INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Lance Thomas never enjoyed being the bad guy. But he understood that playing at Duke meant getting used to it.
“You have to be able to play with a target on your back,” Thomas said.
Duke’s senior class never really grew comfortable with their program’s position as one of the villains of college basketball. But as badly as these Blue Devils want to be embraced, they understand they’ll always be the team so many fans love to hate.
In a Final Four field full of teams that weren’t supposed to be here, one program that’s seemingly always here threatens to overshadow them: The big, bad Blue Devils (33-5) are in the national semifinals for the 11th time under coach Mike Krzyzewski and are preparing to face West Virginia (31-6) on Saturday night.
“There are a number of programs that have that, and I think youngsters who come into the program have to know, and I think it’s exciting for them to know, that every game they play will be an exciting one,” Krzyzewski said Thursday. “There usually aren’t going to be any empty seats when you’re playing, and you’re going to be watched a lot. And as a result of being watched a lot, there are going to be people who really want you to win, and really want you to lose.”
One former Duke hater now wears the uniform with pride. Senior Jon Scheyer admitted that as a student in a suburban Chicago junior high school, he briefly shed his allegiance to the Blue Devils and pulled for Seton Hall before growing out of that phase.
“Rooting against Duke is out of respect of how they win all the time and how good they were,” Scheyer said. Then, he added with a smile: “I found my way.”
But it wasn’t always a laughing matter for current seniors Scheyer, Thomas and Brian Zoubek.
It seemed to start during their first NCAA tournament appearance, a first-round upset in 2007 in which the biggest cheers seemed to come not because Virginia Commonwealth won but because Duke lost. In admitting then that the frosty reception bothered him, Thomas said: “I’ve never been that hated before.”
“It really bothered me,” Thomas said Thursday. “Just to see how you have to mentally prepare and physically prepare for a team. … Every team we play is going to try to take our head off — even with the year we had our freshman year, when it was every team’s day in the sun when they played us.”
For several reasons, these current Blue Devils are cuddlier than their predecessors, many of whom seemed to take particular delight in the villain’s role. Unlike past Duke teams with antagonists like Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick on the roster, this team lacks those lightning-rod personalities.
“You don’t have the same guys — Jeter’s not coming back every year for us,” Krzyzewski said, referring to the New York Yankees’ shortstop. “The young guys coming in have to try to understand that.”
Something else those Duke teams had in common: They won with amazing frequency.
The Blue Devils claimed three national titles and reached 10 Final Fours from 1986-2004. Then came what counts as a postseason lull in Krzyzewskiville: In the five years after that, they lost three times in the regional semifinals and in the other years didn’t even survive the opening weekend.
“People don’t stop coming at you just because you lost a couple times,” Scheyer said. “Beating Duke is a big thing.”
And yet, certain incidents seem to crystallize why some people just don’t like them.
Late in the South Regional final against Baylor, Scheyer swung his elbows near LaceDarius Dunn while calling a timeout. The Bears’ Quincy Acy intervened and got a technical foul. That came after a questionable charge called on Acy that could have been Zoubek’s fifth foul, leading to a fresh round of complaints that Duke gets all the calls.
Maybe that’s why, when Zoubek is asked about the intense feelings his program always seems to generate, he manages a halfhearted smile.
“I’ve dealt with that my whole four years here,” Zoubek said. “Why would I expect it to change at the end of my senior year?”