We begin with a single, sniveling admission: We give up. And in, while we’re at it.
Let someone else decry Duke’s hegemonic, Microsoft-esque reign over college basketball. Or make a case that the Blue Devils won’t repeat as national champions. Or rail against the smug, condescending certitude that wafts from the tent city of Krzyzewskiville like so much unwashed undergraduate B.O.
It sure as heck won’t be us.
Uh-uh. No chance. We surrender. There are approximately five months, 9,500 games and 16 billion Andy Katz sightings to go before the conclusion of the 2001-02 season, and we’re already throwing in our well-chewed white towel.
That is, unless Coach K would prefer that we wave it.
It’s not that we suddenly love the Blue Devils. Or that we no longer bristle at their holier-than-thou ways. Or that we don’t spend a few precious moments each and every day savoring UNLV’s top-to-bottom demolition of Duke in the 1990 title game.
It’s just that we know a losing battle when we see it. And when we spy the current Durham juggernaut rampaging hordes of McDonald’s All-Americans, his K-ness spouting pithy platitudes, Dick Vitale frothing on the sidelines, an entire college basketball universe tangled up in Blue well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or even a Duke scholar-athlete to get the picture.
Resistance like expecting Jason Williams to foul out, ever is futile.
“If people were to say who had the best basketball program in the country, right now, most people would say Duke,” said Georgetown coach Craig Esherick. “They’ve been to the the Final Four so many times. They have a reputation for graduating their players. And they’re picked again to win the national championship. I’m jealous.”
And we’re craven. Herein, our reasons for submission:
Because otherwise, Duke will break your heart
The Blue Devils are the Frank Nitty of the college game. They snuffed UNLV’s bid for back-to-back titles. Rubbed out the Fab Five’s freshman joyride. Executed Kentucky’s crew of post-probation overachievers. Silenced Arizona’s attempt to win a championship for the departed Bobbi Olson.
No matter where you turn, the Blue Devils are waiting. Ready to spring a full-court trap. Lead from the heart. Turn a 22-point deficit into a 11-point victory in the national semifinals.
Ask Maryland. Loaded with prime-time performers like Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, the Terps are legitimate title contenders, coming off a first-ever Final Four appearance … and picked to finish second in the ACC.
Who’s No. 1? Take a guess.
(Hint: It’s the same school that rallied from 10 points down with 54 seconds left to beat the Terps at Cole last season. The one that dumped Maryland with a buzzer-beating tip-in in the conference tourney, then scored a hat trick in Minneapolis).
“Every game we played was winnable,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams. “But yet, you have to dethrone them. You have to win. Until somebody does, they’re the best.”
Because Duke has the players
Look upon Duke’s roster, ye Kentuckys, UCLAs and North Carolinas, and despair: Talent-wise, most observers place this year’s Blue Devils ahead of last season’s incarnation. Despite losing National Player of the Year Shane Battier.
The reasons? This season’s leading POY candidate, Williams, passed on the NBA draft for another season in Durham. He’s joined in the backcourt by Chris Duhon, who’s only regarded as the country’s second-best point guard.
Up front, the Blue Devils feature a pair of potential All-Americans, burly Carlos Boozer and sweet-shooting Mike Dunleavy. The supporting cast includes emerging center Casey Sanders and dynamic transfer Dahntay Jones. Daniel Ewing, a high school All-American, will have to battle for playing time.
Add it up: Not since UNLV in 1991 has a defending champ been so heavily favored to repeat.
“We were like Duke is now,” Fresno State and former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian told ESPN.com. “We were better than everybody. I don’t picture anyone playing with Duke this season … our goal was to try and be perfect with what we were doing. I think Duke is in a situation like that.”
Because the past weighs a ton
Should the Blue Devils emerge with consecutive crowns, they’ll join an elite fraternity. John Wooden guided UCLA to seven straight championships from 1967 to 1973; in the intervening decades, only one other school has captured back-to-back titles.
That school being Duke (1991-92).
“It’s a very difficult thing to repeat, because you get everyone’s best shot every night,” said Washington Wizards forward Christian Laettner, who starred on both Blue Devils squads. “But I like their chances. I pick them to make the Final Four every year.”
Suffice it to say, Laettner’s probably done well in his NCAA tournament pool. After all, the Blue Devils have more than just a .50 caliber belt feed of recent prep superstars on their side. They have history.
Over the last two decades, Duke has produced nine consensus first-team All-Americans and four Players of the Year. The school has played in nine Final Fours and seven title games, winning three times.
The Greatest Game Ever Played? Duke-Kentucky, 1992 East Regional Final.
Won by the Blue Devils, of course.
“I’m just one of many who have helped establish the [Duke] mystique, or whatever you want to call it,” said Laettner, who scored the winning basket against Kentucky. “They’ve had tons of great teams. It started a long time before me. I’ve been gone for ten years, and it’s still going on.”
Because there’s no escape
And on. And on. Like some sort of InBluenza virus, Duke’s dominance extends beyond the court, infecting every aspect of the college game. Consider:
Duke’s Cameron Crazies are the best-known, most-imitated, most-celebrated fans read: snotty college students in the country. Plus, they invented the “Airball” chant.
Duke-North Carolina is considered the sport’s top rivalry.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the pinched face and nasal voice of his sport, an active Hall of Famer.
“If you’re losing to a team he doesn’t think you should be losing to, he’ll pretty much throw an adult tantrum,” Laettner said. “He’ll pretty much say, ‘This is not allowed on my team. My team, Coach K’s team, is not going to lose to this other team.’ And you’re like, ‘I don’t want to let my team and him down.’”
Krzyzewski’s concept of the “fist” five players acting as one, like fingers has replaced Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” as college basketball’s philosophical coaching hokum du jour.
(In fact, K’s inspirational tome, “Leading from the Heart,” sits 8,593 spots ahead of Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick’s “Competitive Leadership” on the Amazon.com self-help sales charts. Trust us: We checked.)
“Mike is the standard,” said former Georgetown coach and radio talk show host John Thompson. “It comes with winning. When you win, you give an identity to the whole scene. And Mike, in particular, wears success very well.”
Because we’re in good company
Even the press is be-Deviled. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas played and coached at Duke. Twenty-one of the Blue Devils’ 26 regular season games will be shown on national television including a less-than-scintillating Dec. 29 showdown with mighty San Diego State.
Then there’s the ebullient Vitale, whose spittle-laden enthusiasm for all things Durham led Arizona coach Lute Olson to sardonically dub him “Dookie V.”
“Dick’s daughter went there, didn’t she?” Esherick said with a laugh. “Then I think Dick has a rooting interest.”
Actually, both of Vitale’s daughters went to Notre Dame. (We checked that, too). But given that an ESPN.com columnist refers to his site as “Durham.com,” Esherick’s guess is hardly surprising.
In 1997, Sports Illustrated selected Duke as the nation’s top team and put the Blue Devils on the cover of its college basketball preview. Last season, SI picked Arizona No. 1 … and put Battier on its cover.
“Whatever [media] saturation there is, they’ve earned,” Esherick said. “Anytime you win championships and get to the Final Four that many times, people should talk about you.”
Because the future wears Blue
Even if the Blue Devils fall short of this year’s title, a six-man incoming recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the nation ensures that they’ll be back again and again and again.
The light at the end of the tunnel? Don’t be fooled. It’s an oncoming Duke locomotive. And the rest of college basketball is tied to the tracks.
“It’s up to some [other] team to prove it differently,” Williams said. “Every year I hear, ‘Well, it’ll be tough for Duke to win.’ Well, somebody’s got to beat them, whether it’s us or someone else.”
We’d like that. Really.
But we’re not counting on it.