- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

The overtime loss to Maryland is incidental to Duke today, assuming the NCAA tournament trumps day-old news.

It is always about Duke in this part of March, with the bracket and top seeds in mind.

If Duke is flawed — and it is — the rest of the leading entrants beg a certain leeriness as well.

Saint Joseph’s? Kentucky? Stanford?

A case could be made for each in this parity-filled season, exemplified by Saint Joseph’s, the No.1 team that was fitted with a 20-point beating in the Atlantic 10.

Saint Joseph’s is a fun development, as fun is defined in March, but it also is a beneficiary of all the college-age talent in the NBA.

Looking down to the No.2 seeds, Connecticut is left to monitor the back spasms of Emeka Okafor, which is a tenuous place to be.

To the national champion goes one game fashioned around a good dose of luck, as necessitated in a single-elimination affair.

Duke is the safe bet, the brand name as ubiquitous as Coke and McDonald’s, just not nearly as lovable.

The perfect coach of the nearly perfect program is subjected to the predictable backlash inspired by seeming perfection.

Coach K’s Blue Devils are the Yankees of college basketball, although not nearly as arrogant as George Steinbrenner’s enterprise, but arrogant just the same.

Perception is a big part of it, accurate or not.

Duke is seen as acting a little better than everyone else.

Even the Cameron Crazies think their taunts are a little more inventive than the opposition’s.

Duke is the exception to the notion that everybody loves a winner.

Perhaps the contempt from a distance is a class warfare thing. Perhaps it is the Pollyanna element of Duke, which has been so good for so long and without the slightest hint of scandal.

Duke’s players go to class. Some even excel in the classroom.

Shane Battier for president? Maybe one of these decades.

The Duke today is personified by the smugness of J.J. Redick, the Roanoke product who has embraced the elitist tradition of Durham, N.C. Redick even annoys the little old ladies in the stands.

J.J. is hardly the best player on the team, only the most feared because of a shooting range that extends to the street. He has that smile. You want to wipe it from his face, pronto. You want to let him know that his world intrudes on yours. Go away, J.J.

“It just seems like everybody’s directing a lot of chants at me,” he said after one ear-ringing session.

J.J. can’t seem to take a hint, so the chants tumble forth.

Remove that haughty air or hear the consequences.

J.J. is the best shooter there is in college basketball, arguably the best since Chris Mullin, despite his flash of being human against the Terps. He runs off screens. He floats to the openings on the floor. He does not need a lot of time or space to release his shot. Once the ball is aloft, that is your problem.

Don’t send him to the free throw line, either. He is as close to automatic as it gets.

J.J. is Jonathan Clay, another basketball blueblood in the Duke stable, the current inspiration of the I Hate Duke faction that still hates Christian Laettner.

The faction expands each March, with each new pronouncement from Dick Vitale, who could spend 10 minutes gushing over the Duke manager.

Vitale goes to bed each night dreaming up new ways to fawn in behalf of Duke. He means well. He probably could find something nice to say about the ex-coach at Baylor.

The Duke today is above something so trivial as a loss to the Terps, who are entitled to feel vindicated after being sent to be with the dead.

Thanks to ESPN, the Blue Devils are more well-known than the average working stiff in the NBA.

Whatever happened to Laettner anyway? Last anyone saw him, he looked like an extra in the “The Passion of the Christ.”

Chris Duhon seemingly has been the point guard of the team since Laettner hit the shot that beat Kentucky. In fact, wasn’t it Duhon who made the pass to Laettner?

Just to let you know, an experienced point guard is essential in the tournament.

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