Sports Nut

Best Loss Ever

A Duke-hating aficionado’s guide to the sweetest Blue Devils tournament defeats of all time.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski during his team’s loss to Louisiana State University on March 23, 2006, in Atlanta, during regional action of the NCAA Tournament.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski during his team’s loss to Louisiana State University on March 23, 2006, in Atlanta, during regional action of the NCAA Tournament.

Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News

For Duke haters like myself, there’s no number more hateful than four. Sure, Mike Krzyzewski has won more than 1,000 games (as those tacky Coach 1K shirts constantly remind us), but approximately 842 of them have come against the likes of the Presbyterian Blue Hose and the Elon Phoenix.

It’s the four national championships Coach K has won at Duke that aren’t so easy to explain away. Considering that Krzyzewski won them in the era of a 64-plus-team tournament field, it’s the most impressive coaching achievement in college basketball—even more impressive than the 10 national championships John Wooden brought to UCLA back in the ’60s and ’70s when the field varied between 23 and 32 teams. It’s what makes Krzyzewski, gulp, the best coach in college basketball history.

But here’s the good news. Since Coach K takes Duke to the NCAA Tournament every year (except when he has a bad back), that means his Duke teams have been eliminated 26 times—or more than six times as often as they’ve won it. Indeed, short of your own favorite team winning the national championship, the best game of the NCAA tournament is typically the one Duke loses. Which raises the question: What’s the best Duke tournament loss ever?

The casual Duke hater will likely pick Mercer in 2014 or Lehigh in 2012. Granted, there was something wonderful about watching Duke suffer humiliating, first-round upsets to a 14 and a 15 seed respectively. Those failures were enough to make you want to dance with glee. And yet, they weren’t quite humiliating enough because those Duke teams weren’t good enough—their 3 and 2 seeds more reflective of the tournament selection committee’s ridiculous Duke bias than the quality of those particular Duke teams. Similarly, Duke’s first-round loss to Virginia Commonwealth in 2007 was sweet—not least because it involved Greg Paulus committing the most egregious Duke flop in the well-documented history of Duke flopping. But not sweet enough, since that Duke team was a No. 6 seed and truly mediocre. Remember: Greg Paulus was its starting point guard.

A more invested Duke hater might pick a tournament loss that was particularly lopsided, like the 103-73 beat down UNLV put on Duke in the 1990 national championship game that sent Bobby Hurley running to the bathroom. But that loss came a year before Coach K won the first of his national titles, back when, as Christian Laettner recently said, Duke had “a reputation that they can’t win the big game.” So Duke wasn’t quite yet hateful enough at the time.

Which is the problem with another Duke national title game loss—the three-point defeat it suffered to the University of Connecticut in 1999. Duke had lost only once in the regular season and was heavily favored to beat UConn—two things that argue for picking that tournament defeat. But that particular Blue Devils team featured a relatively likable bunch of players, for Duke at least, including Elton Brand, William Avery, and Trajan Langdon. Indeed, after that loss, Brand became something of a hero to Duke haters everywhere for allegedly telling a disappointed Duke grad, who sent him a nasty email blasting him for leaving early for the NBA, that she and her fellow Dukies were a “posh group of yuppies.”

But even if that 1999 Duke team had been made up of typically hateful players, it’s hard to take too much satisfaction from a loss that deep in the tournament. Hence the relative lack of pleasure also to be found in Duke’s choke job against Connecticut in the 2004 Final Four (despite the heartwarming sight of Coach K screaming at the refs, “You cheated us!”). Meanwhile, its stunning upset loss in the Sweet 16 to Indiana in 2002, when—with Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mike Dunleavy—it really should have won the national championship, was certainly satisfying, but the results provoked more relief than elation because Indiana almost gave away the game in the last seconds by fouling Williams on a made three-pointer.* It was only after Williams missed the free throw, and Boozer grabbed an offensive rebound but missed the put-back, that Indiana escaped with a one-point victory.

All of which is why, for the true Duke-hating connoisseur, the best Duke tournament defeat is its loss to LSU in the 2006 Sweet 16. That Duke team, which had lost only three games in the regular season, entered the tournament the No. 1 overall seed and was favored to win it all. It was led by J.J. Redick, a dead-eye shooter who averaged 26 points a game and who filled you with dread every time the ball left his hand—and then made sure to taunt you when the ball went cleanly through the hoop. Even worse, this was before Krzyzewski turned Duke into Kentucky-lite by relying on one-and-dones, so—as a UNC fan—Redick haunted my sleep for four years. He was the kind of Duke player who was born to be hated, but he wasn’t the only one on that team. Joining Redick were the equally loathsome Shelden Williams, Josh McRoberts, DeMarcus Nelson, Paulus, and, finally, Lee Melchionni—a floor-slapping, charge-faking, shot-calling super sub who was essentially Redick without the talent. Not since Christian Laettner dined alone had there been a more execrable collection of Dukies.

The contest was close throughout, with the refs typically doing everything in their power to keep Duke in it. When LSU’s star player Glen Davis went to the bench with his fourth foul—a foul even play-by-play man Dick Enberg deemed “ticky-tack”—with about nine minutes left in the game, Duke was leading by 4 and LSU was in the midst of a 7½-minute field goal drought. In other words, most Duke haters figured the game was over. But then a miracle happened. Redick missed an open three-pointer, and he kept on missing. In the end, Redick shot 3 for 9 from three-point range, and an abominable 3 for 18 overall, finishing the game with a season-low 11 points. Meanwhile, LSU’s underrated group of freshmen and sophomores managed just enough offensive rebounds, defensive stops, and one-for-two trips to the foul line to regain the lead. In the game’s final minute, the supposedly smart and scrappy Duke team was simply outsmarted and outhustled. Leading by 1 point with 35 seconds left, LSU’s Tyrus Thomas didn’t wait for Duke players to foul him and instead drove the length of the floor for an emphatic dunk to put LSU up by 3.

*Correction, March 26, 2015: This article originally misstated that Duke’s 2002 loss to Indiana came in the Elite Eight. It came in the Sweet 16. The paragraph has been updated to reflect this. (Return.)

With nine seconds left and Duke trailing by 7, Krzyzewski took a tearful Redick and his fellow senior Williams out of the game for the last time. The coach later explained, “It’s just to make sure they get a chance and for our fans, and not just our fans, but basketball fans at that moment, to say thanks.” So thank you J.J. and Shelden! Thank you Jabari and Austin! Thank you Jason and Carlos, and even you Christian and Bobby, for losing in the tournament at least a couple times. Thank you to every Duke player, past and future, whose inglorious defeats make March the best month of the year.