- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

For the first time in more than a decade, a college basketball season begins with two teams for whom perfection is a realistic possibility.

Forget last season’s parity party that left a Syracuse squad, unranked in the preseason, holding the title trophy. This year’s hoops’ landscape is dominated by the two towers — No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Duke.

It’s a navy-and-white world, folks, featuring Huskies in Storrs, Blue Devils in Durham and 324 also-rans. Fact is, UConn and Duke aren’t just odds-on favorites to reach the Final Four. It wouldn’t be a total shock if one of this season’s lords of the ring arrives in San Antonio with an unblemished record and a chance at hightop history.

“I think most people would agree that there is a pretty sizable gap between Connecticut and Duke and everybody else,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas yesterday. “They’re the only two teams that don’t have any question marks heading into the season. You look around at the other teams in the top 10, and you see potentially serious issues. Will Michigan State and Missouri be able to overcome their lack of true point guards? How will UNC fare in the ACC and beyond without any depth?

“UConn and Duke aren’t searching, they’re fine-tuning. As for either going undefeated, I’d say it’s maybe more possible this season than it would be ordinarily, but the chances are still remote. No team has done it since Indiana in 1976, and we’ve seen some awfully good teams come and go in the interim.”

Perhaps few have been better, relative to the competition, than this season’s squads at Connecticut and Duke.

The Huskies return all five starters from a team that bludgeoned Syracuse twice and tied for the Big East’s East Division title before being knocked out in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament by Texas (82-78).

UConn’s roster, easily the deepest in the nation, is highlighted by a pair of All-Americans — 6-foot-10, 252-pound junior center Emeka Okafor (15.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.7 blocks) and 6-2, 200-pound junior shooting guard Ben Gordon (19.5 points, 4.7 assists). But coach Jim Calhoun’s arsenal is hardly limited to his junior standouts. If Gordon’s shots aren’t falling, sophomores Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson are both 40 percent gunners from behind the arc. And behind Okafor, Calhoun has three other 6-10 underclassmen lined up and salivating for minutes, including coveted prep prospect Charlie Villanueva, who delayed a jump to the NBA to hop on UConn’s title train.

“They already had the nation’s best team, and then you add Villanueva. Wow,” said Dick “Hoops” Weiss, the New York Daily News’ dean of college basketball writers. “It almost seems unfair.”

The lone knock on Connecticut over the past several seasons was the suspect shooting of point man Taliek Brown, who made just 56 percent of his free throws last season. But after noticing he couldn’t read the banners hanging from the rafters at Gampel Pavilion late last season, Brown had corrective laser surgery on his eyes over the summer. And the fourth-year starter has begun his senior season literally looking like a different player, rolling up 14 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers in just 27 minutes of action in UConn’s opening exhibition victory over Team Nike.

“That stuff about Taliek being a weakness is a joke,” Calhoun said. “He’s a senior, a three-year starter and one of the toughest kids we’ve ever had in the program. Now that he’s no longer blind, we’re expecting him to make a few more free throws. But he’s always been our spark plug.”

Duke also features senior leadership on the perimeter in the form of Chris Duhon (9.2 points, 6.4 assists). And like Brown, Duhon is surrounded by a cast of outrageously gifted underclassmen. Penetrator Daniel Ewing shares point duties with Duhon, while sophomore J.J. Redick (15.0 points), one of the best pure shooters the college game has seen in years, mans the off-guard slot. Inside, the Blue Devils will rely on a pair of maturing McDonald’s All-Americans in 6-9, 245-pound Shelden Williams (8.2 points, 5.9 rebounds) and 6-10, 240-pound Shavlik Randolph, who has added 30 pounds of muscle after spending most of last season hampered by a hip injury.

And then there’s Luol Deng, a 6-8, 220-pound package of pyrotechnics who was rated just a drop-step below LeBron James among last season’s prep prodigies.

“He’s the best player on our team — no question,” said Redick after a recent exhibition victory. “Luol can do it all — post you up, pop it over you, power it past you, you name it.”

Like Villanueva at UConn, Deng is the piece of freshman dynamite, a Carmelo come to Cameron, that could push Duke from superb to sublime.

“He’s really special,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski at the team’s media day. “And we’ll give him an opportunity to be outstanding. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean we as coaches and players. He’s already won the confidence of his team. When that happens, you’ve got a really good guy — whether it be a Grant Hill or a [Shane] Battier or an Elton Brand.”

Those are pretty serious plaudits for a freshman from a coach who’s won 664 games and three NCAA titles.

“Coach is excited. We all are,” Randolph said. “You look around at the guys and you realize there is absolutely no ceiling on how good we can be.”

But in spite of loaded rosters and critical raves, history puts long odds on either Duke or Connecticut posting a flawless record.

On the optimistic side, 11 teams have accomplished the feat since the NCAA tournament started in 1939. Starting with Kentucky (25-0) in 1954 — the Wildcats turned down a bid to the NCAA tournament — and concluding with the Hoosiers (32-0) in 1976. And it has been done twice in the same season; UCLA (30-0) and N.C. State (27-0) both turning the trick in 1973. The Wolfpack were on probation and didn’t go to the NCAA tournament.

In terms of conference competition, both the Big East and ACC should be somewhat down this season. UConn’s stiffest regular-season challenges should come in Storrs against Oklahoma (Jan. 11) and at North Carolina (Jan. 17), Notre Dame (Feb. 9), Pittsburgh (Feb. 15) and Syracuse (March 7). And Duke’s schedule includes a brutal, early-season date at No. 3 Michigan State (Dec. 3), but typically daunting trips to Maryland and North Carolina should be somewhat softened by the former’s rebuilding and the latter’s lack of depth.

That said, no team has survived the regular season unscathed since UNLV in 1991. That season, virtually the entire planet penciled in the Runnin’ Rebels as both national champions and the 12th undefeated team in history. But Duke dashed both dreams with a 79-77 upset stunner in the national semifinals, ending UNLV’s 45-game winning streak and its season one game short of perfection (34-1).

“Thinking about that game still gives me a queasy stomach,” former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said recently. “We had a chance to step into history with the all-time greats, and we let it slip away. I’ll never get over the officiating in that game, but we should have never let it come to that. Duke and Connecticut are both loaded this season, but there’s a part of me that thinks if we couldn’t go undefeated with the team we had in ‘91, it just can’t be done anymore.”

Quinn Buckner agrees. A longtime hoops analyst and one of the four All-Americans on Indiana’s 1976 squad, Buckner thinks putting together an undefeated season would be even more difficult now than it was 25 years ago.

“For one thing, there’s so much more pressure and exposure on kids,” Buckner said in a recent telephone interview. “For another, it’s just so hard to get the combination of talent and experience in one place now with more schools in the mix and so many kids leaving school early for the NBA. We started four seniors and a junior in 1976. You just don’t see that now.

“Think about it this way, Okafor is a great talent up at Connecticut, but he’s still a work in progress offensively. And Deng, who everybody expects huge things from at Duke, there’s just no telling how he’ll react as a freshman. That season at Indiana, there was no uncertainty. We were all veterans with well-defined roles and a pretty high degree of polish. And even then there was no guarantee, because we thought we were the best team in the country the year before when we lost to Kentucky [in the regional finals after going undefeated during the regular season].”

The 1975-76 Indiana squad blitzed its way through the NCAA tournament, winning by an average margin of 13.2 points, but the regular season included a handful of close calls, including two overtime games.

“I only remember the overtime game against Michigan,” Buckner said. “We only won that game by accident. We’re down two at the end of regulation and [reserve guard] Jim Crews puts up an errant shot that deflects off [Kent] Benson and goes in. It was the kind of thing that could only happen to Benson — the guy could score points with his eyes closed during a postgame shower. The point is that it takes a ton of luck to go undefeated, no matter how good you are. The great thing about sports is that Connecticut and Duke will get the chance to show us how good they are.”

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