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Al Featherston On Being At The Top!

Its tough being No. 1.

Duke found that out last week when the Blue Devils traveled to Indiana. The Hoosier fans treated Duke’s visit like a championship game instead of the fairly meaningless early December matchup that it was. They held a pep rally before the game and turned Assembly Hall into a northern version of Cameron.

You have to understand the atmosphere in Bloomington that night to appreciate what a good win that really was.

Of course, the number one team is a target for every opponent. It’s a cliché to suggest that the No. 1 team gets everybody’s best shot, but it’s a cliché because it’s true.

However, there’s more to it than merely this week’s poll rank.

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I found that out in 1986, not long after No. 1 North Carolina knocked off No. 3 Duke in the first game ever played in the Dean E. Smith Center. Two weeks later, the No. 1 Tar Heels took a 21-0 record to Charlottesville for a game against unranked, but dangerous Virginia. I’ve made the trip to University Hall many times over the years, but I’ve never seen it more electric than that late January night in 1986. It was much like Cameron at its best as the fired-up crowd spurred the Cavs to an upset of the top-ranked Tar Heels.

Now, here’s the interesting part. Exactly one week later, I returned to University Hall to watch Virginia take on a Duke team that was about to assume the No. 1 national ranking. But the atmosphere in U-Hall was nothing like it had been a week earlier. Oh, it was sold out and the crowd was loud, but something was missing ... some element of passion or hysteria that had produced the earlier upset.

I can’t define exactly how much the difference in atmosphere was worth to that Virginia team in the two games. But I know in my heart that North Carolina had a much, MUCH tougher time in Charlottesville than Duke that season.

I believe that was the case throughout the 1980s as Coach Mike Krzyzewski began his rise to prominence. True, opponents wanted to beat Duke and played hard against the Blue Devils, but in that decade, North Carolina – Dean Smith’s Evil Empire – was the team that got everybody’s juices flowing. In hindsight, you have to respect the success he had during that era, especially in the ACC. North Carolina never had an easy night – or to use the apt cliché, they got everybody’s best shot.

The first season I saw that change was in 1993 – the season after Duke’s back-to-back national titles. And just as back-to-back trips to Charlottesville in 1986 defined the UNC-centric view of the ACC in that season, it was back-to-back trips to Tallahassee in 1993 that defined the new Duke-centric universe.

Duke traveled to Florida State late in January with a 13-2 record and a No. 6 national ranking. The ugly Leon County Civic Center was packed for a change and the crowd was as loud and as animated as I’ve ever seen it at that football school. Spurred by the crowd, FSU pulled out a dramatic overtime victory on an improbable 3-pointer by Byron Wells. A month later, No. 3 North Carolina went to Tallahassee and in front of a typical LCCC crowd – meaning largely listless and distracted – pulled away for a 10-point win.

Again, I don’t know how many points the difference in crowd and atmosphere was worth to the Seminoles in the two games, but I know that Duke faced a much, MUCH tougher opponent in Tallahassee that season. Indeed, Barry Jacobs notes in his book about the 1993 season (“Three Paths to Glory”) how the ACC schedule that year seemed to help the Tar Heels time and time again by giving them an opponent that had just faced the Blue Devils. For instance, early in January, Georgia Tech upset Duke 80-79 in Alexander in what Bobby Cremins called the most emotional game ever played in the Thrillerdome. Three days later, the Yellow Jackets played a listless and uninspired game against the Tar Heels.

No complaints – that’s the way it worked. But that season was a good indication of the changing psychology of the ACC. Mike Krzyzewski’s burgeoning Duke program was becoming the target of ACC rivals. That’s not to say that opponents didn’t get up for UNC – or N.C. State or Maryland or Virginia – just that Duke began to consistently face more inspired, more focused opposition than its ACC rivals.

The phenomena became more pronounced after Dean Smith’s retirement and the ensuing (brief) decline of the Carolina program. As Duke began to dominate the ACC as no team had ever done before (54-3 against ACC competition between 1998 and 2000), the Blue Devils became the ACC’s new Evil Empire. For the first time the ABD (Anybody But Duke) crowd began to outnumber and out-shout the legion of ABC fans. Duke’s success has been so sustained that an entire generation of fans has grown up not remembering a time when Duke wasn’t the ACC’s powerhouse (or they remember just the brief blip in K’s reign in 1995-96).

Again, I can’t define exactly how many points Duke’s status costs the Blue Devils in any game. Obviously, it varies – just as it varies for every other ACC school, depending on timing and circumstances. But while I can’t prove it or precisely define it, I believe it’s obvious that over the course of the season, Duke faces a tougher schedule than anybody else playing the exact same schools. In short, the Blue Devils get everybody’s best shot.

It’s the price of greatness.


If there’s any doubt about Duke’s current status in the college basketball world, visit a Kentucky message board sometime.

It’s astonishing to see the obsession and jealousy of a fan base that supports the most successful college basketball program of all time. Just over the last 10 days, I’ve noticed the following threads at The Cats’ Pause, probably the most popular Kentucky site:

-- “I hate Dook in nine different languages”

-- “How does Dook, a team with no bench, keep winning?”

-- “Was the 98 game suitable payback for 92?”

-- “Duke televised AGAIN on ESPN!!!!!” (the five exclamation marks are correct)

-- “Duke has 20 games televised on ESPN this year” (apparently a response to the previous thread)

-- “Most hated player in college basketball” (not strictly a Duke thread, since one poster did nominate a South Carolina player, but you can guess which player with the initials J.J. was most often mentioned).

-- “This board would shred to pieces again if we ever play Duke again”

That’s just a sampling of many Duke threads, which apparently led to this thread:

-- “Is this a Dook forum?”

Wow! How did it come to the point that the fans of the winningest program in college basketball history would be that obsessed with a rival that they rarely play?

It would be easy to point to the bitter 1992 NCAA East Regional game, which certainly still rankles the Kentucky faithful. In the Wildcat lexicon, Christian Laettner’s “stomp” of Aminu Timberlake is a crime on a par with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby – or at least Yoko Ono’s role in the breakup of the Beatles. Strangely, nobody in Lexington ever seems to remember Krzyzewski’s classy behavior after the game, when he took time out from the Duke celebration to visit the Kentucky radio crew and honor the legendary broadcaster Cawood Ledford at his last game and to console the Kentucky listeners with his praise for the courage of the team he had just beaten.

But the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game was just one landmark in a rich and relatively balanced series – Kentucky fans could point their victory in the 1966 NCAA semifinals, the 1978 title game or the
1998 Regional title game in St. Pete. Duke fans could boast of their triumph in Lexington in the 1980 Sweet 16 or that memorable ’92 overtime game. Kentucky still leads the overall series by an 11-8 margin.

The truth is that Kentucky’s obsession with Duke has nothing to do with one game or one thoughtless act by a Blue Devil player. It’s about the challenge Krzyzewski is mounting to Kentucky’s status as America’s top basketball program. All of those message board threads about ESPN and that network’s love affair with Duke point to their fear that the main source of sports news in the United States acts like Duke – and not Kentucky – is the nation’s premier basketball program.

And they are right to be scared.

The identity of “the nation’s premier basketball program” obviously is open to debate. And reasonable people can disagree on the answer to that debate, depending on how one defines the argument.

I would suggest that if you look at the entire span of college basketball history, Kentucky claims the top spot without a serious challenge. Oh, UCLA has won more championships, but 10 of the Bruins’ 11 titles came in a 12-year span under John Wooden. Kentucky’s seven NCAA titles are second on the list and they came spread out over a 52-year span (from 1947 to 1998) and were compiled by four different coaches – Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith.

The Wildcats have more wins than any program in basketball history and boast the nation’s most passionate fan base. Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana and Duke clearly deserve a spot in the upper echelon of all-time programs, but just as clearly, they deserve a spot somewhere behind Kentucky.

But what happens when you change the time frame a little bit and only consider more recent events? A UConn fan would want to look at the last seven years, when Jim Calhoun’s Huskies are the only program that has won two national titles. A Michigan State fan would also like that seven-year window, since Tom Izzo’s Spartans have four Final Fours in that span – more than any other program. Kansas might argue for the last 10 years, when the Jayhawks have more overall victories than any other program.

Most of the top schools can pick an arbitrary time frame to define their claim to greatness. In the great Kentucky vs. Duke debate, Wildcat fans usually start at 1995 – since then, they have two titles to Duke’s one; three Final Fours, same as Duke; and nine Sweet 16s to Duke’s eight.

Of course, that draws a line just behind Duke’s run of seven Final Fours in nine years between 1986 and 1994 – in an era when Kentucky had little NCAA success (just a single Final Four in 1993). It also ignores Duke’s two national titles in 1991 and 1992.

My point is that anybody can draw an arbitrary line anywhere they want to make their own argument look good. In Duke’s case, you’d want to draw the line between 1983 and 1984, when Coach K’s program first took off ... or maybe between 1985 and 1986, when he first began to have postseason success. Yeah, that’s the ticket -- in the last 21 years, Duke has had more success than any program in the nation – more national titles (3), more title games (7), more Final Fours (10), more Sweet 16s (16), more No. 1 poll finishes (6), more 30-win seasons, more national players of the year ... and more exposure on ESPN.

That’s the problem for Kentucky fans.

You see, ESPN draws a line too. It’s as arbitrary as any drawn by the fan of any school. But the all-sports network first came into existence in 1979 and, for better or worse, that’s where it draws the line. And on this side of the ESPN line, Duke has been the nation’s most successful program.

ESPN wasn’t there when Rupp was winning all his titles. Dick Vitale wasn’t around to gush about the Fiddlin’ Five or Rupp’s Runts. He was still coaching in the NBA when
Jack "Goose" Givens bombed Duke in the 1978 NCAA title game in the

But Vitale was there when Krzyzewski began his climb to greatness. He was in Cameron on three consecutive weekends in February of 1986, when Johnny Dawkins and company established themselves as a great team. He was there for the Danny Ferry-J.R. Reid duels in the late 1980s and for the Laettner-Hurley-Hill teams that dominated college basketball in the early 1990s.

It took a while for Krzyzewski to emerge as his favorite coach and for Vitale to evolve into “Dookie V”. In the 1980s, Vitale and ESPN worshipped North Carolina – I was in Springfield, Mass., for the 1987 Tipoff Classic when UNC upset No. 1 Syracuse without Reid and Vitale anointed Dean Smith as the “Michelangelo” of college coaches.

At that point in time, Smith and “The General” (Bobby Knight) were Vitale’s two icons. Krzyzewski was still “The Captain” and was still perceived as Knight’s protégé. Obviously that changed as Krzyzewski sustained his success and became Vitale’s – and ESPN’s – favorite coach.

When you look at it from ESPN’s point of view, you want to televise the most successful programs because they draw the biggest audiences. Duke has been the most successful program in the ESPN era. The line ESPN draws at its birth isn’t perfect for the Blue Devils, but if you balance all programs since 1979, Duke clearly comes out on top (and the Devils are 6-1 since then in head-to-head battles with Kentucky). When you look at audience numbers, the Blue Devils generate the most consistent TV numbers. Who knows ... maybe a lot of those fans are – as Kentucky fans suggest -- frontrunners, who don’t possess the passionate loyalty to Duke that Kentucky inspires in much of its fan base. But ESPN doesn’t measure loyalty – only audience numbers. They don’t care whether or not the Duke fans are willing to drive halfway across the country to see their team play (as so many Kentucky fans will do). They only care if those Duke fans will turn on their TV sets to see the Blue Devils play on ESPN.

The first Duke-UNC game every February is by far the network’s single most important regular season college basketball property. It’s become the first major sporting event after the Super Bowl each season – the moment when most of the football-obsessed sporting public first begins to pay attention to college basketball each season. To protect that property, ESPN makes sure that both Duke and North Carolina get plenty of exposure – you think it was a coincidence that Duke-Penn and UNC-St. Louis were shown back-to-back Wednesday night on ESPN2?

Obviously, ESPN’s obsession with Duke helps the Blue Devils in recruiting. All the exposure makes the Blue Devils a magnet for top prospects. But remember that K built his empire BEFORE Duke became ESPN’s darling. He’s now reaping the benefits of his earlier success. But the point many opposing fans fail to recognize is that ESPN’s love affair with Duke occurred BECAUSE Krzyzewski and Duke were so successful ... the success wasn’t due to ESPN’s constant exposure of the program.

Of course, there’s a negative side to Duke’s status too – and that’s the resentment and jealousy that Duke’s status now generates. Pete Gillen was the coach who noted, “Duke’s on TV more than Leave it to Beaver.” He first used the line in 1997, just before his Providence Friars upset the Blue Devils in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Charlotte.

You think he was using Duke’s exposure as a motivational ploy?

It’s all part of the same reality. Yeah, Duke gets a lot of breaks due to its current status as college basketball’s premier program (or maybe we should say "it's status as college basketball's current premier program"). But that status ensures that Duke rarely if ever gets a night off ... that it almost always faces focused, fired-up teams and an inspired fan base.

A lot of fans – both Duke’s and opponents’ – have complained about the fairly recent change in Coach K’s scheduling philosophy – specifically his refusal to schedule tough non-conference games on an opponent’s home court. He has explained that playing such opponents on a neutral site (such as Texas in the Meadowlands) helps prepare his team for the NCAA Tournament, which is also held on neutral courts. But I believe he also began to realize in recent years just what an unusually difficult hurdle it has become for Duke to play a non-conference road game, even early in the season. December is a time to nurture and develop a team – how often does he want to put his kids into the emotional pressure cooker that such games become?

Indiana held a pep rally to fire up its fan base. What would Kentucky do before a Duke visit to Rupp Arena?

It’s an honor to be the nation’s best basketball program, but as hard as it is to obtain that status it’s even tougher to stay there. Duke fans – both the truly passionate ones and the frontrunners who merely turn on the TV – should appreciate what it takes game-in and game-out to be the program everybody most wants to beat.


Just a few more idle thoughts:

-- While watching Duke beat Penn Wednesday night, I got to thinking about Duke’s long relationship with Philadelphia’s Big Five programs. Cameron Indoor Stadium was, of course, a copy of (and, I think, an improvement on) Penn’s Palestra. And until Vic Bubas took Duke’s recruiting national in the 1960s, the Blue Devils used to lure much of their talent from Pennsylvania.

I also thought about Gene Banks and how pivotal he proved to be in Duke’s relationship with the Big Five. You think Josh McRoberts caught flack from the hometown fans for deserting Indiana? That was nothing compared to the bitterness when Banks – the most celebrated Philly schoolboy star since Wilt Chamberlain – picked Duke over the Big Five.

Banks responded by helping to make sure that Duke would never lose to a Philly school. In the 70-plus years of Duke basketball before Banks arrived in Durham, the Blue Devils were a lackluster 18-17 against Philadelphia’s Big Five. With Banks in the lineup, Duke was 8-0 – including back-to-back victories over Penn and Villanova in the 1978 East

Since Banks departure, Duke has continued to dominate its Philly rivals, improving to 17-1 with Wednesday’s victory over Penn. The lone defeat was a 59-58 loss to Temple in the old Spectrum in 1996 – the night when Marc Jackson delivered the cheap shot to Greg Newton.

So overall, I have Duke at 43-18 against the Big Five heading into the Feb. 25 visit to Temple later this season. That breaks down to 7-3 vs. Villanova; 4-0 vs. LaSalle; 8-6 vs. Penn, 10-0 vs. St. Joseph’s and 14-9 vs. Temple.

-- Heading into Saturday’s game with No. 2 Texas, Duke had beaten eight straight ranked opponents before Christmas ... dating back to a loss to No. 3 Stanford on Dec. 21, 2000 (when Mike Dunleavy missed the clinching free throws in the final seconds).

The streak includes Memphis and Indiana this year; No. 11 Michigan State in Cameron last season; No. 5 Michigan State in East Lansing and No. 11 Texas in Madison Square Garden in December of 2003; No. 13 UCLA in Indianapolis early in the 2002-03 season; No. 7 Iowa and No. 7 Kentucky in 2001-02.

However, Duke’s record in No.1 vs. No. 2 games is not as gaudy. The Blue Devils are 2-2 as the No. 1 team vs. the No. 2 team. No. 1 Duke lost to No. 2 UNC in both 1994 and 1998 (both games in Chapel Hill). Both 1 vs. 2 wins by Duke came in the NCAA semifinals – the 1986 victory over Kansas and the 1999 victory over Michigan State. Duke’s only other No. 1 vs. No. 2 game came in the 1966 NCAA semifinals, when No. 2 Duke lost to No. 1 Kentucky.

-- As of Thursday morning, Duke was the No. 1 team on Jerry Palm’s RPI site. I’m not sure how big a deal that is, considering that Northern Illinois, Missouri State and Florida are 2-3-4 in the rankings.

I was also counting up unbeaten teams. A year ago, Duke was the third from the last team to lose a game, lasting until a Jan. 26 loss to Maryland. Boston College remained unbeaten until a Feb. 8 game at Notre Dame, while Illinois lasted until its final regular season game before losing.

Right now, I count 23 unbeaten teams. That doesn’t include Tennessee State, which has yet to play a Division 1 opponent or Baylor, which doesn’t play its first game until Jan. 11.

Duke obviously stands a good chance of losing Saturday to No. 2 Texas – at least every ESPN guru I’ve seen is picking the Longhorns. But if the Devils do survive Saturday’s test, they should make it at least to the Jan. 8 trip to Wake Forest unbeaten.

That ought to thin out the list of unbeatens.