I WAS HANGING out with three friends waiting for a table in an Indianapolis restaurant the night before last April's national championship game between Duke and Butler when that most interesting of the fan species approached. Yes, it was a Duke fan wanting to know why I gave Duke no respect; why, in fact, I hated Duke.
As he was lecturing me about all things Duke, I was first bemused. Then, when he kept interrupting as I tried to explain that Duke was not without flaws, that every Blue Devil basketball player was not, in fact, a Rhodes scholar and that its recent NCAA history (before the 2010 run) had been one of underachievement in relation to its seed, I got a bit irritated and suggested it might be time for him to return to his group. He did and I was left to contemplate the meaning of it all.
Why is there no middle ground on Duke? Why does Duke have to be perfect or hated? Why can't the facts just speak?
Clearly, I was wrong about last season's Duke team. I did not think it could win it all because of the recent history. I missed something very elementary.
So what changed? The coach.
When I was seated behind the Villanova bench during the 2009 Sweet 16 Wildcats rout of Duke, I could not help hearing 'Nova coach Jay Wright as he kept yelling to his players - "Take them, take them." And they did, all night long.
Mike Krzyzewski was coaching the same way he had coached when he had Grant Hill and Jay Williams and all those superior athletes. He wanted to challenge every pass, every dribble on defense, penetrate and kick on offense. Only Duke no longer had those elite athletes and the teams with superior speed were overwhelming the Blue Devils year after year in the NCAAs.
I made a mental note that Duke was done as a championship contender. The coach clearly made a different mental note. He completely changed his team's style last season, no longer had it guard a big area and ran a more disciplined scheme on offense.
Still, I wondered. I had seen Duke on television during the season and liked the change for that group. I had not seen Duke live until the Final Four. And then, finally, I got it. Coach K had done what great coaches do - fit his scheme to his talent and given the team a chance to win a championship. Which it did the next night in that classic against Butler.
That was No. 4 for Coach K and here he is again with a team ranked No. 1. And he is coaching it like he used to coach. It would be coaching malpractice to slow freshman guard Kyrie Irving down, so Krzyzewski is letting him loose.
The biggest mistake we make in this business is paying too much attention to history and not enough to the present. I try really hard to avoid that, but missed it badly on 2009-10 Duke.
Duke has been the elite program in the sport for a quarter century. The constant, of course, is the coach.
Making comparisons is impossible, but it is fair to say no coach in history has a resume quite like Coach K. He was an assistant coach on the 1992 "Dream Team." He was the head coach for the 2008 Olympic champions. And he won a world championship with USA basketball this summer.
"I think it's energized him," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of the international coaching. "I think he needed it. He and I had that conversation on the road somewhere before the Olympics. I think that was something that he needed. He certainly owned the ACC during that stretch. You've got to also remember a lot of the coaches in the ACC that he loved battling with were gone. Jimmy [Valvano] is gone and Dean [Smith] is gone and Bobby [Cremins] is gone. Other than Gary [Williams], it was a new wave of guys.''
Brey, a Duke assistant when Duke was becoming Duke, was not sure the Olympics were a good idea for his mentor.
"At first the thought was it's going to take away from his program at Duke," Brey said. "It's energized him year around. He's fired up. I think it was good energy at a key time, like a new mountain to climb."
The proof was on display in Indianapolis last April and in the rankings right now.
TUBBY IN TOWN
It's not that often a Hall of Fame coach is in town, but we will have one tonight at Hagan Arena. Orlando "Tubby'' Smith is not yet in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but his time is coming.
He won at Tulsa. He won at Georgia. He won a national championship in his first year at Kentucky. He is winning at Minnesota, which plays Saint Joseph's.
There are great coaches and great people. Tubby is both.
I spent time with him at Kentucky, just before the start of the 1998-99 season, the one after that national title. Could not have been more graceful or accommodating to someone he had never met.
And I will never forget what he told me about the Kentucky fans. Yes, they were happy with that title, but more than a few wanted to know about those three losses at Rupp Arena.
Smith has coached not quite 650 games. And his teams are more than 250 games over .500. That is serious.
The last time one of Smith's team did not win 20 games was 1992-93, his second season at Tulsa.
I have covered every NCAA Tournament since 1994. I have never seen better in-game coaching than Smith's work in 1998, when his team came from 17 down in the final 10 minutes to beat Duke in the regional final before beating Stanford in overtime at the Final Four and coming from 10 down at the half against Utah to win the title game going away.
Again, comparisons are impossible, but when you see one coach winning like this at four different schools, you really don't need to wonder about much. Tubby Smith is simply one of the best.
VERY BIG EAST
It is early and early season records are often skewed by schedules loaded with patsies. But it would appear the Big East is going to be very good.
Through Monday, seven teams (Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Louisville) were unbeaten. UConn won the tournament in Maui. Notre Dame won the Old Spice in Orlando. Pittsburgh won the Coaches vs. Cancer in New York. Louisville is burying every team it plays.
THIS AND THAT
* That was Steve Lappas at Villanova Friday night for the St. Joe's game. It was his first time on campus since his coaching tenure ended there nearly a decade ago. 'Nova coach Jay Wright has done a nice job of opening the program to everyone ever associated with it.
Lappas now lives in West Chester and does a very nice job as a game analyst for "CBS College Sports.'' When I talk to him, he always says he still has the coaching bug. But he does agree it is much nicer to be in a gym when the result is not paramount.
* The Atlantic 10 and Colonial Athletic Association have had the exact same number of teams in the Final Four - one. That would be Massachusetts in 1996 and George Mason in 2006.
The A-10 always has been perceived as the better league and, for the most part, that has been true. But the CAA has made real strides in recent seasons. George Mason's run is not likely to be repeated, but the league has some very good teams, especially this season. And it is doing quite well against the A-10 so far with a 6-2 record.
George Mason has beaten Charlotte and George Washington. Old Dominion beat two of the A-10's best, Richmond and Xavier. Drexel beat St. Joe's and UNCW beat poor GW.
Rhode Island gave Drexel its only loss. And Richmond beat William & Mary.
* Speaking of the CAA, Delaware coach Monte Ross had a terrific win on Saturday when the Blue Hens beat ODU, 75-67.
Senior Jawan Carter had 29 for Delaware. After going 2-for-16 in his first two games, Carter has scored 77 points in his last three games.