the Blue Devils finally put to rest The Question. It did so by blending the traditional Duke way -- pretty, precision basketball and good shooting -- with another Duke way, a willingness to spice a game with intensity, to bring to the game as much muscle and moxie as their opponent.

"It was a game someone doesn't lose, a game no team is going to lose," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It was a game you have to win."

It is too simple to say the Blue Devils won because of Kyle Singler's 24 points or the 18 scored by Jon Scheyer, all but two coming in the second half. Nolan Smith's seven consecutive points during a key stretch played a big role, but those totals aren't telling enough.

They were no more important than the screens set by mountainous center Brian Zoubek which freed shooters and, at one point, knocked Purdue guard Chris Kramer dizzy. The 21 rebounds Zoubek and Miles Plumlee combined to grab from the center position -- part of a 48-27 edge for Duke -- contributed as much to the outcome as any baskets, as did a simple but important adjustment the Blue Devils made at halftime: they started setting tougher screens.

"The whole second half, [Purdue] didn't stop, we just played stronger," Krzyzewski said. "We set screens better, we got a little more room, and once we did that we could get to the basket."

Duke led 24-23 at the half, but they played well only in the final minutes before the break. The first 20 minutes were all about Purdue coach Matt Painter and his plan. So much of what Purdue's coach hoped to get away with, he did. He played three freshmen, including forward Patrick Bade for a long stretch when JaJuan Johnson (23 points) picked up his second foul only seven minutes into the game. Sophomore Ryan Smith, another bottom-of-the-rotation guy, also gave Purdue some minutes. It was like plugging a leak with scotch tape, but it worked, shortening the game for Purdue's key players, like E'Tuan Moore (18 points).

Duke had mismatches it could and should have exploited: 6-foot-3 Kramer on 6-10 Mason Plumlee. 6-4 Moore on 6-8 Singler. Bade, the 6-8 freshman, marking the 7-1 Zoubek. But a mix of poor ball security (11 turnovers) by the Blue Devils and sad shooting (24 percent) scuttled any chance of a run. It was half the fault of Duke's poor execution and half a credit to Purdue's defensive effort, ugly and beautiful at the same time.

The start reminded the Duke players of last season, when they folded early in the Sweet 16 to Villanova, a loss that brought The Question closer to the surface.

"We were having flashbacks," Zoubek said. "You don't want it to happen again ... [Our response this year] was completely the opposite of last year. Instead of falling apart, we came together."

And that is why The Question has finally been put to rest.