Blue Devils have grown from tough times

Butler isn't the only underdog that will take the court on Monday night.

This Duke squad wasn't exactly expected to succeed, either.

This is a Blue Devils team that has been hammered over the past few years for its inability to achieve Duke-esque greatness.

In fact, they have been so inconsequential at the highest level that the hatred meter for this Coach K-led group is at an all-time low for a team out of Durham, N.C.

Senior Jon Scheyer's first season in Durham was a mess -- at least in comparison with the standards that have been set by a Duke program that has won three national titles and has been a mainstay among the nation's elite for much of the past two decades.

The Dukies (I've been told that Duke fans prefer that spelling over "Dookies") were 22-11 in Scheyer's freshman campaign and 8-8 in ACC play -- tied for sixth in the league.

Scheyer's NCAA tournament initiation that year was a first-round loss to VCU in which Eric Maynor's last-second shot immediately bounced Duke from the Big Dance.

"That was a rough year," Scheyer said. "The end really summed up the whole season."

Then came a second-round setback to West Virginia in 2007-08, and a year ago, Scheyer and the Blue Devils went one step further before losing to Villanova in the Sweet 16.

Steady, baby steps.

Hardly what the nation had come to expect from the boys who play in Cameron.

This Duke team has been fighting for respect -- not just nationally, but also among former players and alums.

After losing Gerald Henderson Jr., early to the NBA and watching fellow starting wing Elliott Williams transfer back home to Memphis, this group has been called un-athletic, made well aware of how they lack any sure-fire first-round draft picks and deemed underachievers.

But a win Monday night would shut everyone up.

So what if the Blue Devils were blessed with a smoothly paved road all the way, though?

No one will remember that years from now if a fourth banner ends up sitting next to the ones already up from 1991, 1992 and 2001.

"I know people will say we didn't have to beat Kansas or someone like that in the national title game, and it doesn't mean as much," Duke junior forward Kyle Singler said on Sunday. "But it'll mean we'll leave a great mark at Duke."

A victory on Monday night against a Butler team that everyone wants to proclaim as the David to Duke's Goliath would give Duke an opportunity to go out with heads held high.

"To me, this program is about national championships and Final Fours," Scheyer said. "As great as Duke has been, they have only won three national titles. To be able to win a fourth would say a lot."

It looked like a far-fetched dream entering the season.

After all, there were many that felt as though Butler would have a more realistic opportunity to get to the Final Four than Duke.

I had Duke at No. 11 in the preseason and Butler right behind at No. 12.

Sure, the Blue Devils have arguably the most successful college coach in the modern era with Mike Krzyzewski, but this was a team that had been patched together.

Don't read into the half-dozen McDonald's All-Americans that litter the current roster, because it's not only meaningless, but also an inaccurate measure of a program's overall talent.

The senior group of Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas had virtually no leadership when they entered the program (J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams had just left), yet they have taken their lumps and grown up over the past four years.

Scheyer, a natural shooting guard, was the last resort at the point guard spot last season after Coach K snatched the job away from three-year starter Greg Paulus and Nolan Smith wasn't able to handle the task.

Thomas and his uncle thought he was going to college to play on the perimeter when he signed with Duke. Instead, the athletic New Jersey native has accepted the fact that he's an undersized post player and has teamed with Zoubek to form a more than capable inside duo.

It was as painful to watch Zoubek early in his career as it was for him to play. He was always good for a walk or a charge virtually every time he touched the ball.

The 7-foot-1 big man has dealt with countless foot injuries in his career that limited his play and his progress. However, he has emerged as a solid inside presence -- especially on the glass, where he's averaging 7.6 rebounds -- this season, and he could wind up being the difference in the national title game against a much smaller Butler front line.

Smith, who came close to transferring out of the program after his freshman season, has excelled playing primarily off the ball, but few would have bought a 17-point-per-game average coming into this season.

The Duke staff believed the X-factor was set to be talented freshman Mason Plumlee, but he suffered a broken wrist late in the preseason, missed the first half-dozen games of the season and has been nothing more than a solid role guy coming off the bench.

These guys still wear "Duke" on the front of their jerseys, which gives them instant credibility and respect, but this is hardly a typical Blue Devils team.

These guys are supposed to beat Butler, but they are far from favorites.