Posted by Matt Patton (@rise_and_fire) on November 8th, 2013
South Florida Sun-Sentinel: I’m starting to notice a trend with articles written about teams picked to finish in the bottom third of the ACC. Writers and coaches use phrases like “hope to compete” in lieu of buzzwords like “confident” or any mention of the league title. Miami is no different. The most impressive statistic Christy Chirinos drops at the start of this article is that the Hurricanes return one percent of their assists from last season. One percent. That’s insane. Luckily, Manu Lacomte may be the best player on Jim Larranaga’s roster, so assists may be the one area that Miami isn’t in huge trouble.
Syracuse Post-Gazette: Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney have huge shoes to fill on defense. Jim Boeheim called Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams the best defensive backcourt he’s ever had (though Dion Waiters, Triche and Scoop Jardine wreaked all kinds of havoc on the perimeter too). As they lack the length of Carter-Williams and Triche, this might be another reason to hold back on buying too much Syracuse stock before the season gets going in earnest. Perimeter defense was the biggest reason Syracuse made the Final Four last year, so taking a step back on that front will definitely have a big impact.
Baltimore Sun: While it’s true Mark Turgeon‘s team looked like a headless chicken on offense for much of last season, Maryland improved dramatically down the stretch. The team showed flashes of its potential in two big wins against Duke, though inconsistency still shone through. But it’s weird that people think Turgeon can’t coach. His teams at Texas A&M weren’t stacked with talent and most of them overachieved. Last year’s Maryland team lacked a true point guard, which combined with an inside-out approach for a turnover-prone halfcourt offense. This year should be better, though Seth Allen’s injury doesn’t help the Terps’ turnover problems.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Jamie Dixon does a good job explaining the struggles of crafting a schedule here. Interestingly he points out that the 18-game conference schedule gives teams less flexibility with the non-conference schedule. Another tidbit he offers is that it’s much less (directly) lucrative to play a big school on national television at a neutral site. That surprised me a lot. Obviously there are exceptions (for instance, Duke makes far more money on its trip to Madison Square Garden than normal home games because the school promotes the event itself), but Dixon estimated neutral games are only worth $100,000 and home games are worth $500,000 in revenue. That’s a huge per-game difference.
Fayetteville Observer: Bret Strelow writes that Duke‘s athleticism this season will bring back memories of the teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. There’s one thing missing though: great bigs. The national championship teams of those years had Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer, two players with plenty of NCAA success between them. They’re also both really big guys. Amile Jefferson may be taller, but he’s at least 20 pounds lighter. However, if Jefferson can hold down the post without getting in foul trouble, Strelow’s comparisons may look very good.
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
This year’s National Championship game not only features the two winningest programs in college basketball history, but from a more tangible matchup standpoint it also pits the two best players in the country against one another. After Kentucky dispatched of Louisville on Saturday and Kansas survived the physical battle against Ohio State, we now get that rare matchup – Anthony Davis against Thomas Robinson in the National Title game. Why hasn’t this pairing received a flood of media attention? When’s the last time the country’s two National Player of the Year frontrunners faced off in the finals? And will these two interior forces even guard each other during the game? We attempt to answer these questions to prepare you for one of the many great stories to track during tonight’s National Championship.
Thomas Robinson vs. Anthony Davis is the Headline Matchup, but Terrence Jones (Left) Must Check Robinson on Defense (US Presswire)
Think it’s a given that the National Title game produces stud players facing one another? Remember how difficult it is to advance this far in the NCAA Tournament, and history proves how rare the opportunity is. Monday’s game will mark just the fourth time since 1979 that two first team All-Americans face off in the National Championship, and that simply encompasses any of the five best players in any given season. With Davis and Robinson, we are talking about the two leading vote-getters for National Player of the Year; two players that have gone toe-to-toe all season to decide the best and most valuable player in all of college basketball. Magic Johnson (Michigan State) against Larry Bird (Indiana State) in the 1979 National Championship game is the benchmark example of the scenario, and that matchup is still famous as one of the great individual battles in college history. The most recent matchup between All-Americans came in 1999 between Elton Brand (Duke) and Richard Hamilton (Connecticut), which is another good one but certainly does not resonate as strongly as Magic vs. Bird, and Hamilton was not a consensus Player of the Year candidate. It’s still unknown what kind of legacy, if any, Davis vs. Robinson will leave, but both players are forwards that are likely to be drafted in the top five of the upcoming NBA Draft, with Davis a near-lock for the #1 pick. The narrative of comparison between these two players truly begins on Monday night.
For the last ten years, fairly or unfairly, Duke has had the perception of being all backcourt all the time. Long gone are the days where Christian Laettner, Elton Brand or Carlos Boozer graced the court in Durham. In describing his recruitment decision to attend Michigan last week, Mitch McGary let it all out: “all [Duke's] big men do is set screens and rebound and that they don’t get a lot of touches.”
Josh McRoberts' Relative Lack of Success at Duke Still Haunts the Blue Devils
Duke Hoop Bloglooked at this perception, which moves closer to reality as the memory of its last dominant big man, Shelden Williams, fades out of casual fan memory. The author comes to the conclusion that the Williams/Redick era is the answer, and I see his argument. But I don’t think it’s that simple, or even the biggest factor in Duke’s relative decrease in a post presence over the last ten years. I think the real argument is much more complex and is a combination of four main factors:
Even though real, meaningful basketball has started, indulge me for a bit more while we talk about one more meaningless game. Nolan Smith hinted at it on Twitter a couple of weeks ago and it turns out that the rumors are true: There will be a Duke-North Carolina alumni game featuring some of the very best players in each program’s respective histories. To return to one of the more tragic themes of this fall — the sadness of NBA fans is transmuted into joy for college basketball fans. Due to the NBA lockout, this alumni game is expected to include a sizable number of current NBA players. For Duke, last year’s stars in Smith and Kyrie Irving will team up with some of last decade’s stars, namely Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Chris Duhon. For the Tar Heels, the lineup is headlined by a number of stars from the 1990s: Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, and Brendan Haywood.
Duke Stars Together Again?
Notably lacking from either lineup is the presence of many players from the mid-2000s. While Raymond Felton is expected to play for UNC, and Gerald Henderson will suit up for the Blue Devils, some young blood might add a little more spice to the game. Some accounts, notably this one by Duke Basketball Report, suggest J. J. Redick will play, which would certainly be a welcome addition. The most conspicuous missing name, though, is Tyler Hansbrough. In the Kentucky Villains game, Hansbrough showed that he wasn’t absent from the exhibition circuit. That combined with his continued presence in Chapel Hill during the lockout would seem to make him a prime candidate for taking part in this game.
Overview: On a roster full of potential first round draft picks, Marcus Morris established himself as the team’s top player. Although the team did not live up to expectations as it fell in the Elite 8 to a hot VCU team, anybody following Marcus had to consider this year a major step for him individually as he was named Big 12 Player of the Year and 2nd team All-American while averaging 17.2 PPG on 57% FG and 7.6 RPG. In doing so, he exhibited an ability to not only play inside, but also an ability shoot from outside. Although he will never be a major threat from the perimeter (and he is not as good of a shooter as his twin brother Markieff–34.2% versus 42.4%) his shooting has progressed to the point where a NBA team would have to at least respect his outside shot and bring a forward outside to put a hand in his face. The big question for Marcus will be whether he is big enough to battle inside with NBA power forwards or if he will fall into the dreaded “tweener” category. If he does fall into that group he may lack the perimeter skills necessary to compete against NBA small forwards, but he may be able to make up for it because of his “motor” and willingness to battle all over the court.
Marcus has the skills to play in the NBA, but can he battle inside?
Will Translate to the NBA: Marcus will probably end up being one of those versatile all-court power forwards in the NBA, which traditionally has been a warning sign for NBA executives, but in recent years has become in vogue with several solid NBA players adopting such styles. At times Marcus could play at either the 3 or 4 position, which could be a blessing or a curse in that he could fill either position depending on the situation, but it could also expose him to mismatches in certain situations. He probably will never be a superstar and might not even become a perennial All-Star, but he should be a solid rotation player even if his physical limitations (height and explosiveness) limit his ability to become a major impact player.
Yesterday, the Los Angeles Athletic Club announced its preseason list of the 50 candidates for the Wooden Award. Among those listed are names of players with whom we are all familiar, like Kyle Singler, Kalin Lucas, and Robbie Hummel, but there are also many lesser-known but still talented players like Nikola Vucevic and Kawhi Leonard (feel free to yell “East Coast bias!” in the comments). Even though this is one of about a thousand Player of the Year awards it holds a special place for most college basketball aficionados because of its namesake, the late John Wooden, and especially the year after his death. Established in 1976, The Wooden Award has been awarded to an individual after a 26-member panel — I’m sure our invite is lost in the snail mail or got caught in a spam filter — narrows down the list of candidates down to 20 players and then lets 1,000 voters (seriously, where’s our invite?) pick the ten All-Americans and the Player of the Year (last year Evan Turnertook home the hardware). Looking back through past winners provides you with a veritable “Who’s Who” of college basketball in the past quarter century and includes luminaries like Phil Ford, Larry Bird, Ralph Sampson (twice), Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Danny Manning, Larry Johnson, Christian Laettner, Tim Duncan, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Jameer Nelson, Kevin Durant, and Tyler Hansbrough.
2010 Wooden Award Winner
One of the big caveats for the early season list is that it does not include freshman or transfers. Now, the latter usually do not factor into these awards with the exception of Larry Johnson and Wesley Johnson, who picked up a few votes last year, but the former (like Durant and Michael Beasley) are beginning to play a growing role in this and other awards. We do have a few issues with the list, which you will see more of over the next few weeks as we unveil our “Impact Players” by region. For today we will just focus on our favorites and some notable freshman who were left off the list, but we expect to be in the running for the actual award later this season. We will leave off the non-freshman omissions because frankly we do not expect any of them to factor into the final ballots.
An interesting question came up among the Twitterati over the weekend when it was learned that Rivals #8 (and rising) recruit in the Class of 2011, Anthony Davis, had formally committed to Kentucky. Davis’ commitment marks the third top ten recruit in that class to have committed to John Calipari’s Wildcats, and the seventh in the 2009-11 recruiting cycles, a ridiculous feat.
John Wall (#2, 2009)
DeMarcus Cousins (#3 , 2009)
Brandon Knight (#4, 2010)
Enes Kanter (#7, 2010)
Michael Gilchrist (#1, 2011)
Marquis Teague (#5, 2011)
Anthony Davis (#8, 2011)
Throw in a few other high-level recruits such as Daniel Orton (#19, 2009), Eric Bledsoe (#52, 2009), Terrence Jones (#11, 2010), Doron Lamb (#26, 2010), and an unnamed superstar or two to be named later (Quincy Miller? LeBryan Nash?), and suddenly there is a realization that we could be in the midst of the single greatest run of recruiting prowess since the Wizard of Westwood had every blue-chipper from coast to coast lining up to play for him.
Calipari Continues to Rack Up Blue-Chippers (LHL/M. Cornelison)
But notice what is not mentioned — Kentucky tradition, the facilities at UK, playing in front of 24,000 every game, being on TV all the time — none of these things are mentioned. Recruiting has changed. Calipari has taken the NBA one-and-done rule and used it like the Pied Piper, tempting players to Kentucky not with cash to families or under-the-table deals, but with a short path to all the riches they desire.
Whether you believe the last sentence or not, the truth remains that players are beelining for Lexington, which brings us to the point of this article. We have to dig pretty deep in our memory banks to remember a recruiting run that even begins to approach this concentration of elite talent. Granted, there’s a bit of an apples/oranges confounder here — much of the reason that Calipari can load up on talent every single year is because there’s a reasonable expectation that the previous year’s competition for minutes will be gone (see: Wall begets Knight begets Teague, for example). Still, we’ve come up with one strong comparison in the modern era (we hope you add your own in the comments below): Duke 1997-99. As a brief aside, UNC from 1990-93, Michigan from 1991-94 and Duke from 1999-2002 were also very strong periods of recruiting at those schools, but over four recruiting cycles rather than three.
Duke 1997-99 (recruited by Mike Krzyzewski)
Elton Brand (#1, 1997)
Chris Burgess (#7, 1997)
Shane Battier (#8, 1997)
William Avery (#14, 1997)
Corey Maggette (#16, 1998)
Jason Williams (#3, 1999)
Carlos Boozer (#8, 1999)
Casey Sanders (#16, 1999)
Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (#26, 1999)
The recruiting rankings alone are nasty, but when you consider the actual accomplishments of this group, it takes on a whole new meaning. Six lottery picks, three NPOYs, two title game appearances and a national championship (2001). In two of the years where they didn’t cut the nets down, (1999 and 2002), Duke was the prohibitive favorite to win the title (finishing #1 in the final AP poll every year from 1999-2002) in large part because they had more talent than anybody else. They actually won it all in 2001, but we’re still trying to figure out how Jim Calhoun’s vastly underrated (but also undermanned) Huskies were able to slay the Duke dragon in 1999 (oh, right, Trajan Langdon). It was an amazing run of talent acquisition, and we haven’t seen anything like it for at least a decade.
Duke Had Three NPOYs in Four Seasons (SI)
Therein lies the rub. With boatloads of talent comes expectations, and winning the press conference is great for tone-setting, but getting to and winning Final Fours is what matters most in Lexington. Again, the Duke era was different in that with the exception of Corey Maggette in 1999, Coach K did not lose any players as 1-and-dones; but that won’t deter the vultures from ripping Calipari if he continues to sign elite talent without bringing back the accompanying hardware to support it. The biggest case in point of this thinking is how Michigan’s Fab Five class of 1991 is often considered a failure for merely going to two straight NCAA championship games and losing. It remains to be seen how this era of Kentucky basketball will play out (so far, one Elite Eight appearance), but we already know that the level of recruiting enjoyed by Calipari in his first three classes there rivals anything experienced in the modern era. Coach K’s classes from 1997-99 set the bar very high — it’s now up to the individual players — from Knight/Kanter/Jones to Gilchrist/Teague/Davis — to match or exceed their accomplishments.
Ed. Note: Check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.
As we mentioned in our earlier “Team of the 2000s” posts, we felt that the top-tier programs fell into a few clear clusters. There was some debate amongst the RTC braintrust about where certain teams fell within those clusters so we can understand if you disagree with where a team is ranked (that’s what the comment section is for). Teams in the top five either have made it to every NCAA tournament this decade (a sign of at least being respectable every season) or have a 2nd championship to bolster their case.
#4 – Duke
Overview. This will be the most controversial selection on the list because it is Duke. Love them or hate them (and I’m pretty sure that most college basketball fans hate them), the Blue Devils remain the standard that other programs are judged against. That is not to say that they are the best program of the decade (there are still three teams ahead of them), but much like the New York Yankees, who are experiencing a similar title “drought,” every fanbase judges their success against what the guys in Durham are doing. To be completely honest, I ranked Duke lower than any of the other voters, but in the end their consistency (particularly during the regular season) won out and put them ahead of some of the other elite programs. The case for Duke being ranked above the teams below it in our countdown: 82.6% (regular season winning percentage–Gonzaga is the only other team to crack 80% and they don’t play in the ACC); 7 post-season and 4 regular season ACC titles (just an absurd number when you are competing against UNC although UNC’s inconsistency helped inflate this); 10 NCAA tournament trips (look at the above summary to see how often many excellent programs have missed the NCAA tournament this decade); 8 Sweet 16 appearances (maybe Duke hasn’t been that successful during the 2nd weekend, but they have gotten there more than anybody else); and 1 national title (more on this in a bit). The case against the Blue Devils? I alluded to it earlier, as Coach K’s teams have struggled mightily in the NCAA second weekend making it to the Final 4 “just” two out of the eight times they made it to the Sweet 16. In addition, Duke’s absence of a 2nd title prevents it from claiming a spot in the top 3. Out of the team’s below it, Tom Izzo‘s Michigan StateSpartans have the best argument, but Duke’s vastly superior winning percentage (82.6% vs. 72.1%) and huge edge in conference titles combined with playing in a better conference (the ACC may be down, but you never see an abomination like this come out of the ACC) and NCAA-best 8 trips to the Sweet 16 (versus 6 for the Spartans) are just enough to make up for Michigan State’s edge in Final 4 appearances (4-2 although both teams were only able to seal the deal once).
Pinnacle. As it is with any team that won a single title this decade, the choice here is simple: the 2001 title. After coming up just short with one of the most talented teams in recent history in 1999, Coach K reloaded with a class featuring Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Carlos Boozer. Although not quite as dominant as the group that left just before they came in (Elton Brand, William Avery, and Corey Maggette – I know he was a year after the other two, but I wasn’t going to include Chris Burgess in there), the former was able to do something the latter failed to do – win a title. Together with Shane Battier, who led the Blue Devils emotionally and in taking flops, this group made it to the Sweet 16 in 2000 before being upset by Florida. The following year the Blue Devils were able to give Coach K his 3rd title, but not before surviving three marginally tough games (vs. USC in the Elite 8, vs. Maryland in the national semifinals, and vs. Arizona in the championship game) to claim the title. The defining moment of that title game was Dunleavy Jr.’s 3-point barrage (three 3-pointers during an 11-2 run) that re-established Duke’s control of the game. One thing that will stick with Blue Devil fans forever though is their four games against Maryland, which were some of the best college basketball games you will ever see, the most memorable being the 10-point comeback in the last minute at College Park (although we are willing to debate with someone who argues that the 22-point comeback in the national semifinals might be better).
[Warning: Maryland fans may want to avoid this video.]
Tailspin. Other than the two UNC titles? The 2006-07 season. A rather mediocre Duke team went 22-11 in a season that included two separate four-game losing streaks. The latter of those losing streaks came to finish the season with the final insult coming courtesy of Eric Maynor and VCU. Much has been made on this site and others about the lack of elite talent in Durham lately, but fielding a team whose four best players were DeMarcus Nelson (junior), Josh McRoberts (sophomore), Greg Paulus (sophomore), and Jon Scheyer (freshman)… you are in big trouble. The primary explanation for this was that outside of Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick, the Blue Devils had a long string of McDonald’s All-American busts from 2002 on, with Shavlik Randolph, who left prior to that, being the most famous example.
Outlook for the 2010s: Grade: B+. Duke is still Duke and can land 5-star recruits, but it’s not like it was at the end of the last decade when Duke had its choice of McDonald’s All-Americans. Back then, one of the big controversies was if Coach K made the right choice taking Mike Dunleavy Jr. instead of Casey Jacobsen (for the younger generation of readers trust us when we say they were both actually very good college basketball players). Now it is a big deal when Duke lands the #3 shooting guard in next year’s class instead of John Wall. Duke will still be able to get a couple of top-notch recruits every year because of their tradition (it goes back to before Coach K, youngsters), Notre Dame-like TV deal with ESPN, Coach K’s stature, and the fact that it’s one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country (mothers like to brag about the Duke degree even if it is for the infamous Sociology major). However, the Blue Devils have fallen a notch below UNC in the hearts and minds of elite recruits and that will only get worse when Coach K retires (gasp!) as their is no clear successor in line for his throne.
We’ll be doing a full BGtD today so you won’t have any interruptions in coverage tonight. Honestly, last night’s games were kind of disappointing. Pittsburgh-Xavier was entertaining, but that was the only game that I would say was memorable from a pure basketball standpoint. Now the other games did have their own interesting subplots. UConn rolled over Purdue in a game that was close at points in the 2nd half, but I never really got the sense that the Huskies were in any danger of losing. I was particularly impressed with how the Huskies played despite the media circus that is going on around them. Missouri‘s victory over Memphis was entertaining although for me it was marred a little by the atrocious free throw shooting. As we mentioned last night, I really wonder what John Calipari does, if he does anything, for his team’s free throw shooting. At this point, I’m convinced J.J. Redick would have shot 70% from the free throw line if he had gone to Memphis. Also, what happened to vaunted Memphis defense. Missouri has a good offense, but they shouldn’t be able to hit triple digits in regulation against a team that went into the game with the #1 defense according to the Pomeroy numbers. I’m sure some of you took great pleasure in watching Villanova pick apart Duke leading to another early March exit for Coach K, but the game wasn’t exactly exciting if you didn’t have a rooting interest for (or in most people’s case against) a team.
The line-up for tonight should give us a couple of interesting games:
7:07 PM: #12 Arizona vs. #1 Louisville
7:27 PM: #3 Syracuse vs. #2 Oklahoma
9:37 PM: #3 Kansas vs. #2 Michigan State
9:57 PM: #4 Gonzaga vs. #1 UNC
We’ll be back around 7 for the start of tonight’s action. Leave your comments/questions and we’ll respond to them as soon as we start.
7:10 PM: Chase Budinger makes a great play to temper Louisville’s great start. He’s going to need to have a great game tonight. If both teams use the press tonight, we’re going to get a blowout (and I think it will end up going in Louisville’s favor).
7:12 PM: I should warn you that I’m a big Chase Budinger fan so you’ve been warned. I haven’t seen a lot of him this year (stupid west coast starts), but I think he has the makings of a very solid NBA player.
7:14 PM: That’s not a good stat for Arizona. Only 6 Wildcats have scored in the NCAA tournament.
7:19 PM: Great play by Edgar Sosa feeding it to Preston Knowles. This pressure is going to kill Arizona if they only go 6 deep.
7:28 PM: I don’t think it will matter tonight, but I hope you paid attention to that FT statistic. Louisville shoots 63.8% as a team (307th out of 334 teams). That will come back to bite them. Just ask John Calipari. Actually he probably wouldn’t admit it because his team was just as bad last night. . .
7:30 PM: I think that any Blue Devil who mentions that they made the 1994 title game should put an asterisk by it on their resume saying that they rode Grant Hill‘s coattails there. If you don’t agree with me, see what happened the next year even if Coach K missed the last 2/3 of the season.
7:31 PM: It looks dead in Memphis. What do you guys think? I’m guessing it’s only 20% full. UNC fans must have bought up most of the stadium.
RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory, something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today. Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month. We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
An NCAA victory over Duke tastes a little sweeter, and a loss to the Devils hurts a little more. Nobody gets passions as high as Coach K’s Dookies, and we received two submissions that perfectly illustrate that range of emotions.
“Just when people say you can’t, UCan. And UConn has won the national championship.” – Jim Nantz
I’ll never forget those words. It was just three days before my 14th birthday. Growing up in Connecticut, we never really had a pro sports team, so we latched on to Jim Calhoun‘s UConn Huskies. Despite being a team of national relevance for a number of years, Calhoun had never gotten his team to the Final Four. He finally broke through in 1999, barely hanging on against 10 seed Gonzaga in the Elite 8 before beating Ohio State for what many thought to be the right to lose to a talented Duke squad in the Finals.
Duke came in riding a 32-game winning streak (their only loss was the Cincinnati in the Great Alaska Shootout, don’t ask me why I know such things) with a roster loaded with NBA draft picks – William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Shane Battier, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette.
But the Huskies hung with Duke the whole game, trailing by just two at the half, thanks in large part to 13 points from defensive specialist Ricky Moore. The second half became the Rip Hamilton Show, as the junior with the silky smooth jumper finished his last collegiate game with 27 points.
The game ended in unbelievable fashion. With UConn up 75-74, everyone’s favorite pudge-ball Khalid El-Amin drove baseline and threw up an airball, which Trajan Langdan collected with around 15 seconds left. He brought the ball up court and tried to go one-on-one against Moore. Moore forced him into a travel. El-Amin would rattle home two free throws, setting up the finish. Langdon would once again take the inbounds and dribble into a double team before turning the ball over.
And that was it. So what is my memory?
Seeing Khalid El-Amin screaming “WE SHOCKED THE WORLD” before jumping into Jake Voskuhl’s arms.
Verne Lundquist Just Had an Aneurysm (submitted by Patrick Marshall of Bluejay Basketball)
Being a big Kentucky fan most of my life, no one can forget the 1992 East Regional Final of Kentucky vs. Duke. The game was spectacular but what made the Kentucky team so special were the players that were affectionately known as “The Unforgettables.” Kentucky’s basketball program had been dragged through the mud four years before in a major scandal involving academic fraud and improper payments to recruits. However, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods chose to stay with the program and as seniors in their first eligible appearance, they made a surprising run in the NCAA tournament that year to the regional finals against Duke. The three-point shot has been one of the most exciting innovations in college basketball and the Cats’ love of the three-point shot is what established my love for these Wildcats. As the Wildcats drove deeper into March, I just had to watch that game.
Back in the day I had this black and white portable tv and I remember taking it to high school musical practice so I could still watch the game while we had rehearsal. I seem to remember that Kentucky was down somewhat big (12 pts), but some key threes got them back into the game and eventually sent the game into overtime. As they battled in overtime it was down to what appeared to be one play. Sean Woods drove to the basket and made an awkward bank-shot with 2.1 seconds left. I was jumping around the room like mad and thought there was no way Duke would be able to get off a good shot – Kentucky has made it back to the Final Four. However, it was not to be. Duke inbounded the ball length of the court and Christian Laettner hit the storied shot that is now shown every year at tournament time. Laettner finished his 10-10 shooting and 31 point night with a storybook ending as Duke went on the next week to gain back-to-back NCAA championships. I just said to myself over and over, “How did John Pelphrey not react fast enough to stop a 2/3 court pass to Laettner at the free throw line. Not only that, but he just stood there and watched him shoot it.” Oh, I so hate Duke and oh what could have been.
The game had all the drama you could ask for with the lead changing five times in the final 31 seconds of the game and both teams combining to shoot 63% in the second half and overtime. But that final shot is what is the most recognizable and memorable part of that game. This season Kentucky fans not only have to watch the shot again, but have to re-live the whole drama and feel the punch in the stomach again with a new commercial including Laettner and now turncoat Rick Pitino. But in the end, this game is considered by many to be the greatest college basketball game of all time. I know I will never forget it.
Yeah, like most everyone else, we’re equally in awe of what Carolina has been able to do thus far in the season. We are on record saying that the Heels wouldn’t be able to get through a pretty tough first month of the season without taking an L due to the loss of Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Hansbrough to injuries, and we couldn’t have been more wrong. The Heels have been nothing short of awesome through the first quarter of the regular season, beating eight opponents (two of which were in the preseason top 10) by an average of 30.4 points per game.
Their offensive and defensive stats are through the roof thus far. They average nearly 100 pts per game (97.0), shooting 51% from the field and 41% from three. They are #2 nationally in points per possession (1.207) and percentage of trips where they score at least a point (59.7%). They share the ball amazingly well (#2 nationally in assists – 21.7) and have a preposterous nearly 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (1.87). The Heels also rebound with the best of the country (#8 nationally) and play defense with abandon (holding opponents to 37.3% shooting and forcing 19 turnovers per game – 14th nationally). Put simply, this team is playing GREAT basketball.
The Heels are Posterizing Everyone in Their Path
photo credit: Jim Hawkins/AP
So the question is begged – why do we need to finish out the season if we know that Carolina is far-and-away the best team? Well… because it’s still early. December 5th is a light year away from April 6th in college basketball time, and a lot can and will happen in the interim. Other teams will improve, and UNC, while looking indomitable at this point, could eventually suffer from the fatigue of increasing pressure to win every game and/or simply a rough night in March. That’s the beauty of our game. Short of a major injury, we can rest assured that the Lakers and Celtics will more than likely be back in the NBA Finals due to the sport’s seven-game series playoff format. But in a one-game situation in the NCAA Tournament, much like the World Cup and NFL Playoffs, an inspired underdog can accomplish the unthinkable and take down the seemingly unbeatable favorite (witness last year’s Super Bowl for just such a recent example).
For proof of this, let’s take a walk down memory lane for a brief history lesson. Below are a handful of teams who, like this year’s Tarheels, were seemingly invincible for the entire season. That is, until they ran into a plucky team who had enough heart and made just enough plays in the right moments to block the favorite’s manifest destiny.
1984 UNC (28-3, 15-1 ACC) - We can start with a former version of the Heels. Bob Knight’s Indiana team shot 65% from the field (69% in the second half) to take down Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins’ Heels in the second round of the NCAAs. To this day, old-time Heels fans lament an injury to Kenny Smith’s wrist that limited his effectiveness in the postseason. UNC had only a 1-pt loss at Arkansas and a 2-pt loss to Duke in the ACC Tourney prior to the NCAAs. Of the 28 victories, only four were by single-digit margins. This team was nasty.
1985 Georgetown (35-3, 17-2 Big East) – We still can’t fathom how this absolute beast of a defending national champion with Patrick Ewing and Reggie Williams lost to Villanova in the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Still, they did, as Villanova hit a ridiculous 79% from the field against a defensive dynamo that regularly held teams well under 40%.
1987 UNC (32-4, 16-1 ACC) - UNC, led by all-american Kenny Smith and super-frosh JR Reid, lost in the regional finals to Syracuse by 4 pts, in a game where Derrick Coleman and Rony Seikaly destroyed the Heels on the boards to eke out the victory. Their only other losses were at UCLA (5 pts), at Notre Dame (2 pts) and in the finals of the ACC Tourney vs. NC State (1 pt). While not as dominant as the 1984 version, this team was everyone’s choice to win the national title.
1991 UNLV (34-1, 20-0 Big West) - The best team we’ve ever seen that didn’t win the national title. Simply an astonishing combination of talent and experience on the cusp of the early-entry era. Duke, who had lost by 30 in the NCAA Final to this same team one year prior, became Duke on this night – roaring back behind Mr. March, Christian Laettner, to win the game in the final minutes 79-77. UNLV, who placed all five starters on the all-Big West team (four 1st teamers), had beaten its opponents by an average of 27.5 pts per game coming into the national semis, including a whipping of #2 Arkansas at the old Barnhill Arena by a score of 112-105 (the final was much closer than the game actually was).
1997 Kansas (34-2, 18-1 Big 12) – We still contend that this was Roy Williams’ best team (even better than the 2005 UNC national champions). A two-pt double-OT loss at Missouri was the only blemish on a near-perfect season until upstart and eventual national champion Arizona, led by Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, pulled off an 85-82 upset in the regional semifinals of the NCAAs. Raef Lafrentz, Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn led a balanced attack that absolutely devastated most of its oppenents, many of whom were ranked (9-1).
1999 Duke (37-2, 19-0 ACC) – With the possible exception of 2006 UConn (who we find overrated), this was the last college team that was absolutely loaded with A-grade NBA talent. The lineup featured two NPOYs (Elton Brand, Shane Battier) in addition to draftees Will Avery, Trajan Langdon and Chris Carrawell. Future all-star Corey Maggette came off the bench. Only four teams all season were able to stay within 10 pts of the Devils, who crushed teams by an average of 24.6 points per game. Had this team won the title game against UConn, it would have been on the short list of greatest teams in the modern era.
2002 Duke (31-4, 16-3 ACC) - This team didn’t have the outrageous statistical profile of its predecessor three years prior, but it was the defending national champs and boasted Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer in a balanced attack that seemed destined for back-to-back titles. That is, until this team’s only bugaboo, FT shooting (68.9%) popped up to bite them in the Sweet 16 against Indiana. Two one-pt losses, a three-pt loss and a 14-pt loss to national champion Maryland were the only blemishes on this team’s resume.
So there you have it. Our memories don’t go back further than the 80s, but we’re sure there are probably some other great historical examples of this phenomenon. Leave them in the comments if you wish. Of course, there are just as many (if not more) dominant teams that actually got it done and won the national title – which one will the 2008-09 Tarheels become? To answer that question is why we will continue to watch.
With the news Wednesday that Duke whiffed on PF Patrick Patterson (who opted for Kentucky over Duke and Florida), combined with yesterday’s news that Roy Williams has extended his contract with UNC through the 2014-15 season, we started to wonder if we’re seeing an unusual blip in Durham, or if last season and the presumed immediate future signal a larger problem there.
The last time Duke had such a blip was in the mid-90s. In 1995, with Coach K’s back hurting and Pete Gaudet at the helm for two-thirds of the season, Duke went 13-18 (2-14) and did not make the NCAA Tournament. There has been considerable harping over the years about whose record (K’s or Gaudet’s) all those losses should fall on, but at the time, it wasn’t a leap to see that even when Duke was 9-3 in early January 1995, a team led by the likes of Cherokee Parks and Jeff Capel (as opposed to Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley or Christian Laettner) was flawed. This was especially true in light of a stacked ACC that season (Each of Duncan, Wallace, Stackhouse, Childress and Joe Smith were all-americans in 1995).
The next season, when K was back on the bench, shows just how far the talent level at Duke had fallen. The 1995-96 team only performed five games better than its predecessor, going 18-13 (8-8) and losing both its first round ACC Tourney game and its first round NCAA game (by 15 pts) to… Eastern Michigan? The following year, 1996-97, Duke only got marginally back on track. The Devils finished with a 24-9 (12-4) record and won the ACC regular season, but they flamed out early again in the postseason, inexplicably losing to #8 seed NC State in the quarters of the ACC Tourney and barely scraping by Murray St. in the first round before losing to #10 seed Providence (by 11 pts) in the second round of the NCAAs. Does this sound familiar at all? It should, as Duke just finished its 2006-07 campaign with a 22-11 (8-8) record, culminating in a first round ACC Tourney loss and a first round NCAA loss to… VCU.
Is there cause for concern among Devil faithful, or is last year’s mediocre regular season and short-lived postseason just an anomaly?