No softness in this Duke team

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With 8:59 left and Duke up by 15, Bob Huggins finally made his way out onto the floor, where Da'Sean Butler had been howling in pain while the rest of us contemplated the cruel end of a wonderful college career.

For whatever reason, Huggins found it easier to address the official, John Higgins, than to stand over the player clutching his left knee.

"Ain't no foul?" asked Huggins, whose demeanor and choice of haberdashery -- that ubiquitous black warm-up -- suggested he might have been well cast in The Sopranos .

"Right, John? Ain't no foul? An All-American player laying there, and this ain't no foul?"

I don't blame Huggins. He had lost his best guy, and was about to lose his first chance at a national championship in 18 years. But the remark came perilously close to articulating a suspicion long harbored by conspiracy theorists and Duke haters everywhere. The NCAA-CBS alliance just can't help itself.

Were that only true. I'll be the first to argue the Blue Devils were the beneficiaries of an outrageously easy bracket. But they earned this right to play for the national championship Monday night, a game and a title I assume they'll win handily. Butler is a nice story, with a great player in Gordon Hayward, still, based on watching them Saturday night, they're not in Duke's league.

But back to West Virginia, a team with a justified reputation for defense and toughness, a team that dismantled the future lottery picks of Kentucky, a team that had held six of its past seven opponents to under 60 points. Duke beat these Mountaineers, 78-57.

And for you conspiracy theorists, there's this: Duke didn't shoot a free throw until 12:32 of the second half.

The scoring balance was extraordinary: Kyle Singler, 21 points; Nolan Smith, 19; Jon Scheyer, 23. They were aggressive without being selfish. As a team, Duke was 13-for-25 from behind the three-point line and tallied 20 assists, six turnovers and five steals.

"We felt comfortable no matter what they did," Scheyer said.

"A very complete game," Smith said.

"We've gotten better throughout the year," Mike Krzyzewski said. "We got better this week."

Judging from the postgame interview podium and those deadpan, dispassionate proclamations, you'd have thought this was just another game. It was not, however. For most of the players -- certainly those who wore blue and white -- it was deeply personal.

Two years ago, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Duke was upset -- humiliated, actually -- by West Virginia.

Point guard Joe Mazzulla famously pounded the floor, his way of mocking the Blue Devils' histrionic habit. Later, told that Duke had eight McDonald's All-Americans, Joe Alexander responded with a raised eyebrow.

"Who?" he sneered.

Alexander, then a junior forward, also thought to mention that Duke had played as anticipated: soft. "We knew that coming in that they were just going to stand around and not rebound," he said.

It was true. Krzyzewski's team was out-rebounded 47-27, 19-7 on the offensive end. Of course, being out-rebounded like that means you've been out-toughed. For Duke haters, it was a banner day.

Going into the semifinal, almost everybody said what happened two years ago was a dead issue. Both Duke and West Virginia clung to the party lines: We're a completely different team.

Nonsense. Of the 10 starters on Saturday night, eight had played in that game two years ago. Scheyer had been 3-for-5. Singler was 1-for-3. Smith was 1-for-3. Now, as upperclassmen, they weren't going to forget. In many ways, Saturday's rematch was a measure of how far they had come.

But none of them proved more -- and with more to prove -- than Brian Zoubek. For three-plus years, he has been considered a bust in Durham. He was the 7-footer with bad feet, injuries that kept him on crutches for large stretches of his undergraduate experience. It was Zoubek who had spoken the truth about the rematch.

"We got out-toughed," he said. "Everyone knew it. ... We're not going to forget that. Ever."

That was Friday afternoon. On Saturday night, he proved his words had merit. If this was a different Duke team, then Zoubek seemed the one most intent on proving it. He grabbed 10 rebounds, five offensive. He threw some elbows, and some assists, too.

In fact, each of his three assists -- one each to Scheyer, Singler and Smith -- were three-pointers that came off offensive rebounds. There was another pass off the glass that Singler converted into a pair of free throws.

"Zoubek really established himself," Krzyzewski said. "Some of his offensive rebounds really turned into big plays for us."

"We got a lot of second and third shots off offensive rebounds," noted the erstwhile bust. It was Zoubek's way of saying that, two years later, Duke had become the tougher team.

Monday night should end with Krzyzewski's fourth national title.

For all you haters still in need of a happy ending, I leave you with this: Da'Sean Butler thinks it's only a sprain.