This weekend Duke plays Michigan State for a spot in the NCAA Championship. In 2013, Alan Siegel talked to seven players, including former Spartans guard Maurice Ager, about what it’s like to beat the most-hated team in college basketball. His article is reprinted below.
Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski have won four national championships. They’ve also lost in the NCAA tournament 24 times in the Coach K era, to the great delight of the nation’s legions of Blue Devil haters. We asked seven players and a coach to explain what it’s like to topple Duke during March Madness and whether Greg Paulus was as annoying as he seemed on TV.
Joe Mazzulla, West Virginia
In 2008, No. 7 seed West Virginia beat No. 2 seed Duke 73-67 in the second round. Mazzulla, a relatively unheralded sophomore guard, nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 13 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists.
Everybody knows that the biggest thing about Duke is they slap the floor on defense. I was sitting with [teammate] Joe Alexander and we said, “If we get in that situation, why don’t we do it?” We may never play them again. So we make our run, and I’m in front of the bench, and I do it. I couldn’t see behind me. I don’t know if Joe Alexander did it, but I think that’s what got [Duke] going for the 2010 game. [Duke beat West Virginia in the 2010 Final Four.] I’m sure Coach K played that up a lot, and I’m sure that fired them up.
They were up [18-8], and I’ll never forget Greg Paulus was obviously talking smack and saying it was about over. For me, personally, Greg is—I didn’t really talk to him, I only played against him that one time—he’s one of those guys. I think he really likes to get under other people’s skin. The thing about that was that that was my role as well. So it was pretty much a battle of both of our roles. You had to stand up to him.
And as the game went on, it turned. D.C. [where the game was played] is very pro-West Virginia—there’s a big alumni base there. As the game went on, it turned more into a West Virginia atmosphere, especially the last six, seven minutes.
As a player I didn’t like [the Blue Devils] very much, and now I’ve been coaching for two years and I love everything about what they do and what they stand for. When you’re a competitor you almost hate them for how good they are.
Scotty Thurman, Arkansas
In the 1994 national title game, Arkansas—then-President Bill Clinton’s favorite team—toppled Duke 76-72. Thurman, a sophomore guard, hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 50 seconds left to win the game for the Razorbacks.
At that age, you want to go up against the best and have a chance to beat the best. For us, we felt like we had never received the respect we were supposed to. It was one of those deals where—here was another opportunity to prove that. For us, it was kind of like everybody thought they were going to beat us. We wanted to prove everybody wrong again. Coach [Nolan Richardson] kind of instilled an attitude in us that we were nomads. We didn’t perennially have all the McDonald’s All-Americans and didn’t necessarily have the big-name guys. Yet still we felt like we had a pretty good team. Going up against Duke, Coach K has done it for so long, they had great teams and gone to numerous Final Fours, had a chance to win some championships.
The biggest memory for me—outside of making that shot and winning the national championship—was that day somehow there was a mix-up with our shoot-around times. We got to the gym—usually a lot of times we’d go to the locker room, use the restroom or whatever, and kind of mess around for a few minutes of lag time before coach would actually want you out there ready to go. We got there, and our time was dwindling down. We had like, three minutes or so. I don’t even think we had three minutes. By the time we made it to the floor, it was like a minute-and-a-half or something. Guys were shooting a lot of rushed shots. I’m like, What’s going on? I think I had my headphones on. And all of a sudden I looked up at the clock and said, “Dang, we don’t even have any shoot-around time.” People were walking around there, getting ready for the president coming and setting up all the theatrical stuff that goes along with that, and I hear coach going off in the tunnel the whole time we were on the floor: “Nobody wants us to win. This was not supposed to happen. We thought we had the right shoot-around time.” Those kind of statements were being made, so it just kind of added fuel to the fire.
We felt like we were going to win the game. I didn’t think that I’d be faced with a last-second shot opportunity and have to make that shot.