Jay Williams has been here before.
In 2001, Williams led Duke to a national championship. He knows what it’s like to play at the Final Four – to be this close to playing for it all and the amount of excitement that comes with it. And yet, as a player, you can’t let the moment get too big.
“It’s one of those things that you try not to think about,” Williams said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I think all these guys are taking on (that) approach. You know the politically correct answer where you say, ‘Hey, it’s one game at a time.’ You’re trying to take it one game at a time, but how can you not look forward to playing in a championship game?”
That almost cost Williams and Duke in 2001. The Blue Devils trailed Maryland by 22 points at halftime in the national semifinal but came back and won, 95-84, beating the loaded Terrapins for the third time in four meetings that season.
Williams said that he and his teammates realized at halftime what they had to do.
“At that moment, it clicked all of a sudden,” Williams recalled. “We can’t look forward to the championship game. We need to be focused on this moment now. We were fortunate enough to be able to come back in that game and then play Arizona in the championship game. You try not to pay attention to it, but it’s easy to become consumed with all the fanfare and all the attention that comes along with potential match-ups.
“It’s kind of interesting,” Williams continued. “We’re already kind of putting two teams in the championship game. People are talking about if Duke and Kentucky play in the final, it’s going to be the highest-rated game in the history of college basketball. If you’re a team like Wisconsin or a team like Michigan State, that’s exactly what you want Kentucky and Duke to do. You want them to overlook you because that’s when those teams (can) come up and really bite you.”
Williams, of course, will be pulling for Mike Krzyzewski to win his fifth national title – a prospect that didn’t seem likely a few short months ago. Why? Because the Blue Devils were not playing with the defensive tenacity that has been a hallmark of the Krzyzewski era.
“I think the one thing that’s always concerned me about this team in particular was their ability to play defense the way Coach K wanted them to play defense,” Williams said. “There were times throughout the season where they even went into a 2-3 zone, and a lot of former players were a little bit taken aback: ‘When’s the last time you’ve seen Duke play zone? We’re a man-to-man team. We get in your face. We deny passing lanes, we apply pressure on the ball 24/7, and we’re relentless in our pursuit on the defensive end. We turn you over. We get easy points in transition. We make running threes.’
“That’s something you weren’t seeing from this Duke team,” Williams continued. “And it wasn’t until the latter part of the year until I really saw Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones actually (excel) defensively on the perimeter. They’re actually getting back to their defensive ways. Those are ways that could potentially help them win a championship.”