Seth Davis, a Sports Illustrated writer and analyst for CBS Sports, picked Pittsburgh to win the National Championship. But the Duke graduate—and former Chronicle writer—is still impressed with the Blue Devils, and he shared his observations with The Chronicle’s Ben Cohen Wednesday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, with a full Q&A running in The Chronicle’s NCAA Tournament supplement Thursday:
After Duke had lost four of six games in the middle of February, did you think the Blue Devils would turn around their season, earn a No. 2 seed and contend for the Final Four?
It certainly didn’t look like it. You can never be totally shocked, because you knew they had good players, but they were definitely going through that adversity tunnel. When they’re going through it, you just never know how it’s going to turn out. Did I expect them to be in this position. No. Am I shocked? No.
When I saw that they promoted Elliot Williams to the starting lineup against St. John’s, it kind of hit me, that’s a great idea. I saw that kid play in high school and I know how good he is. I remember thinking after [a Feb. 11 loss to North] Carolina, I didn’t really understand why they had let things get to a point where Williams and Miles Plumlee were not usable, and that, to me, was not a good sign.
The one thing I felt about the Duke team was that they were mentally tough. That, to me, was so surprising about what they were going through: They just had no confidence, and you just wondered mentally if they weren’t as tough as you thought. Even when they lost to Carolina, they lost, but they competed hard and showed up, and they showed you something.
You picked Pittsburgh to win the National Championship, but you didn’t seem to write off Duke too much.
They’re going to compete—the Tournament is crazy. I said this on the selection show: Pittsburgh—I have them winning the whole thing—but Pittsburgh is just a really tough matchup for Duke, because they bring the one thing that Duke lacks, which is inside punch. If DeJuan Blair is able to slice and dice Hasheem Thabeet like he’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, what chance does [Brian] Zoubek have? What chance does Lance Thomas have? Except to foul them out. On the other hand, their point guard [Levance Fields] is so good at taking care of the ball, and my biggest concern about Duke is that they’re not getting easy baskets. Sometimes, they can get [Gerald] Henderson on the break and get an easy one, but they don’t have a point guard who can push that. [Jon] Scheyer cannot do that. Nolan Smith is just OK at that. That, to me, is unfortunate, because in the Tournament, you’ve got to get a couple of easy ones to get some breathing room. How many times can Duke go into a game as a decided underdog? If they play Pitt, no one’s going to pick them to win that game, and that’s a great thing to have in the Tournament.
Does the up-and-down nature of this season make Duke unique, either from former Blue Devils teams or the rest of the field?
Not necessarily. I think every team—it’s really the exception that a team does not go through that. You can count on one hand the number of teams this season who haven’t.
No one should ever talk again about a team going undefeated. Everyone was so up on Carolina in December, but there’s just going to be a game that they don’t play well. They aren’t robots. It’s not whether you go through adversity, it’s how you come out of it, or if you come out of it. Look at Georgetown and Notre Dame. If Georgetown and Notre Dame are in another conference, they’re probably a four- or five-seed right now. They just couldn’t mentally get on the other side of it.
But that’s Coach K’s strength right there. I think about the 2001 team that won the National Championship—Carlos Boozer hurt himself, and Krzyzewski reinvented his team on the fly, including starting Barack Obama’s future body man, a 6-foot-5 football player at center, having to guard 7-foot Brendan Haywood from Carolina. They put Duhon in the starting lineup, benched Nate James, and that took things to another level. You put [Krzyzewski] in a foxhole, and he breaks down all conventions. He’s not worried about egos, he’s not worried about seniors or freshmen or position, he just figures it out. That’s Krzyzewski at his best.