Crowning Moments in the Queen City: Return to Charlotte Begins an Era of Duke Success
March 6, 2008
By Steve Phillips
The renovated Greensboro Coliseum played host to the Atlantic Coast Conference Men's Basketball Tournament for four straight years (1995-98), but Charlotte remained very much a part of the league's set rotation.
The return of the tournament to the Queen City in 1999 coincided with the beginning of an era of Duke dominance.
For all the Blue Devils' national success during the 1990s, winning the ACC Tournament became an often elusive goal. Duke won just one championship between 1989 and 1998 before breaking through in the biggest of ways.
The Blue Devils plowed through the 1999 season unbeaten in ACC play, then swept to the tournament title by beating Virginia, NC State and North Carolina by an average margin of 25 points.
The Blue Devils enjoyed the feeling so much they decided to make it a habit.
Duke also captured the 2000 and 2002 tournaments in Charlotte - along with the 2001 tournament in Atlanta, the 2003 and 2006 tournaments in Greensboro and the 2005 event in Washington, D.C.
With seven championships in eight years, the Blue Devils not only accomplished the unprecedented, they set a standard for excellence that defied all conventional logic. Former Virginia coach Pete Gillen perhaps summed it up best. "They're an absolute wrecking machine," Gillen said.
1999: PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
On the evening prior to his team's first-round game against Virginia, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talked with reporters in a Charlotte Coliseum meeting room and discussed how his program and the ACC in general had evolved since he took over the Blue Devil reins prior to the 1980-81 season.
"Nineteen years ... I guess I'm considered an old coach now," Kryzewski said with a wry smile. "I've got a few more stories, a few more yarns."
Krzyzewski also had one of his better teams, one that had strolled through the regular season with surprising ease.
Following a November loss to Cincinnati in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout, Duke reeled off 24 consecutive wins and entered the ACC Tournament with a 29-1 record. That included a 16-0 mark in ACC play, with an eight-point win at Georgia Tech on Feb. 6 accounting for the narrowest margin of victory in league play.
Boasting the national player of the year in sophomore Elton Brand, ultimate leadership in senior Trajan Langdon and junior Chris Carrawell, and three of the nation's finest athletes in forward Shane Battier, point guard William Avery and freshman sixth man Corey Maggette, the Blue Devils seemed unstoppable.
Only the ACC's past history of unpredictability gave the league's other eight teams hope that Duke might be the least bit vulnerable. But the Blue Devils served quick notice they planned on no surprises.
After demolishing Virginia in the opening round by a 104-67 score, Duke upended NC State 83-68 in the semifinal round. Maggette keyed the Blue Devils with 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor.
That placed the top-ranked Blue Devils opposite third-seeded and nationally 15th-ranked UNC in the title game. The Tar Heels advanced with an 86-79 win over second-seeded and fifth-ranked Maryland in the semifinals. Max Owens' 23 points led the Tar Heels, who avenged 13- and 17-point losses to the Terps during the regular season.
UNC had also lost to Duke twice by double-digit margins, but the Tar Heels were unable to again play the role of avengers. Instead, the Blue Devils delivered payback by romping to a 23-point win one year after losing to UNC in the 1998 finals. Brand, on his way to picking up the Everett Case Award as MVP, set the pace with 24 points and 13 rebounds.
"I don't remember a team dominating the league the way they have," marveled UNC Tar Heel coach Bill Guthridge, who had been a part of the ACC for 32 years. "They've taken everybody apart."
In addition to now owning 27 wins, the Blue Devils had beaten eight of their previous nine opponents by at least 20 points. With the three tournament victories, Duke stood 19-0 for the season against ACC competition.
Four other teams - UNC in 1957, Duke in 1963, and NC State in 1973 and 1974 - had posted perfect record in conference play in addition to winning the ACC Tournament. But the first two of those teams played just 14 regular-season conference games, and the NC State teams played 12.
"One of the things I am most proud of is that no one can do this any better," Krzyzewski said. "Another team can do it just as well, but no team can do any more than this one has (win 16 regular-season games and sweep the tournament), unless they expand the conference."
The conference eventually did expand to 12 teams, but the ACC continues to play 16 regular-season conference games. And no team has yet matched Duke's 1999 squad in terms of league perfection.
As the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seed, the Blue Devils earned the right to return to the Charlotte Coliseum for the first two rounds of the East Regional a few days later. Duke parlayed the familiarity and momentum to a pair of 41-point wins over Florida A&M and Tulsa. The Blue Devils motored all the way to the national title game before suffering a 77-74 loss to third-ranked Connecticut.
2000: RECASTING A WINNER
The staggering nature of Duke's run through the ACC in 1999 spoke for itself. Still, few foresaw a pattern of continued domination.
Brand, Avery and Maggette opted for early entries into the NBA Draft, where they joined the graduated Langdon as first-round picks. Junior center Chris Burgess transferred out of the program.
Krzyzewski underwent hip surgery less than a month after the title-game loss to Connecticut and admitted to feeling a bit a down as he rested at home. That changed following an afternoon visit from returning players Carrawell, Battier and Nate James.
Carrawell pointed out that the Blue Devils would still return a solid nucleus for the 1999-2000 season. Add three incoming standout freshmen in point guard Jason Williams, center Carlos Boozer and forward Mike Dunleavy, and Duke had the makings of a quick fix.
"We're going to be good, Coach," Carrawell insisted. "We need you to believe we're going to be good."
An emotional Krzyzewski assured his players that he was on board. The following season proved Carrawell's prediction and his coach's faith well-founded.
After opening with losses to Stanford and Connecticut, Duke quickly found its bearings. By the time ACC Tournament got under way in Charlotte, Duke owned a 24-4 overall record, and a 15-1 mark in ACC play. A homecourt loss to Maryland in February provided the only conference blemish.
The opening rounds of the tournament produced few mild surprises. Fifth-seeded Wake Forest edged No. 4 seed North Carolina in the quarterfinal round, while third-seeded Virginia fell to NC State. But when Duke topped Wake Forest in the semifinals and Maryland handled the Wolfpack, ACC fans were looking at the Sunday title game most had envisioned all along.
The Blue Devils had finished a full four games ahead of the Terps in the ACC standings, but Maryland's win at Cameron Indoor Stadium a little over a month earlier made the championship meeting anything but a sure bet.
It also provided emotional fuel for Carrawell, the ACC's Player of the Year and Duke's recognized team leader.
"There was a revenge factor. I'm not going to lie," Carrawell said. "I was like, `Look, we're not going to lose this game. It was embarrassing (that) they beat us at home and celebrated on our court."
Maryland, boasting a trio of the nation's finest young players in Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and point guard Steve Blake, had no intention of going down without a fight.
Duke clung to a 37-36 halftime lead. The Blue Devils pushed the spread to 10 points in the opening minutes of the second half, but the Terps scrapped back to within 56-52 with just under nine minutes left.
But five straight points by Williams and a three-point play by Boozer set Duke off and running to an 81-68 win and Krzyzewski's fifth ACC title. Williams picked up MVP honors after finishing with a career-high 23 points, and Boozer added 21.
Dixon's 19 points led the Terps. Maryland played most of the game without starting forward Danny Miller, who injured his left ankle with just over 12 minutes remaining in the first half.
"We struggled a little bit with our rotation," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "When you lose a guy that's averaging 33 minutes a game, it affects your game time."
The ACC received only three NCAA Tournament bids but milked its postseason opportunities to the near max. Duke fell to Florida in the semifinals of the East Regional, but UNC - seeded eighth in the South - made a surprising run to the Final Four before falling to the Gators in the national semifinals.
And two ACC teams made deep runs in the NIT after leaving Charlotte, with Wake Forest and NC State both reaching the final four of that event at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Demon Deacons defeated the Wolfpack in the semifinals, then topped Notre Dame to claim the championship.
2002: DUKE AGAIN - BUT TERPS LEFT STANDING
The script looked a little different when Charlotte welcomed the 49th ACC Tournament in 2002.
Duke arrived as defending national champion and in search of a record fourth straight ACC title, but the Blue Devils would pursue it as a No. 2 seed. Maryland (25-3) had won 15 of 16 regular-season conference games, losing only to the Blue Devils at home in January. A rematch with Duke (26-3, 13-3) in the ACC finals loomed as a potential classic.
It never happened, thanks to fourth-seeded NC State.
Hungry for an NCAA bid after being shut out each of the previous 10 years, the Wolfpack entered the ACC Tournament determined to leave nothing to chance. After polishing off fifth-seeded Virginia in the quarterfinals, State set its sights on the Terps.
Running step-for-step with Maryland in the first 20 minutes, the Wolfpack built a 40-38 halftime lead. State then proceeded to pad its margin by shooting 65 percent in the second half. The Wolfpack held off the Terps for an 86-82 win with the help of Julius Hodge's shot-clock beating 3-pointer with 1:17 left and a clutch free throw by Anthony Grundy (24 points).
"They played hard," Maryland coach Gary Williams said of State. "They made some big shots. We'd beaten NC State quite a few times in a row (six). The law of averages, sooner or later in close games, will catch up with you."
The laws of emotions and fatigue caught up with the Wolfpack a day later against the Blue Devils, who had taken care of UNC and Wake Forest in their first two tournament games.
With Boozer (26 points) and Williams (24) again providing a formidable inside-outside combination, Duke built a 14-point halftime lead and didn't let up in punishing State by a 91-61 count in the finale.
"Maryland is as good as any team in the country, and they could win the whole thing," Krzyzewski said. "NC State came up with an amazing effort yesterday to beat them. That had to knock something out of them."
Knowing the win over the Terps had likely given State (22-10) its elusive NCAA berth in spite of the Duke loss did little to console Grundy or his teammates.
"It leaves a bitter taste," Grundy said. "We don't feel they are 30 points better than us."
With ACC Tournament titles now piling up, Krzyzewski refused to take the bait when asked to rank his teams.
"Each one is incredibly important," Krzyzewski said. "Each one puts a banner in Cameron. Each one has a different heart of its own. When kids have fun and make daring pays in championship games, I love that. You can't coach that. That comes from them."
Duke and NC State both moved on to the NCAA Tournament, but Maryland was the only ACC team left standing by the time the Final Four tipped off in Atlanta three weeks later.
As Krzyzewski predicted might happen, the Terps brought home the program's first national title. A nine-point victory over Kansas in the semifinals was followed by a 64-52 win over Indiana in the championship game. Earlier in the tournament, Maryland had beaten traditional powers Kentucky and Connecticut.
Clearly, the Terps had not allowed the ACC Tournament loss to NC State to linger for long.
"We had a group that had been to the Final Four the year before, and they knew what it was all about," Gary Williams said. "The ACC Tournament is really important, but you move on whether you win or lose. We were a very mature team. We had a lot of seniors, and they could handle the situation."
Williams credited Dixon and fellow senior Byron Mouton for doing the most to shake their teammates out of any possible post-ACC Tournament doldrums.
"They were pretty tough individuals and they were pretty vocal," Williams said. "By the time we held our first practice after the ACC Tournament we were ready to go."
Maryland became the ninth conference team to win a national championship and the third to do so without first winning the ACC Tournament. The first two - Duke in 1991 and UNC in 1993 - also regrouped after losing in Charlotte.
2008: BACK TO CHARLOTTE
The original Charlotte Coliseum, which hosted three ACC Tournaments from 1968 through 1970, still stands on Independence Boulevard. The second Coliseum, which hosted eight tournaments between 1990 and 2002, was demolished last year to make way for an office park.
Uptown Charlotte will be the setting next week, when Bobcats Arena opens its doors for the 55th annual tournament. There will be a sense of newness, but also an appreciation for the past as the city reflects on its prominent role in hosting one of college basketball's most storied events.
A dozen teams are poised to write another chapter. No matter how this year's tournament unfolds or which school emerges victorious on March 16, the Queen City will be left with another crowning moment.