MIKE KRZYZEWSKI should have been in a jovial mood after his then top-ranked Blue Devils scraped out an 81-68 win at home over No. 14 North Carolina State on Jan. 18. The victory extended the Blue Devils' record to 17-0, which equaled their best start ever, yet Coach K had a bitter taste in his mouth. "Some of the things being written about us--'Will they go undefeated?'--are overdone," Krzyzewski said, adding that his normally implacable players were succumbing to the hype. "They had a lot of pressure on them."
If going undefeated was a problem for Duke, then the Blue Devils found the solution last Saturday at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., where they faced unranked Georgetown. Looking listless on defense and disorganized on offense, they allowed the Hoyas to make 61.5% of their shots in an 87-84 loss. That upset headlined a seismic day in college basketball that saw two other unbeatens, Florida and Pittsburgh, fall to unranked teams. (In the wake of the losses, Duke would drop to No. 2 in the rankings.) The defeats ensured that yet another season will pass without a team's reprising the perfection last achieved by the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
Saturday's events were a reminder that January is too soon to speculate about any team's going undefeated. Florida (17-1 at week's end) and Pittsburgh (15-1), which lost to Tennessee and St. John's, respectively, deserve credit for their strong starts, but only two of their wins came against teams in this week's AP Top 25. The Blue Devils weren't exactly romping their way through the ACC; they needed a half-court shot by guard Sean Dockery to beat Virginia Tech at home on Dec. 4.
Against Georgetown, Duke's superlative shooting guard, J.J. Redick, scored 41 points for the second time this season, but the Blue Devils' habit of overrelying on his brilliance--"J.J.-watching," Krzyzewski calls it--finally caught up with them. Senior forward Shelden Williams, plagued by foul trouble, had a season-low four points, and 6'10" freshman Josh McRoberts, a McDonald's All-American, had just one rebound. "Georgetown's sense of urgency was higher than ours," Duke assistant coach Chris Collins said. "It shows that no matter who you are, you have to play well to win."
January 30, 2006
Florida, meanwhile, had been winning thanks to the underdog mind-set the team adopted after being unranked in the preseason polls. During an 80-76 loss to the Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville (page 92), however, in what coach Billy Donovan called "the toughest road environment we faced all season," the rattled Gators committed 19 turnovers.
Pittsburgh had the softest schedule of the once-beatens, with just one nonconference game outside its home state. The Panthers' shortcomings were exposed by St. John's at Madison Square Garden, where they shot 3 for 16 from three-point range in a 55-50 loss. "It's a reminder how tough it is to win every night," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I pointed out that we're only at the season's halfway point, and we have a long way to go."
As every coach knows, defeats can be teaching opportunities. With a chance for his team to tie the game in the waning seconds against Georgetown, Duke freshman point guard Greg Paulus dribbled into traffic and lost the ball. Krzyzewski later told Paulus that he should have passed to Redick, the kind of lesson that can be taught only through adversity. Better to learn such things in mid-January than at the end of March.