By Andy Staples
March 28, 2010

HOUSTON -- You see Duke Vader, the juggernaut sent to Indianapolis by the NCAA, CBS and the Illuminati to crush the warmest, fuzziest Final Four in decades. You see coach Mike Krzyzewski programming his squad of Devilbot 9000s to whine for every call so Duke can destroy the dreams of all those plucky upstarts who rode into Indy on the wings of angels.

That's fine. Every great story needs a villain.

But before you cast the Blue Devils as the Devil, ponder for a moment the scene at 6:45 central time on Sunday night. Duke center Brian Zoubek stood just outside the three-point line clutching a piece of net so tightly that if he didn't let go for two months, the strand would turn into a diamond. Zoubek turned and watched Krzyzewski clip the final strand to release a net that will be enshrined in Durham. Then Zoubek turned back and smiled.

"It's surreal," the senior said. "I haven't even grasped the whole situation yet. I mean, we're in the Final Four -- someplace we haven't been close to in my four years. People talk about us being the one seed and how we were favored, but until you're actually here, you don't really believe that you're actually going to get there."

We expect Duke to be in the Final Four because we remember a time when it seemed the Blue Devils made the Final Four every year, or at least every other year. From 1986 to 2004, Duke reached the Final Four 10 times. But the oldest of these Devils were sophomores in high school the last time Duke cut down nets after a region final. All they've heard are questions about why they haven't carried on the tradition of Hurley and Laettner and Battier. They've never experienced this kind of joy, and it showed Sunday when the clock struck zero on Duke's 78-71 win against Baylor.

Guard Jon Scheyer leaped like a Super Mario Brothers character. Forward Kyle Singler looked for someone to hug. Guard Nolan Smith, Sunday's hero, joined the dogpile. For most of this tournament, the Devils acted like cyborgs. Sunday, they looked like what they are: 18-to-22-year-old kids relishing the greatest moment of their young lives. So go ahead and resume hating them on Tuesday. For a day, look at them the same way you would the players from Butler, Michigan State and West Virginia -- as a bunch of young men who worked extraordinarily hard to reach a common goal.

The final step was the toughest. "We had to work harder than any other game this year to get this win," said Scheyer, who scored 20 points. "We played our butts off."

They had to, because Baylor was the most athletic team left in this tournament. The Bears were fast, long and scrappy, and they wanted this as badly as the Dukies. For most of the game, neither team could hold a lead larger than two or three points for more than a few seconds. The Devils dumped the ball into their big men to force Baylor's zone to sag. With the defenders drawn in, Zoubek or one of the Plumlee brothers, Miles or Mason, would hit Scheyer or Smith for an open three-pointer. Meanwhile, the Bears answered with fearless drives from point guard Tweety Carter and shooting guard LaceDarius Dunn and with moves no 6-10 forward should be athletic enough to make from Ekpe Udoh.

None of it looked easy, though. Baylor shot 45.8 percent. Duke shot 36.1 percent. It didn't take long to realize the team willing to do the dirtiest of the dirty work would advance to Indianapolis.

After the loss, Baylor coach Scott Drew zeroed in on the stat that mattered most. He pointed to the second-chance points, where Duke -- which grabbed 22 offensive rebounds -- outscored Baylor 23-16. That's a seven-point margin. Pop quiz: How much did Baylor lose by Sunday? "The seven points is the difference right there," Drew said.

Really, everything turned on three second-chance points. With 3:36 remaining, Duke's Smith, en route to a career-high 29 points and the region's Most Outstanding Player Award, made the first of two free throws to tie the score at 61. He missed the second -- a critical gaffe in a see-saw matchup.

The ball bounced hard off the back of the rim and soared over the right side of the lane. Baylor forward Quincy Acy had the inside position, but Duke forward Lance Thomas lurked behind. "I just kept my eye on the target," Thomas said. "The rebound was in my reach. It was either me or him, and I wanted it. I wanted it bad."

Thomas dished to Singler, who passed to Smith, who drained a three-pointer. No sequence was more important, and it bears mentioning that the Duke teams of the past few years wouldn't have made that play. They weren't tough enough. But this one is, and the evidence oozed from Thomas' forehead as he sat at his locker. Someone's fingernail had opened a three-inch gash that spanned both of Thomas' eyebrows. "It was that physical," Thomas said.

Thanks to his team's toughness, Krzyzewski can finally stop answering questions about the Blue Devils' absence from the Final Four. Coach K got awfully snippy this week when those questions arose, and even Smith conceded Saturday that the failure to reach the round of four had begun to wear on his coach. Sunday, Krzyzewski's throat was raw, but his smile was bright.

"They've been spectacular to coach," he said. "You can tell they're really close. So I'm ecstatic about it. I can't tell you how happy I am about them taking our staff to Indianapolis."

Of course, it wouldn't be a monumental Duke win without another excuse for the Duke-haters to spin a conspiracy theory. In case Sunday didn't feel enough like the 90s and early 2000s, Duke even had a questionable call help seal the win. Did Acy really deserve a technical foul after he tangled with Scheyer with 1:19 remaining? And if Acy's actions merited a T, why didn't officials also ring up Scheyer, whose flailing elbow after the whistle incited Acy in the first place? The call didn't cost Baylor the win, but it did give Duke-haters more reason to root against the Blue Devils.

Chances are, most of you will do just that this weekend. That's OK. But for a few more hours, remember that this particular band of Dukies is just as excited to be heading to Indy as the Bulldogs, Mountaineers and Spartans. After that, feel free to continue dreaming up scenarios for Da'Sean Skywalker and Huggie Solo to blow up Duke Vader's Death Star.

The Blue Devils know you want to.

"We don't care what anybody says," Zoubek said. "We're going for the whole thing."

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