The Shot is part of college basketball’s canon. Basketball fans regardless of age know The Shot from its prominent place during March Madness, both in promos and commercials. Duke and Kentucky fans — at least the ones old enough to do so — remember where they were when it happened. They still remember that bitterest taste of defeat when victory seemed secure and the inconceivable high brought on by the most unlikely of victories. Kentucky fans remember the Christian Laettner stomp from earlier in that game, which, in another universe, meant Kentucky winning while Duke’s star center looked on from the locker room. A couple of decades and a self-deprecating charity performance have somewhat repaired Laettner’s standing with the Big Blue Nation. Somewhat. But there’s still a remarkable tension between two schools that haven’t played in over 10 years, which makes this game more than just two top 10 teams facing off early in the season.
Ironically, the players have far less historical weight attached to the game. No doubt Duke and Kentucky players alike know about The Shot, and some of the fan intensity between the two fan bases probably has worn off on the men who will decide the game. But fans hold onto the past much more than players, most of whom chose their school because they thought it was the best “fit” (because of facilities, coaches, branding or academics). Many players weren’t yet alive to see the storied game, and the ones who were breathing probably weren’t walking.
But this game is huge for Duke. This is a game to prove — both to critics and themselves — that last year was an anomaly and they can handle the task of defending an athletic perimeter. It’s a chance to grab a marquee win that will look very good come Selection Sunday. And it’s a chance to put the Blue Devils on the list of legitimate national title contenders. For Kentucky the stakes are a little lower. The team is already considered a contender — though that’s largely thanks to John Calipari‘s track record with top recruits than anything this group has actually done — and his team is very young. No one expects Kentucky to be at its best this early. Even for Calipari that expectation is unreasonable. But this is still a chance at a statement win.