The college basketball season is underway, and a host of traditional powerhouses look likely to once again dominate the top of the standings. UNC, Kansas and Kentucky boast strong squads of course, but just like seemingly every season since the dawn of time, Duke figures to be in the mix for title contention all season long.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski isn’t the four-year purist he once was, and his more recent flexibility has paid off in a big way — he won the 2015 title with freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, and this season he landed the number one recruit in the nation in Harry Giles. Giles is still recovering from a knee injury, so he hasn’t suited up yet, but when he does, look out. The Blue Devils have young talent, but they also have veterans in Amile Jefferson and Grayson Allen. The last squad with this sort of veteran leadership that won the title was back in 2001, when Shane Battier starred as a senior.
We spoke to Battier for Pizza Hut’s “Greatest College Sports Experience Ever,” in which they chose one lucky fan — Cleveland’s Jason Fisher — to attend the NCAA championship for every sport in one year. Who better to talk about that college championship experience than Battier?
As someone who’s been in both the NCAA title game and the NBA Finals, what are the differences that you remember in the emotions of the games?
Shane Battier: Well, they’re very different. In the NBA playoffs, every series is a marathon. You can have a bad game and sort of punt it and come back refreshed and refocused; there are so many adjustments and an ebb and flow of emotions. In a one-and-done situation, if you have a bad half, it’s over. Goodbye, thank you. So the pressure of the game, I think is higher for a single game setting.
But look, both are the same for the purpose of … You’re not going to reinvent yourself right before that game. Your work has been done, the hay is in the barn, so to speak, so you just have to go out there and be the best version of yourself. And if that version is good enough, you’re going be a champion. And if it’s not, you’re not going to be a champion. But they’re both really fun atmospheres.
Now that we’re 15, 16 years out from that Duke championship game, there’s only one player left from that team in the NBA, and it’s Mike Dunleavy. Would you have pegged him as the last guy left from that team?
Yeah, no question. Mike is my best friend, and he’ll play until they ask him to leave. He takes good care of himself, so it’s not surprising at all that he’s the last man standing.
What’s your best memory of that Duke team?
It really was when the clock hit zero [in the title game]. I looked up, and I knew at that moment that all the hard work, all the sprints and the ankle sprains and the stitches and the fatigue and the highs and the lows — everything that goes into making a championship team, it was all worth it. And not everyone gets that feeling, but you understand it was all worth it for the sacrifice, and you’d do it again in the second. You realize how much goes into getting to the top of the mountain.
So that feeling — winning the championship was great, and it was fun to do it with my friends, but the feeling of giving it everything I have, and can’t give any more, that’s a hell of a feeling.
Do people shout you out more for my Duke days or for your pro career?
I get a lot of Duke love. Most of the kids who come up and talk to me say, “You’re an amazing player in [NBA] 2K14,” and I tell them I’m a much better player in video games than I was in real life, so thank you very much.
Why do you think you’re better in video games than in real life?
Oh in 2K14, I’m automatic, baby. I get all these screenshots on Twitter with people saying, “Hey Shane, I scored 50 points with you,” when I’m like 12-16 from three, so thank you to the makers of 2K basketball.
Back when you were on Mike Krzyzewski’s team, there was more of an emphasis on developing players over multiple years. Now he’s fully part of the one-and-done era; does it surprise you that he’s changed with the times?
No, in fact I think that’s Coach K’s best attribute. He’s malleable. He’s principled, but he’s always looking for better ways to do it, to re-evaluate himself and his approach to things. Every year, we had different points of emphasis and he would change our team philosophy according to personnel. So Coach K is extremely open-minded, and malleable; willing to do whatever it takes to keep Duke competitive at a championship level.
What do you think of this year’s Duke team? How do you like their chances?
If they get healthy, they’ll be really, really good. Obviously, they’re banged up right now and it’s the part of the season when everyone wants to see the talented freshmen, but if they get healthy, they have the depth, the coaching, and the experience to make a deep run in March.
What do you think of Grayson Allen’s pro prospects?
I think he’s going to be a pretty solid pro. He can shoot the ball, he can handle the ball, he can run a pick-and-roll, and he’s tough. You know, I don’t know a pro team out there that doesn’t like a player with those attributes. If I had a draft pick, I would welcome him on my team.