Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports
Indianapolis-- In the last 22 years since Mike Krzyzewski won his first national title, Duke has brought all kinds of teams to the NCAA tournament. There have been true powerhouses filled with future pros and rosters that were limited in various ways; overachievers, underachievers and teams that probably wouldn't have been considered contenders in the first place if their jerseys didn't read Duke.
But no matter how good or bad a team Krzyzewski had, the thing that could almost never be said about Duke is that they are underdogs in an NCAA tournament game. Whenever Duke's season ends without a championship, it is practically a national event.
So it will be a bit strange at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday watching something rarely conceived in the modern history of college basketball: A Duke team that really isn't supposed to beat No. 1 seed Louisville in the Midwest Regional final.
"We know going into every game that we're a target," Krzyzewski said. "And we'll be a target tomorrow."
The arc of this Duke season, however, is unusual in Krzyzewski's career. Barely considered in the preseason as a team that could win the national title, Duke had the look of dominance in early December, collecting huge early non-conference wins until its momentum was interrupted by injuries.
Then after getting healthy again in early March with the return of forward Ryan Kelly, who missed 13 games with a foot injury, the Blue Devils were stamped as favorites once again to win the whole thing. Until, of course, Duke lost to Maryland in the ACC tournament, relegating them to a No. 2 seed in the same region as the overall No. 1.
Since then, there hasn't been much talk about Duke; at least not until it put on a defensive clinic against Michigan State in the Sweet 16, winning 71-61. In that game, the Blue Devils showed clearly they are capable of winning the tournament.
Still, this is an atypical situation for Duke. In their last nine NCAA tournaments (except for the 2010 championship team), the Blue Devils have been eliminated by a lower-seeded team.
Thus, this is the first time since 2003, when it lost as a No. 3 seed to No. 2 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16, that Duke goes into an NCAA tournament game as an underdog. And that's a hard way to think about Krzyzewski's program, given all of the history and privileges that go along with its status.
"Throughout the whole year and this tournament we've been picked against a lot," guard Seth Curry said. "That's nothing new. At the same time, we're Duke."
And that's the part where this entire season, and particularly this tournament run, seems like an outlier.
In recent years, Duke has probably been given too much credit by both the media and NCAA tournament selection committee.
Last year, for instance, the Blue Devils were a defensive mess but won enough (in a down ACC, it should be noted) to get a No. 2 seed. The subsequent loss to No. 15 seed Lehigh shouldn't have been terribly shocking if you had watched them all season, but it was nonetheless celebrated as one of the greatest upsets in tournament history. The year before, Duke had overachieved all season with point guard Kyrie Irving injured and got a No. 1 seed.
Irving came back, but they were exposed by more athletic Arizona in the Sweet 16. In 2009, Duke had a very slow backcourt with Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer and limped to the finish line of the regular season. But the Blue Devils got the benefit of the doubt after winning the ACC tournament and got a No. 2 seed that looked like a joke in retrospect when Villanova made them look silly in the Sweet 16.
These were not exactly the vintage rosters by Krzyzewski's standards, and it showed against the best of the best.
This year, though, Duke perhaps hasn't gotten enough credit for its accomplishments and talent. Yes, there were rough moments (a 30-point loss at Miami, losing twice to Maryland) and interruptions due to Kelly's injury and lingering leg issues that Curry has played through all season. Duke is also not incredibly deep and didn't claim either the ACC regular season or tournament title.
But it is also a team that, when healthy, started 15-0 with wins against Minnesota, VCU, Ohio State, Temple and, yes, Louisville. That game was a long time ago, back in the Bahamas on Nov. 24, but it was the moment Duke knew it could have an Elite Eight-or-better type season.
"To come out on top was a huge step for our team," Kelly said. "A lot of things have changed for both teams and we've gone through a lot. We've had ups and downs and injuries but we're in a position now where both teams have a clean slate, and hopefully we'll play at a high level. They're certainly playing the best basketball in the country right now the last month. At the same time, we believe we're playing good basketball too."
And for all that good basketball, Duke not only got a No. 2 seed but has to beat the nation's top-ranked team to get to the Final Four on a short turnaround Sunday after playing a late game Friday that didn't finish until after midnight.
"You don't get to bed until 2:30 or 3 in the morning from the late game," Krzyzewski said. "And then we had drug testing afterwards - which is a question to ask for another time, I guess, why you would do that to a team that plays the late game. But I guess I shouldn't ask that question right now."
In other words Duke, the program that has gotten every break for nearly a quarter-century, was given absolutely nothing here. Maybe that's the way it should be. Overlooked and unloved, Duke is primed to do what it hasn't done in several years today against Louisville and pull off - gasp - an upset.