Archive for the ‘march madness’ Category

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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