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In April, the Duke Blue Devils won the 2010 college basketball national championship.

Order has been restored.

Now, college basketball season is upon us again.

And there is much rejoicing.
 
About 10 days ago, practice officially opened with the annual Midnight Madness events on college campuses around the country, and at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, the Devils celebrated not just the beginning of a new season, but also the national championship from last April. They received their championship rings, and witnessed their fourth championship banner being unveiled in the rafters.
 


Despite losing three seniors who were very instrumental in their strong finish last year, they are loaded up again this year and ready to go. The obvious focal points of the team are seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, who chose to forgo a shot in the NBA until next year, and instead return to Duke for their final season. But point guard Kyrie Irving and transfer Seth Curry will make immediate impact for them as well, and I look forward to see the contributions of freshmen Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston, along with sophomore Andre Dawkins. If the Plumlee brothers have improved since last season, as I expect they have, the Devils should have another outstanding season, and certainly in position for a possible repeat.

This team, on paper, should be better than last year’s championship team, but that remains to be seen. In recent years, Duke has not quite been the target they have in the past. Despite being a #1 seed, most expected them to go home early last March. Now, as the reigning champions, the target on their back will be as big as ever. Duke is back on top of the college basketball world, and everyone not wearing Duke blue finds that offensive and unacceptable. Repeating is a difficult for any team. For Duke – the team everyone loves to hate – it will be much more so.

When the official preseason polls were released last week they were, as expected, ranked #1. Then they opened their exhibition season this weekend with a blowout of St. Augustine’s, 141-68.

The march to Houston – and title #5 – has begun.

GTHC.

Go Duke!
 

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It’s been a couple of days now, but finally I’ve had the time to put this down. I started blogging in 2005, and so I’ve been waiting nearly five years to write this post.

The Duke Blue Devils are college basketball’s national champions. Man, it feels good to say that.

There has been much talk about the so-called decline of Duke in recent years. After LSU ended J.J. Redick’s last hope for a title at Duke in 2006, they did take a small dip the following year. The glee that fans and sportswriter’s alike experienced when they fell in the first round to VCU the following year was well-documented online and on ESPN. Losing top prospects like Patrick Patterson, Greg Monroe and John Wall to other schools has caused many to suggest that Duke can no longer get the top players. (By the way, no hard feelings, guys – we’re doing okay without you.) And then there are the charges that Duke may be suffering due to Krzyzewski’s involvement with Olympic basketball. And it certainly didn’t help that arch rival UNC had won two titles in the last five years.

Duke was supposed to be dead and buried by now. It was over. Duke was done and the game had passed Coach K by, like it supposedly did Bob Knight in the 1990’s.

And yet, here they are, atop the college basketball world once again.

The haters and whiners have been entertaining this year, having been unaccustomed to keeping it going this late into the season. I saw a Kentucky fan suggest Duke had it easy because they “avoided” (actual quote) having to play Kentucky in the Final Four. Duke, of course, was not the team that didn’t show up. They were there, beating West Virginia – the team that knocked out Kentucky – by 21 points. What, exactly, did Duke avoid? Winning by more than 21 points?

Then there are Maryland fans, God love ’em, who I guess will never get over the “miracle minute”. It seems that they so want to be Duke, they can hardly stand it. It’s really kind of sad.

And there are many sports writers who have written their opinion pieces to proclaim that they still hate Duke. One guy even suggests that “Duke robbed America of ending we deserved.” America deserved to have Butler win, and Duke didn’t let that happen. Finally, we discover the real reason people despise this team – Duke is anti-American. Somewhere Monday night, I can only assume that Glenn Beck was in tears.

I must admit, when the season began, in no way did I expect or even dare to dream this might happen. With the loss of Gerald Henderson to the NBA and Elliot Williams to transfer due to family medical issues, I thought a title run was unlikely. I expected another solid season, an ACC title and another sweet 16. I thought the elite eight was in reach and it would have been disappointing to fall short of that. And, of course, I hoped for a Final Four. But I didn’t think they would go the distance. If Singler were to stay for his senior year, I actually thought 2011 might be their year.

And during the first half of the season, I saw nothing to really change my mind. An embarrassing loss at NC State – one of the worst teams in the ACC – and then a blowout loss at Georgetown had everyone questioning the team. But after inserting Brian Zoubek into the starting lineup for the first meeting with Maryland, things began to turn. Zoubek had a monster game, and the team seemed to have turned a corner. Despite never being ranked #1 during the entire season, they went on to win 18 of their last 19 games en route to their fourth championship, only the 5th school to accomplish that.

An article I read yesterday said the following:

What Krzyzewski understood and believed in was that best players in the country don’t win championships, the best teams do. There were probably several squads in the college basketball this year with better individual talent than Duke, but there was no better team than the Blue Devils.

Whether or not there was a better team out there is debatable, but during the last two and a half weeks of the season, Duke was at least as good as anyone else, if not better. There are definitely schools out there whose teams possessed more talent than Duke’s, but talent alone doesn’t win. Coach K has spent the last four years molding his collection of players into a team, a team that, as Lance Thomas said after the championship game, “maxed out our season.” Coach K got the most of out this team. And it was just enough to get the most out of this season.

It started with the seniors, and while their story may not have fascinated the country as much as a Butler win would have, it’s still a great story. In 2006-07, Duke had their youngest team in the Krzyzewski era, a team with only one upperclassman, junior DeMarcus Nelson. They managed only a 22-11 record and an 8-8 mark in the ACC, their worst since 1996. They were bounced in the first round of the ACC tournament, but managed to earn a much-criticized #6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Then came the game with VCU, who beat them on a shot in the final seconds.

They would endure that rough season (by Duke standards) and, with the addition of freshmen Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, win 28 games in 2008. But after surviving an upset bid by Belmont in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the #2 seed then lost to West Virginia. Duke, who had been to nine straight sweet 16’s, had now fallen short two years in a row. Finally, as juniors, they made it back, winning 30 games on the season and earning another #2 seed. Many predicted a loss to Villanova in the sweet 16, but nobody predicted the 27-point blowout that delighted many of the anti-Duke fans around the nation. For the third straight year, the season had ended in a disappointing fashion.

To see the seniors reach the platform and hold that trophy Monday night was very special to Duke fans. Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas have played a lot of minutes and been solid, consistent players for four years. Scheyer was one of the best in the nation this year. It’s great to see them reach this goal. But I’m especially happy for Brian Zoubek, who has endured multiple injuries that hindered his development during his time at Duke and was often written off by fans as a wasted scholarship. Not only was a great to see him win that title and become a part of Duke championship history, it was doubly great because of this fact: without his play over the last 6 weeks or so, they would not have been there. As great as the “big three” have been over the course of the season, it was Zoubek’s play that gave Duke that missing piece of the puzzle to bring the title back to Durham. It was also a nice gift. Monday was Brian Zoubek’s birthday.

Mike Krzyzewski has said numerous times this year that they were a good team or a very good team, but that they were not a great team. He didn’t tell them that because he wanted them to want to get there, to be that great Duke team so many have waited for over the last nine years. Monday night after the game, he finally told them: you a are a great team. And they are. They’ve proven that over the last month or so, and they did it again Monday night.

 

 

Butler

Butler was a great team, too. This was billed as “David vs Goliath”, and in some sense it was: the tradition and success of Duke, the stature of their program, up against the small school who has only in recent years become well known on the national stage. But team against team, there was no David in this fight. Butler was probably the best defensive team Duke played all year, and Duke the best defensive team Butler played. On the defensive end, I’d take either of these teams against anyone else in the country. Brad Stevens, I have to believe, is going to be a star. I hope he stays at Butler for a while, because I’d like to see what he can do there and not feel the pressure to move up to a “big” school. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get to take that trophy home eventually, maybe even next year if Hayward stays.

I didn’t see Butler play all year that I recall. But watching those four games over the last couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but love that team. Had it not been Duke on the other side, I would have been a huge Butler fan Monday night. I had no problem with beating Kansas in 1991, and thoroughly enjoyed downing the “Fab Five” in 1992. Since I can’t stand Lute Olsen, I was obviously elated to beat Arizona in 2001. But for the first time after a Duke championship, I actually feel bad for the other team. As I said, Butler was a team I would have cheered for, and as great as I felt about the Duke win, there is a part of me that hated to see Butler lose, too.

Nevertheless, I’m glad it turned out the way it did.

One Shining Moment

As I mentioned on Facebook, they ruined “One Shining Moment” this year, but someone has taken the video and changed the song to the original version, sung by David Barrett, as well as editing out the shots of Jennifer Hudson. Well done. This is what we should have seen and heard Monday night.
 

 
And now, the long wait for November begins.

But it will be a bit more bearable this year that it has the last eight.

The Duke Blue Devils are national champions.

Go Duke!

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I haven’t written about basketball this season, though I hope to post my yearly Duke-Carolina post next week prior to the season finale next weekend and the obligatory March Madness post(s). However, there was one thing this week that I was compelled to mention, and to no one’s surprise, it does involve Duke basketball.

The word came this week that former Duke player Christian Laettner will be enshrined in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame this year.

While the haters probably will try to explain this away with some irrational conspiracy theory about Duke favoritism (since that’s the way they explain all Duke basketball success), there is simply no arguing that this guy is one of the best and most accomplished college basketball players in history.

And this honor is well-deserved.

Laettner had an outstanding career at Duke, which included ACC and national championships as well as multiple individual awards. He even got the better of Shaquille O’Neal in two regular season meetings with LSU. But it was easy to see that he seemed most at home on the stage that is March Madness. His freshman year, Duke faced Georgetown in the elite eight with a Final Four trip on the line. Laettner thoroughly outplayed the Hoyas’ super-freshman Alonzo Mourning as Duke eliminated top-seed Georgetown and earned a trip to the Final Four, something Laettner would do in all four of his seasons at Duke.

Laettner has played in more NCAA tournament games than any player in history (23 of a possible 24), and managed to lead the Blue Devils to back to back national championships in 1991 and 1992. He was particularly remarkable in regional final games. When a trip to the Final Four was on the line, Laettner came up big. No, not big. HUGE. Check out the stat lines for Laettner’s four regional finals:
 

Connecticut
1990
St. Johns
1991
Kentucky
1992
Georgetown
1989
  • 9-10 FG
  • 6-7 FT
  • 9 RB
  • 24 pts
  • 7-8 FG
  • 9-11 FT
  • 5 RB
  • 23 pts
  • 5-6 FG (0-1 3FG)
  • 9-9 FT
  • 5 RB
  • 19 pts
  • 10-10 FG (1-1 3FG)
  • 10-10 FT
  • 7 RB
  • 31 pts
source: Duke Basketball Database
 

I should also mention at this point that in two of those games – Connecticut in 1990 and Kentucky in 1992 – with Duke down by one in overtime, Laettner hit a buzzer-beater to keep the season alive and send the Devils to the Final Four.

The totals from those four games:

  • Wins 4, Losses 0
  • Field goals 31-34 (91%)!!!
  • Free throws 34-37 (92%)!
  • Rebounds 26
  • Points 97

That, my friends, is domination. Those are the stats of a winner. And despite Laettner’s difficult personality (even some of his teammates weren’t crazy about him), he got things done on the court. He was one of the best.

Congratulations, Christian. You earned a place among the best, and now it will be officially recognized.

And so I take this opportunity to watch for what seems like the millionth time what I still believe to be the greatest play in college basketball history to end the greatest game in college basketball history.

 

 
Go Duke!

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To hate like this…

is to be happy forever.

The time has come. The rivalry of all rivalries.

Duke. Carolina.

Krzyzewski. Williams.

Henderson. Hansbrough.

Cameron. Crazies.

There is nothing else like it. To say this is the greatest rivalry in college basketball is a gross understatement. That’s an easy one. There is minimal disagreement on that. Kansas-Missouri, Kentucky-Louisville, Indiana-Purdue – they’re all nice little rivalries that produce some great games as well. But they’re not Duke-Carolina.

In the kingdom of college basketball rivalries, Duke-Carolina reigns supreme.

Say it’s the best in college sports, and you might get some disagreement from football fans from Ohio State and Michigan, or the faithul of Alabama and Auburn. Say it’s the best in all of sports, and you’ll probably hear many more objections, the loudest likely coming from Yankees and Red Sox fans.

But in my admittedly biased opinion, I don’t think there’s anything better, anywhere. Proximity certainly plays a role, with the two schools only eight miles from each other. As Mike Krzyzewski once said, “We use the same dry cleaners.” The excellence of the programs is another factor. These teams live down the road from each other and on a yearly basis compete for recruits, for ACC titles and for national titles. Mocking your rival from the next state over or from the other side of the state is one thing. Knowing you have bragging rights when you see him at the dry cleaners is another altogether.

The rivalry is always heated. The Art Heyman/Larry Brown scuffle in the early 60’s. Dean Smith trying to bypass the scoreboard operator at Cameron to buzz in a sub (and not receiving a technical), resulting in Krzyzewski’s “double-standard” charge in the 80’s. Eric Montross’ bloody face in 92, and Tyler Hansbrough’s in 2007. Chris Collins’ and Matt Doherty’s chest-to-chest screaming match in 2003. All of the faux-controversies Roy Williams has created in his own mind over the last few years. And the many Dean/Krzyzewski stories that I don’t have space to mention. It’s always a battle on and off the court, both teams trying to get a leg up on the other, trying to get the advantage for the next time they step on the court.

And the stakes are most often high. Besides battling for ACC supremacy, there’s often national considerations as well. This year, both are in play again. When they last saw each other, at Cameron last March, they were tied in the ACC coming into that final regular season game. The winner would win the ACC regular season, and get a #1 seed in the ACC tournament and, likely, in the NCAA tournament.

While this is only the first game this season, it will still have an impact on both. They are again tied at the top of the conference, and the winner will take sole posession of first place heading into the final weeks of the season. Duke needs the win for at least two reasons: they don’t need to lose a home game against anyone to stay in play in the ACC this year, and Carolina has the friendlier schedule for the remainder of the season.

While both teams have to travel to Maryland and Virginia Tech, those trips could prove more difficult for Duke than Carolina. The Devils have on occasion struggled against Virginia Tech in recent years, and after blowing out Maryland by 40 a couple of weeks ago, the Comcast Center will be ready for their arrival, and ready to make those two hours hard on Duke. And Duke, unlike Carolina, must play Wake a second time, although at Cameron this time. (Have I ranted lately about how much I hate the lack of round-robin play in the expanded ACC??)

Cameron Indoor StadiumOh, and, of course, there’s that trip down the street to Chapel Hill to end the season. Home court hasn’t seemed as important this decade, with Carolina having won four times at Cameron (including the last three) and Duke having won six times at the Smith Center (including two of the last three.) But still, home court is home court. This is their game to win, the game with more in their favor. It may or may not be a “must win” for Duke, but they will certainly make life in the ACC tougher on themselves if they don’t win.

Of course, the ACC has been all over the place this year. Carolina started out 0-2 in the ACC amidst talk of them possibly going undefeated, including a loss to BC in Chapel Hill. Wake beats both Carolina and Duke, but loses at home to Virginia Tech and by 27 at Miami. Clemson beats Duke by 27, only to follow up that game by blowing a 19-point lead at home and falling to Florida State. Nothing is predictable this year. Nothing can be taken for granted, either.

There are so many things to consider, but my thoughts regarding keys to this game for Duke involve only two things: shooting and defense. They must shoot the ball well. Their shooting has fallen off of late and it must be present for 40 minutes tonight. Another Clemson performance, or Miami first-half, and their chances are slim. And on defense, they must prevent Carolina from running. They’ll fare much better forcing Carolina into a half-court game, despite the probable advantage Carolina has inside. And part of that defense will be preventing offensive rebounds for Carolina. Duke must win that battle. If they can do those things well, I think they will win this game.

If Carolina wins this game, I don’t doubt at all that they will be alone at the top of the ACC standings when the regular season ends. I still think they have the best shot regardless of what happens tonight, but I believe a win tonight would serve notice to the rest of the league that they don’t intend to lose again. And they just might not.

I admit that as the clock moves forward today, I’ll find it more and more difficult to concentrate on anything else. I’ve currently got at least 10 tabs open in my Firefox browser with articles about tonight’s game and this rivalry. I hope I have time at lunch to read them all. I’m already suffering a bit of Duke-Carolina overload from having read other articles, watched games, and considered this post. Hopefully, I’ll make it through the day and evening and remain sane.

Tonight, another chapter in the historic rivalry will be written. Enjoy it, because it doesn’t get any better than this.

GTHC!

Go Duke!

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Rivalry week

This week is one of the best week’s of college basketball every season, probably the best prior to March. ESPN is loaded with “rivalry games” all week, and one of the best games is often Kansas-Missouri.

Last night was no exception when Missouri hosted the Jayhawks. I missed the first half, but picked it up at halftime and watched a great comeback by Missouri. Down fourteen at the half and still down ten with about eight minutes to go, the Tigers rallied in the final minutes to take a two point lead. Kansas tied it on their next possession, before Zaire Taylor got a friendly bounce on a 10-footer with 1.3 seconds left to give Missouri the win.

Rivalry week got off to a great start. But no matter what other games are played this week, there is no doubt that the highlight of Rivalry Week – as it always is – will be on Wednesday night when the greatest rivalry in college basketball takes center stage.

The first Duke-Carolina game of the year is always one of the most anticipated regular season games of the year. This year will be no exception as both teams are highly ranked (again). I plan to talk more about the rivalry and the upcoming game tomorrow, but I wanted to share this today.

As the game tomorrow night is at Cameron, Jay Bilas recently shared his five greatest Duke-UNC games at Cameron in this video from Blue Planet.

I wouldn’t argue with Jay’s selections, though he apparently limited his list to only games where Duke finished on top. All games considered, no matter the location or winner, I would submit a few other great Duke-Carolina games that come to mind along with the ones Bilas listed:

  • 1984, ACC Tournament – After two losses that season to a Carolina team featuring Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith, Duke upsets the #1 ranked team in the ACC semifinals, announcing their return to the national stage.
  • 1992, Smith Center – Undefeated and top-ranked Duke loses by two when Christian Laettner failed on two shots in the final seconds. One of only two Duke losses that season on their way to their second straight national title.
  • 1995, Cameron – Duke, on it’s way to a 13-18 season and at the time 0-7 in conference, took the #2 ranked Tar Heels to double-overtime before UNC wins by two. This game included one of the most memorable shots in series’ history when Duke’s Jeff Capel hit a half-court shot to send the game to the second overtime.
  • 2000, Smith Center – UNC’s Joe Forte hits a three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime after Duke had led by as many as 19 points in the second half. However, Duke holds off the Heels in OT for a four point win.
  • 2001, Cameron – Duke, on it’s way to it’s third national championship, falls to the Tar Heels after a foul by Shane Battier gives Brendan Haywood two free throws in the final seconds.
  • 2004, Smith Center – Jawad Williams hits a three to tie the game in the final seconds before Duke’s Chris Duhon takes the inbounds pass and drives the length of the court for a game-winning reverse layup.
  • 2005, Smith Center – Eventual national champion Carolina, down by nine with three minutes remaining, storms back to win in the final minute and avoid a season sweep by Duke.

And I know there are many more. ESPN Classic is playing classic Duke-UNC games during the day this week, including some of the above games. I recorded two yesterday and will be recording two more tomorrow which I plan to save on DVD. There are so many great games in this rivalry, by two programs that are consistently not only at the top of the conference, but among the top teams in the nation as well. As I said, I plan to say more about it tomorrow, but I don’t think there’s anything better in sports than Duke-Carolina basketball. It’s absolutely the best.

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To hate like this…

The day has arrived. February 6, 2008. The most anticipated day of every year for Duke and North Carolina fans. The day, this year, that #2 and #3 will face off. The day as glorious as any other day of the year, and more so then most. The first meeting between the Devils (19-1, 7-0) and the Heels (21-1, 6-1).

Why the first Wednesday in February – normally the day this game takes place – is not a national holiday remains incomprehensible to me.

In preparation for this game and the second half of the ACC season, I began reading Will Blythe’s book To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever : A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry last week. I bought this book nearly two years ago, but have just now gotten around to reading it. I always read at least one book on college basketball during January and/or February, and this is mine for this year.

Blythe is a UNC alum and, of course, hates Duke (thus the title.) Despite this character flaw :), this has been a very entertaining read thus far. Not only about basketball, but also family, society, and more, he writes with a lot of humor that has prompted me to laugh out loud on several occasions in the first few chapters. I look forward to finishing and expect it to be well worth my time.

Here’s a sample:

From time to time I have felt silly about this devotion to a college team and the concomitant hatred of its rival. Here I am, a grown man, huddled in front of a TV, hiding out from the world from November to April, watching students battle each other in games that shouldn’t mean more to me than to them. Right?

Not long ago, as I watched Carolina endure a particularly ugly sequence against Duke, I scared my girlfriend’s nine-year-old son, Harry. (I had already terrified the dog, the beloved Gracie, who had fled into the bathroom to avoid my raving.) Duke’s Dahntay Jones had just driven home a particularly obnoxious dunk and was now flexing his muscles like an insane bodybuilder. Was there no justice in the universe? Where was God?

I pounded my hand on the coffee table, stomped my feet on the floor, and exclaimed, with extreme eloquence, “Shit, hell, piss, damn it! And don’t say what I just said, Harry!” Indeed, I felt proud of myself that I had limited my profanity to just these few words. A virtual Zen master of self-control.

Harry, who had been watching me watch the game, asked, “Why do you have to get so mad?” Normally, he would have delighted in an adult’s swearing. But now he was edging backward across the room, the way people will when you have a gun pointed at them. His eyes were wide.

“Because I hate Duke,” I explained.

“Why do you hate them?” he asked.

Here I hesitated. A young boy had asked me a guileless question, and he needed an adult response. “Well, that’s an interesting question,” I told him, channeling Mister Rogers, “and it deserves an honest answer.” I paused for a moment, as I had seen his mother do when addressing an earnest inquiry by her son. Children are our future. We must teach them well, even when it is hard.

“The truth is they are terrible people,” I told him. “Detestable.”

“All of them?” he asked.

“Every last one of them,” I said. “Especially the coach.”

“I hate them, too,” Harry said, settling in next to me on the couch. And thus was born another soldier in the war. On the door of his room hung a chalkboard for self-expression, and I was pleased to note that now, scrawled in his child’s hand (with no assistance or prodding from me) was the unimpeachable sentiment, NO DUKE FANS ALLOWED IN HERE.

Blythe can likely make a long list of “detestable” players from Duke, no doubt (and has already named several so far.) Likewise, there are many UNC names I could list – like J.R. Reid, Rick Fox, Jeff McInnis and Rashad McCants, to name a few. And it’s beyond me how anyone could get behind a team which once included Rasheed Wallace, one of the biggest <bleep>s ever to step on a basketball court.

Clearly, I can relate to Blythe’s feelings here, albeit from the opposite perspective. I’m often overcome with such anxiety before a Duke game, especially a big game like Carolina, you’d think I was actually playing in it. Since the acquisition of my first DVR a few years ago, I now find it difficult to watch the games live, in real time. I usually record the game and start watching (from the beginning) later during the game so that I can watch it without all of the delays of timeouts, dead balls, free throws, etc. I can watch the game in about 45 minutes. The game still lasts around two hours, so the anxiety is still there while I’m waiting to start watching, but somehow starting it later and viewing it quickly makes me feel better. Sometimes, I just wait until it’s over and check the score online, then watch it in a much more relaxed state.

Yes, I’m pathetic.

Nevertheless, I look forward to the annual early-February meeting of Duke and Carolina tonight. Since it’s in Chapel Hill this year, the likely result is that Duke will suffer their first ACC loss. Carolina will be tough to beat at home, even if Ty Lawson isn’t playing (and I’ll believe that when I don’t see him on the floor.) Duke’s primary weakness is lack of inside players, of course, and while they’ve gone into Chapel Hill undermanned inside before and won (see 2001 when Carlos Boozer was injured), hope seems a bit more distant this time around. This time they’re not facing Brendan Haywood in there, but Tyler Hansbrough. But hey, the Giants weren’t supposed to win Sunday, either, right?

I will likely watch the game as I described above, starting from the beginning at about halftime. My wife and kids will probably already be in bed when I start, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll let a few things slip as Blythe describes above – probably at one or more of the many times Hansbrough lowers his head and bulls through a Duke player as the officials whistle remains silent or when Greg Paulus flops to the floor after someone breathes on him.

But regardless of outcome, there’s nothing else quite like the first Duke/Carolina game every year. It’s almost always just after the Super Bowl and seems to signal that the college basketball season has finally begun for real. And this year, it will also usher in the return of Dick Vitale and feature two of top three ranked teams. It just doesn’t get any better.

It’s often called the greatest rivalry in college sports for one simple reason: it is.

Go Duke!

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I came across a Duke Chronicle article a while back titled The Last Basketball Dynasty. It begins with the call from Vern Lundquist:

There’s the pass to Laettner… puts it up… YESSSSSSS!


“Welcome To Kentucky…where Duke Sucks”

Two years before that call, in the 1990 East Regional final, Christian Laettner, with Duke behind by one in overtime, hit a game winning buzzer-beater to upset Connecticut and send Duke to the Final Four.

Then, two years later, Lundquist’s call in the 1992 East Regional final capped off an amazing finish to Duke’s win over Kentucky. It was deja vu all over again. With Duke in the exact same situation – down by one in overtime – Laettner hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer, once again punching Duke’s ticket to the Final Four.

That final play has become one of the signature plays of March Madness, shown endlessly each year alongside game-winners by Keith Smart, Michael Jordan, Bryce Drew and Lorenzo Charles.

Today is the 15th anniversary of that game, considered by many to be the greatest college basketball game ever played.

The article chronicles that 1992 Duke basketball team and their accomplishments that year, as well as the years preceding it. I thought today was a good day to share the article along with a few more thoughts on that team and what they really accomplished. I wrote last year about the game, and some of it will be repeated, but this year it’s a little broader, about the team, the season, and that particular era of Duke basketball.

I’ll start with a quote near the end of the article:

Fifteen years later, no team has matched the Blue Devils back-to-back titles, and with the way the college game is changing, it seems unlikely anyone ever will.

I cannot agree with the conclusion drawn here. I don’t think it is unlikely at all that another team will eventually repeat. In fact, Florida, last year’s champion, is just two games away from a repeat, and all season long it’s been evident that they have the best shot at repeating in the last 10 years. Like the 95 Arkansas team, for example, and the 92 Duke team, this Florida team has all of their key players back. I believe they are the only team in recent history that has all five starters back. I’ve already stated in a previous post that I don’t think they’ll repeat, but that’s beside the point. It’s the idea that it’s “unlikely” that I reject. I don’t doubt that, eventually, it will happen again, even if it’s not this year.

Nevertheless, that 1992 Duke team was quite a special team that accomplished a great deal. Did they do something that will never be duplicated? Well, possibly. But it’s not back-to-back titles, in my opinion. So what’s even more difficult to duplicate? First, a little more about that team and that season.

The Duke team of 1992 was the best team in the country that season and they knew it. They were confident – some say arrogrant – and they expected to win every time they took the floor. They didn’t back down from anyone. They didn’t mind playing any team, anywhere.

They loved playing on the road, strutting into other teams’ buildings and leaving with a win. For a whole year, they were the greatest show in the country, the team everyone wanted a piece of but just about no one could beat. They relished walking into a gym and seeing the fear in the other team’s eyes, the feeling that they would have to play their best game to beat Duke.

Duke’s best player on that team was Christian Laettner. He may or may not be the best to ever put on a Duke uniform – that’s debatable. Certainly names like Dick Groat, Art Heyman and Johnny Dawkins would be mentioned along with Laettner. I would say that he is the most accomplished Blue Devil player ever. And, he was probably a bigger lightning rod than any player in Duke history.

Laettner was college basketball’s biggest villain, and he loved it. Duke scheduled a game against Canisius, up in Buffalo near where Laettner grew up. It was a Homecoming game of sorts for the big man, but he refused to take a shot in the first half. Krzyzewski asked him what was wrong, but Laettner just said the people from his hometown knew how good he was. He wanted them to know how good his teammates were.

He was good. Very good. He knew it. He would have told you himself. And he didn’t care what anyone thought of him. That’s part of what made him so successful. And so despised.

In fact, it’s my opinion that it was the 1992 team, and Laettner in particular, that fueled the hatred of Duke and made “Duke-hating” a national pasttime. (For years now, there have been websites devoted to hating Duke, published – I can only assume – by people who have no life.) When he graduated, Laettner passed the baton (or lightning rod) to Bobby Hurley – already hated while playing with Laettner for his first three years – and it’s continued on since then. Chris Collins. Steve Wojciechowski. Shane Battier. J.J. Reddick. Greg Paulus seems to be the target of the current team. My guess is incoming freshman Kyle Singler (who is being compared to the likes of Adam Morrison, Dirk Nowitzki and even Larry Bird) will be next. But while it may have started before the Laettner years (Danny Ferry directly preceded him), it reached an entirely new level in 1992. Certainly their success played a part in many people growing tired of them – having been to four Final Fours in a row and five of the previous six coming into the season. But having such an outstanding player with Laettner’s attitude on the team propelled it to that next level.

It also didn’t help that, in that East Regional final on March 28, 1992, Duke beat a team that was so beloved by it’s home state and – at least for that evening – by much of America. Kentucky had just emerged from the embarrassing probation years after Eddie Sutton’s tenure there, and were back in post-season play after a two-year ban. They were coached by Rick Pitino, who was well on his way to becoming the great head coach that he is known as today. They were led by one of the best young players in the country in sophomore Jamaal Mashburn, and by four seniors. Those seniors all could have left the program (like other more talented players had) when the hard times hit. But, these guys grew up on Kentucky basketball and wanted to be Wildcats, and so they stayed. With Pitino’s guidance, they became the core group that would reestablish Kentucky basketball as a national power. And their fans and their school loved them – so much so that they retired the jerseys of all four players after they finished their careers on the court. The following year, Kentucky would return to the Final Four.

And not only did Duke beat them, they beat them in a most fantastic fashion, winning the game that, during the final timeout, appeared to be “unwinnable”. The game had gone to overtime. Kentucky’s Sean Woods had just scored to give the Wildcats a one point lead. It was an amazing shot in it’s own right, and were it not for Laettner’s heroics, Woods’ shot might very well be the one remembered as one of the greatest in NCAA tournament history instead of Laettner’s. After it went through, there were only 2.1 seconds remaining on the clock. Duke had called timeout, hoping to save their season and their place in history. But, it seemed far more likely that their reign was about to come to an end and that Kentucky was headed for the Final Four. All that remained was for Duke to heave a desperation shot as time expired and the Wildcats would be on their way to Minneapolis.

But Krzyzewski had another plan. He told the team in the huddle that they were going to win. Few people, if any, outside of that huddle believed that was possible. I suspect a majority inside the huddle had their doubts as well. But Krzyzewski tried his best to convince them that it was true. Duke was going back to the Final Four for the fifth straight year and a shot at doing what no team had done in 19 years: repeat.

Before the huddle broke, Krzyzewski had one last instruction for Laettner. “The clock won’t start until you touch the ball inbounds,” he said. “Take your time.”

That final instruction by Krzyzewski to his superstar may have been as big as Rick Pitino’s decision to not guard Grant Hill, who was passing the ball inbounds.

When Hill’s pass reached Laettner, he caught it with his back to the basket. Instead of immediately attempting to get a shot up, he did exactly what Coach K told him – he took his time. He dribbled once as he faked to his right, then spun left and shot the turn around jumper that is one of the most memorable shots in the history of the sport. The ball went through, Duke wins by one, and Duke fans were as ecstatic as Kentucky fans were stunned. Possibly the greatest game ever had ended on one of the greatest plays ever.

The villain Laettner would finish a perfect game with 31 points on 10 for 10 from the floor (including one 3-pointer) and 10 for 10 from the line. And Duke needed every one of those shots to go in for them to win. They would go on to the Final Four in Minneapolis and defeat Krzyzewski mentor Bob Knight’s Indiana team and Michigan’s “Fab Five” to win their second title in two years.

Duke was not quite perfect, though. A mid-season injury to Bobby Hurley slowed them down a little, and Duke ended up dropping two games that year. During their game at Chapel Hill, Hurley broke a bone in his foot in the first half. He managed to finish the game despite being less than 100 percent. In a game where Laettner did not hit the big shot, missing two shots in the final minute with a chance to tie, Duke lost by two points. Later, at Wake Forest, Duke lost by four with Hurley out of the lineup. That game also featured the same play that beat Kentucky, with Duke down two in the closing seconds. However, it did not work as the pass went too close to the sideline and Laettner stepped out of bounds as he caught the pass. A subsequent Duke foul gave Wake two more free throws for the final margin. Still, Duke finished 34-2, and was ranked #1 in the polls every week that season. Even after the two weeks in which they lost a game, the teams directly below them had lost as well, and they never lost their #1 ranking all season long.

Since that season, no team has pulled off a repeat. A couple have come close – Arkansas in 95 and Kentucky in 97 – and some have probably had the talent but fell short of even the Final Four (UNC 94 and Duke 02 come to mind.) But they accomplished other things that are, in my opinion, going to be far more difficult to duplicate.

First, as I mentioned, they were ranked #1 wire to wire. That’s hard to do in college football these days, much less college basketball. The odds are that nobody will be so fortunate that the two or three teams below them also lose the same week (or weeks) that a game is lost. It seems that going undefeated would be the best shot at remaining #1 for an entire season. However, Indiana’s undefeated season in 1976 has rarely been threatened. Only Larry Bird’s Indiana State team in 79 and the UNLV team of 91 have gotten close. Therefore, in my opinion, a lot of stars are probably going to have to align to see a #1 wire to wire again.

Next, they went to five straight Final Fours, and seven in nine years. Nobody else has been to the final four that consistently. The best runs belong to Kentucky and Michigan State, who both made three straight trips to the Final Four. Kentucky went to four in six years, having made the trip in 93, 96, 97 and 98. Michigan State managed four trips as well, in seven years – 99, 00, 01 and 05. I should also mention that North Carolina went to six Final Fours in ten years (1991-2000), which is close to Duke’s seven of nine. But even during that time, they never managed more than two in a row, and did that only once (1997 and 1998). While six of ten is impressive, seven of nine is more so, especially considering the five year streak. I’ll be surprised if any team replicated these three programs successes for a while. Duke’s run may very well never be equaled.

Finally, Duke is the only school to have players who went to the Final Four four straight seasons – all four seasons they played. Prior to the mid-70’s, freshmen did not play, so the great UCLA teams who went to seven straight Final Fours never had a player who played in more than three. Clay Buckley and Greg Koubek played for Duke from 1988-1991, and Brian Davis and Christian Laettner from 1989-1992. All four of these guys played on a team that went the distance, playing until the final weekend of the season, every season they played for Duke.

While Duke’s regular season success has been more impressive over the last 10 years than it was during the late 80’s and early 90’s, most people remember what you do in March first. Duke’s program in that Ferry-Laettner-Hill era, with five straight Final Fours (and seven of nine), two classes that never missed the Final Four, back-to-back titles, and a team that was #1 every week of the season, had one of the greatest periods of success in the history of college basketball. It has been unmatched in the 30+ years since UCLA’s dynasty ended. They truly were, for that time, a dynasty. Were they the last? Will there never be another? It’s hard to say. With the NBA game having so encroached on the college game, taking it’s players after only a year or two, it’s going to be much more difficult. Not impossible, but certainly more difficult with even less continuity from year to year.

But, with all of their accomplishments considered, they may very well be the last college basketball dynasty of that magnitude. Nobody will ever duplicate UCLA’s run in the 60’s and 70’s. And it’s almost as likely that Duke’s success during their dynasty years will not be duplicated, either. Only time will tell.


Here are a couple of articles related to the 1992 East Regional game:

Here’s another article on streaks which is worth looking at as well.


And, as if isn’t shown enough during March, here it is one more time…

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