Al Featherston is sponsored by the Bleu Poupon Society in memory of Mrs. H
Time travel is a big part of the Star Trek universe.
From "City on the Edge of Forever", when James Kirk stepped through a time portal and learned he had to let Joan Collins die in a traffic accident to save human history ... to "Star Trek IV - the Voyage Home" when Kirk and crew had to return to the 1980s to save the whales ... to Picard's many time trips with Q ... to "Trials and Tribbulations" when Benjamin Sisko traveled back to Kirk's time to save the Tribbles - the issues and paradoxes involved in time travel have been a key element of the appeal of the successful science fiction franchise.
Of course, real time travel remains beyond our reach. That doesn't mean that we can't use our imaginations to journey beyond our own time and perhaps find illumination of issues that trouble us today either in the past or the future.
I was trying to make sense of the early results in the ACC this season when I realized how much this season reminds me of what happened exactly 10 years ago, when the league enjoyed the wildest, most bizarre regular season pennant race in its history. That season was impossible to predict - just as this one seems to be. Oh, there was a strong preseason favorite in 1997 (just as there is in 2007) and a number of mid-level challengers, but nothing worked out the way it was supposed to. The season involved a series of officiating controversies, some heroic performances, several cases of foot-in-the-mouth disease and strong play by a number of first-year players.
So let's leave 2007 for a moment and travel back to 1997. The trip is easy - merely board a starship, slingshot around the sun and come out of warp 10 years in the past. We'll set down in Duke Gardens, our invisibility cloak hiding us from prying eyes. Remember as we leave the ship, Bill Clinton is president, the twin towers are still standing, Seinfeld is the No. 1 TV show, Michael Jackson is still making music and Adolph Rupp is college basketball all-time win leader. There's a lot to see here, but lets keep our focus on ACC basketball.
Wake Forest has opened the 1996-97 season as the ACC's clear-cut favorite after center Tim Duncan turned down the chance to be the No. 1 pick in the 1996 NBA draft and returned for his senior season. He's one of four returning starters on a Deacon team that has won two straight ACC titles and adds prep All-American Loren Woods. North Carolina and Duke, each working a number of young players in the lineup, also start the year in the top 10. Clemson, which will climb all the way to No. 2 in the polls at midseason, is ranked No. 20 in preseason. Maryland and Virginia start the year "also receiving votes", but both will spend time in the top 25 before the crazy year is done.
The season starts off pretty much as expected. Wake Forest opens 13-0 and seems to be on track to make its first Final Four trip in Dave Odom's career. Maryland opens 11-0 and UNC bounces back from a loss to Arizona in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic to win nine straight. Duke loses to Indiana in the finals of the preseason NIT, then drops one at home to Robert "Tractor" Traylor and Michigan, but the Devils still start 11-2 and remain in the second 10.
But the real story of the early season is Clemson. Led by tiny point guard Terrell McIntyre, wingman Greg Buckner, a bunch of bruising big men up front and led by combative coach Rick Barnes, the Tigers open the season by upsetting No. 3 Kentucky in overtime and reel off 16 wins in 17 games.
Clemson gets off to a fast start in the ACC - winning a December game on the road at Virginia, then edging Duke in overtime when Blue Devil center Greg Newton fumbles away the ball on what should have been the game-winning layup in regulation.
But as conference play begins, we start to seem some puzzling results. Duke's first league game is in December against Florida State and the downtrodden Seminoles come frighteningly close to upsetting the Devils in Cameron. Duke's troubles are nothing compared to what North Carolina is going through in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels, hoping to win the 27 games Dean Smith needs to catch Rupp on the victory list, drop their ACC opener. No big deal - it's at No. 2 Wake Forest and the Deacons are the league's power, right? But four nights later, UNC blows a 19-point lead at home and loses to Maryland. Then the Tar Heels follow that one up with a loss on the road at Virginia. And with timing slipping away at home against N.C. State, UNC finds itself on the brink of an 0-4 ACC start.
At that point, Smith finds an unlikely savior. Two of them really. One is little-known guard Shammond Williams, a prep school product who was reportedly recruited to help UNC land his cousin, Kevin Garnett. But Garnett jumped straight to the NBA and now Williams is about to prove that nepotism had nothing to do with his recruitment. He begins by abusing prep All-American Ishua Benjamin (Smith's second savior).
The Wolfpack, trying to get things started for new coach Herb Sendek, owns a 56-47 lead and has possession of the ball with 2:34 to play. But with the Tar Heel season teetering on the brink of extinction, Williams converts a Benjamin turnover into a fastbreak basket, then hits a 3-pointer to trim the lead to four points. Benjamin commits another turnover and misses a one-and-one to help the Tar Heels catch up and go ahead. A basket inside by Antawn Jamison gives UNC the lead and two free throws by Vince Carter makes it 59-56. State has one last chance to tie, but Serge Zwikker tips away Benjamin's 3-point try, giving UNC the improbable victory.
"It wasn't pretty, but it was important," Smith says in his postgame press conference.
UNC is not yet ready to roll - losses on the road at Florida State and Duke are coming in the next couple of weeks - but Benjamin's meltdown in the Smith Center would give the Tar Heels breathing room.
Duke was looking for the same after the bitter loss at Clemson and another heartbreaking defeat at Maryland. Sandwiched in between is a three-point loss in Cameron to Wake Forest - the ninth straight win by Odom's team in the rivalry. Even worse is Newton's ridiculous postgame comment, when asked about Duncan by reporters. He replied disdainfully, "he's not that good."
Considering that Duncan had just piled up 24 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots, it was a pretty stupid thing to say. But it was typical of Newton, a talented big man from Canada who would rather get another tattoo than work on his rebounding. Unfortunately, with sophomore Taymon Domzaski, the only other big man on the roster, hobbled by bad knees, Coach K didn't appear to have any other options in the post.
Or did he?
When Duke takes on North Carolina in Cameron, K decides on a desperate gamble. He starts 6-6 freshman Chris Carrawell in place of Newton, hoping to motivate his flaky big man. Two years before, Carrawell had been regarded as one of the best prospects in the junior class, but a series of shoulder problems had dropped him way down in the ratings. He was a prep teammate of Wake Forest's celebrated recruit Loren Woods and arrived at Duke as the least heralded of Krzyzewski's three recruits, his game still limited by the brace he wore on his right shoulder.
Krzyzewski's idea is to start Carrawell ahead of Newton in an attempt to motivate his lackadaisical big man. The young forward started, but played just 14 minutes against UNC - half of the minutes that Newton got off the bench. Neither player was much of a factor against the Heels. Instead, it was the backcourt combo of Trajan Langdon and Jeff Capel, who actually started at forward in a three-guard alignment, who combined for 47 points to help beat the Tar Heels, snapping Duke's seven-game losing streak to its hated rival.
"We wanted to win bad," Capel said. "We wanted to beat Carolina for ourselves and for our students. We felt we deserved it. We felt our students deserved it. It was huge for us. It was huge for them."
Capel would finish his Duke career with a 1-7 record against Carolina. In a strange twist to the rivalry, his younger brother Jason Capel would sign with the Tar Heels and in his four years at Chapel Hill, would compile a 1-10 record against Duke. Combined, the two Capel brothers were 2-17 in the Duke-Carolina series.
Jeff Capel's only career victory over the Tar Heels leaves Duke at 5-3 in the ACC and UNC at 3-5. Neither appears to be much of a factor in the ACC race at that point. Wake Forest, Maryland and surprising Clemson look to be the class of the league. In fact, at the halfway point in the race (and remember, the ACC schedule was perfectly balanced in 1997), the standings look like this:
Wake Forest 7-1
Florida State 3-5
Georgia Tech 2-6
N.C. State 0-8
Wake Forest's lone ACC loss was an unfortunate aberration.
It came in Winston-Salem, when Maryland visited Joel Coliseum. The Terps, using a tactic that Virginia had tried with some success in a 58-54 loss to the Deacs, elected not to double-team Duncan. Instead, the Maryland defense let the All-American big man battle center Obinna Ekezie one-on-one and concentrated on shutting down his complimentary shooters. Duncan scored 26 points in the slow-paced game, but the starting backcourt of Tony Rutland and Jerry Braswell combined to hit just 3 of 20 shots. The Terps led by seven with five minutes left, but Duncan led the Deacs back and his two free throws tied the game at 51 with 17 seconds left.
Maryland tried to get the ball to star forward Keith Booth for the game-winning shot, but he was trapped and in desperation flipped the ball outside to teammate Laron Profit, who launched a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. Veteran official Dick "Froggy" Paparo raised both arms over his head to signal that the basket was good. As it turned out, replays showed that Profit's shot was late ... just a fraction of a second late, but late nevertheless. Wake's first loss had come on a bad call.
There would be worse to come.
A month later, the Deacons are locked in a surprisingly tough game with last-place N.C. State. Wake leads by two with less than a minute to play when freshman guard Justin Gainey swipes the ball from Rutland and takes it in for the game-tying layup to force overtime. But Rutland responded with four straight points in the last minute of the extra period to again put the Deacs up two ... this time with 3.7 seconds left. After three timeouts and a pass to midcourt, State gets the ball inbounds to guard C.C. Harrison, who dribbles toward the top of the key and launches a shot at the buzzer. Official Mike Wood raises his arm to signal the shot a 3-point attempt - and when it banks in off the glass, he raises his other arm and State celebrates its 60-59 upset.
Only it should have been double overtime. Replays showed that while this time Wood had gotten the timing right - Harrison's shot was definitely released before the buzzer sounded - he had missed the fact that the Wolfpack guard had his right foot on the 3-point line when he launched the shot.
The Deacons had been screwed at home twice in one month. But the most shattering loss - the one that ended up costing Wake Forest the ACC regular season title - had nothing to do with the officials. It was, instead, due to Mike Krzyzewski's finest coaching moment.
The key move was Krzyzewski's decision to give up on Newton and commit to a small lineup. On Feb. 5 at Winston-Salem, he started three guards and two forwards - the 6-8 McLeod and 6-6 Carrawell against a team that was 7-1, 6-10, 6-10 across the front line.
"It was a good move," Odom said of Krzyzewski's strategy. "It was a new look, something we weren't used to. We had trouble adjusting to it."
Only Duncan is effective for the Deacs (26 points) as the Blue Devils shoot out to a six-point halftime lead and nurse it a through the second half. Down the stretch, Carrawell does an amazing job keeping the ball away from Duncan and forcing the Deacons to settle for perimeter shots. Duke's 73-68 victory - combined with Wake's two phantom defeats - suddenly puts the Blue Devils back in the ACC title race.
But it would take another officiating snafu - this one the granddaddy of them all - to keep Duke in the hunt. At least Wake Forest isn't the victim this time.
The odd thing about what happened when Duke played at Virginia on Feb. 11, six days after the monumental win at Wake, is that the officiating crew was one of the best in the business - veterans Tim Higgins, Rick Hartzell and Zelton Steed. They work a fine game as Duke and Virginia wage a terrific back-and-forth battle for 39 minutes and 55 seconds.
At that point, with five seconds to play, the score is tied at 60-all and Virginia big man Norman Nolan heads to the foul line for two shots. Cavalier coach Jeff Jones, knowing that Krzyzewski would want to rush the ball up the court if Nolan made his shots, sends freshman Willie Dersch to the foul line just as Nolan shoots - and misses - his first free throw attempt. Jones figures that the delay while Dersch was buzzed into the game will give his team time to set its defense.
Hartzell sees Dersch kneeling by the scorer's table and waves him in. Dersch makes a shooting motion to indicate that he is waiting to come in for the shooter. Hartzell nods and Steed hands Nolan the ball for his second shot. This one hits the rim and hangs there for an eternity ... before finally dropping in.
At this point, Hartzell should have blown his whistle to get Dersch into the game. The scoreboard operator sounds the buzzer to signal the substitution, but it is hard to hear in the bedlam at University Hall. Several Virginia players do hear it and stand motionless as Duke's Capel grabs the ball as it comes through the net and tosses it ahead to Steve Wojciechowski. As he races upcourt, his defender, Harold Deane, notices that the clock hadn't started and stops to scream, "Start the clock!"
Just as Wojo crosses midcourt, the scoreboard operator starts the clock. It is ticking down from 5 to 4 to 3 seconds as the Duke guard, who appears to be the only one on the court still playing the game, goes up for the game-winning shot. Nolan, trying to cover for the confused Deane, arrives just in time to contest the shot.
Hartzell blows his whistle, signaling a foul on Nolan. The clock stops with 2.7 seconds left and all hell breaks loose.
"The game's over!" Virginia's Jones screams, then begins to berate Hartzell for forgetting to whistle Dersch in the game. It isn't easy in all the confusion to sort out what had happened. In the end, the officials admit there were two errors - Hartzell's brain-lock and the failure to start the clock on time. The first is not a correctable error. The second is - and a check of the replay with a stopwatch shows that Wojo's catch and drive had occupied 4.7 of the game's final five seconds. Just to allow for time lag, the officials put 0.7 seconds on the clock.
Wojciechowski still had to make his free throws after more than a 10-minute delay.
"Nobody has ever been frozen for longer in the history of the game," Krzyzewski says after the game. "Whatever else happened, the little kid made a big-time play."
Wojo, showered by ice thrown by irate Virginia fans, makes both foul shots. And when Nolan's length-of-the-court heave misses, Duke has a 62-61 victory and firm control of first place in the craziest ACC regular season race in history.
But that wasn't the end of the 1997 story ... not by a long shot. Eight miles away from the miracle K was working in Cameron, another Hall of Fame coach was completing one of his greatest coaching jobs.
Krzyzewski saw it coming. Moments after Duke's midseason victory over North Carolina, he told his team, "that was a great win because you beat a hell of a basketball team. I guarantee you that team isn't going to lose very often the rest of the season."
At the time, UNC was 12-6 overall, 3-5 in the ACC and would drop to No. 20 in the next AP poll. Smith was still 13 wins short of Rupp's record and didn't appear likely to get those wins in 1997.
But the schedule was set up to give the Heels a little momentum. Three straight homecourt wins over Middle Tennessee State, Florida State and Virginia got the team rolling again. The surge might have ended in Raleigh, but Benjamin, the goat in Chapel Hill, committed another crucial turnover and freshman Ed Cota hit a short jumper with seconds left to give UNC a 45-44 victory. After beating slumping Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the Tar Heels returned home and handled No. 4 Wake Forest with surprising ease. The Deacons, shaken by the bizarre officiating that plagued them and unable to find any consistent guard play, were unraveling around Duncan.
"Everything is work for us right now," Odom complained. "Everything is hard."
Meanwhile, it was starting to come easy for North Carolina. The twin keys were the emergence of sophomore Vince Carter, finally freed from the bench by Smith, and the development of Cota at the point. Carter brought explosive athleticism and a solid 3-point shot to the frontcourt to balance Antwan Jamison's steady play down low. Cota, still a shaky defender and only a slightly better shooter than predecessor King Rice, was proving to be one of the most creative playmakers ever seen in the ACC.
UNC's winning streak stretches to seven straight when the Tar Heels knocked off Maryland in College Park and hits eight straight with a victory at Clemson. When Duke visits the Smith Center for the regular season finale, the Tar Heels were 20-6 overall, 10-5 in the ACC and are back in the top 10 in the AP poll. The Blue Devils clinched the regular season title earlier in the week, but a victory by the Tar Heels would give UNC a second-place tie with Wake Forest and make a major statement headed into postseason play. It would also leave Smith just five wins short of Rupp's record,
Smith starts senior walk-ons Charlie McNairy and Webb Tyndall against the Blue Devils, continuing a tradition that he brought to college basketball. As a senior at Kansas, he had been dejected when he didn't get to play in the final home game of his career. When he took over the North Carolina program, he used the final home game to honor every senior - superstars, role players and walk-ons -- alike.
Neither McNairy nor Tyndall score and regulars Vince Carter and Ed Cota are back in the game after barely a minute, but the emotional lift provided by the senior tradition carries the Tar Heels to a 49-40 halftime lead. UNC maintains its advantage throughout the second half, using 33 points by Jamison and an amazing 49-18 advantage on the boards to withstand a blizzard of 3-pointers by the Devils. Duke, hitting 17 of 34 3-point tries, can't get any closer than four points in the final minutes, allowing the Heels to celebrate a 91-85 victory.
Krzyzewski infuriates the Tar Heel nation with his postgame comments, when he downplays the loss - suggesting that because his team had already clinched the regular season title, his players weren't emotionally "up" for the game.
Not up for Duke-Carolina?
So, they wonder, what is his excuse five days later, when the top-seeded Blue Devils are upset by N.C. State in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals?
"They beat us, pure and simple," Krzyzewski tells the press. "They were better than us today. Period."
A close look at how the 1997 season played out would have provided a warning of how much N.C. State was improving under Sendek. His key move was taking the ball out of Benjamin's hands and handing it to freshman Justin Gainey. The move showed up in the second-half standings:
N.C. State 4-4
Wake Forest 4-4
Georgia Tech 1-7
Putting the two halves together produced the following final standings:
Wake Forest 11-5
Florida State 6-10
N.C. State 4-12
Georgia Tech 3-13
But the truth is that by the end of the regular season, Duke had shot its bolt. The Devils, playing small and uptempo with a very thin team, never regained their legs in March - a fatal flaw for a team that relied on quickness and jump-shooting. After being sent to Charlotte for the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils make a quick exit. Duke manages a lackluster opening win over Murray State, but are bounced in the second round by hot-shooting Providence.
The Deacons weren't the same team in March that started the season ranked so high. Duncan was still the best player in the league - indeed, the best in all of college basketball - but the team was collapsing around him. The guards had no confidence, the self-critical Woods was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the talented Ricardo Peral was just a shell of the player he had once been.
Odom, in an attempt to shake up his team, throws open four spots in his starting lineup and lets his players fight for their jobs. He is appalled to read about the move in the Durham newspaper - so angry that he threatens to fire the assistant coach or the manager who leaked the story. When he arrives in Greensboro Thursday for the ACC Tournament, he confronts the reporter who broke the story and demands to know who had given him the scoop.
"You did, Coach," I tell him. "You mentioned it on your radio show."
A dumfounded Odom turns to sports information director John Justice and asks it that is true.
"I'm afraid so, Coach," Justice answers.
Odom shakes his head, smiles and says, "Well, I guess I scooped myself."
He isn't smiling two days later, when North Carolina rather easily eliminates the Deacons in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Duncan, as always, is superb with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks, but he gets no help from his teammates.
"I swear," Odom says. "Our perimeter guys are like gunfighters who lost a fight somewhere and can't get their confidence back."
The ACC race seems to hamper a number of teams. Clemson, which opened the year 16-1, finished it 7-8. Maryland, which was 17-2 at one point, finished 4-9 in its last 13 games. Virginia, 15-6 at one point, finished 3-7.
Only N.C. State, which parlays its remarkable ACC Tourney run - from play-in game to the title game - into an NIT bid and North Carolina, which claims the ACC Tournament title and reaches the Final Four - giving Smith his record-breaking victory in the process - finish strong. Six ACC teams get NCAA bids, but only Clemson (which loses to Minnesota in the Sweet 16) and UNC (which loses to Arizona in the NCAA semifinals) wins more than one game.
So before we return to 2007, what lessons from 1997 can we take back with us?
-- In a season when the talent is fairly balanced, small events can have huge consequences. Two officials' mistakes cost Wake Forest two league wins. In the long run, those two losses - and even the loss of the regular season title than ensued - shouldn't have been that consequential. But, much more importantly, the controversial losses seemed to sap some of the confidence that the Deacons had to start the season. Would Tony Rutland and Jerry Braswell have played so poorly down the stretch had Wake won those two games? Would UNC have collapsed if Ishua Benjamin had not melted down in the Smith Center?
-- In the latter case, I'd guess no - because of the second lesson I take from 1997. In a case where the talent is level and the situation is confused, great coaching will prevail. That's not to say that Barnes, Sendek, Odom and Gary Williams aren't very good coaches. But what I see is that Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and UNC's Dean Smith found ways to exploit the situation in their teams' favor.
-- The third lesson of 1997 is not to jump to conclusions. The ACC as it finished looked very different from what we saw in preseason ... in January ... and even in mid-February. Part of the change was due to the reactions of players to the events that shaped the season. But part of it was the development of young players. Duke's season turned around when Coach K figured out how to best use freshman Chris Carrawell - and that wasn't until early February. UNC's season turned around as freshman Ed Cota took over more and more of the playmaking load. Sendek salvaged his first season at N.C. State when he installed the unheralded Gainey at the point.
As I return to 2007 and look over the league, I see an awful lot of promising freshmen still trying to find their roles. I'm not talking about Jon Scheyer at Duke or Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson at North Carolina - guys who will get better, but have played since day one and have pretty much established themselves. I'm talking more about Gerald Henderson, a marvelous athlete with amazing potential who hasn't quite defined his place on this Duke team. The same could be said of Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek ... not to mention Will Harris at Virginia, Jamie Skeen at Wake Forest, Greivis Vasquez at Maryland, Nigel Munson at Virginia Tech and Zack Peacock at Georgia Tech. Not all of them will blossom this year - but at least one or two will.
There is more youth in the league this season than there was in 1997, which obviously contributes to some of the wild swings we're seeing. Miami can lose to Wake at home ... go to Maryland and win ... and come home and lose to Duke without a whimper. Virginia Tech can rampage past Duke and UNC, but in a streak of nine wins in 10 games, lose to 5-11 Marshall. Boston College can open 4-0 in the ACC after losing home games to Vermont and Duquesne.
It's going to be a wild ride. But let me suggest what to look for in the coming weeks.
(1) Was the Virginia Tech loss an aberration or will North Carolina's youngsters struggle on the road in the ACC? UNC is clearly the ACC favorite ... but that doesn't always translate to victory - just as Dave Odom learned in 1997.
(2) Can Florida State, which corrected last year's scheduling problem with a strong pre-ACC showing, overcome its 0-3 start and win enough ACC games for its RPI to matter?
(3) Will Miami, Wake Forest and N.C. State - three teams with little hope of finishing with NCAA-selection type records - be spoilers than will hurt the chances of the ACC's middle-echelon teams, or will they be sure wins that the borderline teams can use to fatten up their records?
Interesting side note: I have no problem with the three Big East refugees ranking near the top in the ACC standings. What does bother me is that for the second year in a row, the newcomers have performed poorly in the pre-conference season. Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami started the week 9-2 in league play after going just 24-15 outside the league with some terrible losses (Vermont and Duquesne at home, Western Michigan, Marshall, Buffalo, Binghamton, Cleveland State). That kind of performance wouldn't hurt if those teams tanked in ACC play, but when Virginia Tech loses at Marshall then beats Duke and UNC, it doesn't make the league look good.
(4) Look for teams in desperate straits and see how they react. N.C. State's Gavin Grant suggested that the Pack's trip to Wake Forest was a "must" win - and they won. Maryland's home game with Clemson was clearly a must win game for a team that had just lost at home to Miami. Duke's game at Miami was a must for a team that had started 0-2 in the ACC. Desperation is a powerful motivation - but when a team invests too much emotion in a game it doesn't win, the loss can be devastating.
(5) It's never too early to start thinking about NCAA eligibility. We learned last season that 8-8 (and even 9-7) in the ACC is not necessarily enough. As conference play gets started, let me suggest that for eight ACC teams this season, a .500 league record will be enough - UNC, Duke, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Maryland and Virginia Tech. At the moment, all eight are in the top 40 of the RPI.
It's will take a lot better than .500 in the ACC to get Wake Forest (126 RPI) N.C. State (138 RPI) or Miami (163 RPI) into contention for a bid. And even Virginia - with excellent wins over Arizona and Gonzaga on its resume - is still just 112 in the RPI.
Finally, I want to re-visit one moment from 1997 and relate it to this season.
Duke opened its ACC season that year with a home game in December against Florida State. It was a surprisingly difficult game for the Blue Devils, partly because senior guard Jeff Capel played a terrible game. He started, but missed all nine shots he took from the floor and turned it over three times.
Late in the game, with Duke fighting back to force overtime, K summoned Capel from the bench and sent him to the scorer's table.
What happened next is a matter of some dispute. I was there that night and my impression at the time was of a huge, collective "Oh no!" from the crowd. It has since been reported that Capel was booed by the Cameron crowd - I know that's what the Capel family believes happened. If there was booing at that moment, it was only a small portion of the crowd - and the boos could very easily have been a reaction to Coach K's decision to call on Capel and not directed at the senior co-captain.
Even so, that moment remains one of the low-points in Cameron history. Never mind that Duke fought back to win the game - for an instant, a significant portion of the Blue Devil crowd turned on one of its own.
The funny thing is that Capel bounced back to have a superb senior season. He had 19 points and 5 assists in the pivotal victory over North Carolina in Cameron. He played 35 minutes and scored 18 points at Wake Forest, when Duke ended its long losing streak to the Deacons. He had 18 points in 32 minutes on the night Duke beat Maryland in Cameron to clinch the ACC regular season title. He led the team with 25 points in the first-round NCAA victory over Murray State, then finished his career with 26 points on 9 of 13 shooting as Duke lost to Providence in the second round.
That was the end of a fine career. Capel started on Duke's 1994 Final Four team and was voted to the all regional team. His halfcourt shot in the double-overtime loss to North Carolina remains the highlight of a dreadful 1995 season. He was the leading scorer of the 1996 team that brought Duke back to respectability. He finished his career as the No. 17 scoring and No. 7 assist man in school history.
It's a shame that Capel's contributions to Duke basketball should be marred by a shameful moment in Cameron. It was just a moment and it was almost certainly just a small percentage of the fans that night - but it was still an unacceptable response by a fan base than likes to consider itself the nation's best.
I bring that up because of a similar reaction to some poor play early this season by Greg Paulus.
No, he has not been booed in Cameron - no yet - although to read some of the vicious and ridiculous rants about him on the Duke message boards and to hear some of the panicky calls to local talk radio, it appears to be only a matter of time.
Obviously, every fan has a right to voice his or her opinion, but it's embarrassing to watch a portion (again, it may be just a small, vocal minority) of a fan base turn on one of its own - especially when so much of the criticism is to painfully uninformed. It's almost funny to go back and read the criticism of Paulus from early December (when he was trying to work back into shape and into rhythm after his preseason injury). Then he has a very good game against Gonzaga, followed by two strong games against San Jose and Temple and the critics shut up ...
... Until Paulus had back-to-back stinkers against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. That brought out the "experts" again who told us how Paulus couldn't play at this level ... that he's a detriment to Duke's chances ... that he's not athletic enough to play in the ACC ... yada, yada, yada. Then Paulus followed with a strong game in the win at Miami and the chorus of criticism was muted again ... at least until his next bad game.
But there is a difference between a bad game - and even a bad stretch of performances - and a guy who can't play. If you think Paulus isn't going to be a great or even a very good player ... well, that's a valid opinion that we'll have to wait and see. If you think he can't play on this level or is a detriment to this team ... well, you don't know very much basketball.
Paulus started at point all last season for a team that won 32 games, won the ACC regular season and tournament title (with him making the all-tournament team) and finished No. 1 in the final AP poll. Even though he was merely a supporting player, that's pretty good for a guy who can't play.
Obviously, the kid is still having a hard time finding a groove this season. Given his changed role, his new cast of teammates and his preseason injury problems, that's hardly surprising.
It reminds me of Chris Collins in 1994-95. After two good years, he was supposed to be Duke's backcourt anchor in a transition year. But Chris broke his foot on the second day of preseason practice (sound familiar?) and even though he returned to action near the start of the season, Collins never regained his form. Look at his 3-point percentages in his career: 43.5 as a freshman; 37.6 as a sophomore; 44.1 as a senior ... and 23.3 as a sophomore. He averaged 2.0 assists as a sophomore; 3.8 as a senior ... 1.1 as a junior.
My point is that Collins struggled his entire junior season to overcome his early season foot problem. But he came back with a superb senior season (second team All-ACC) and helped Duke bounce back from the 1995 disaster.
Those Duke fans who have given up on Paulus - and there are quite a few - need to step back and at least let the season play out before you toss the kid on the junk heap. I hope anybody who booed Jeff Capel a decade ago is ashamed of his or her action. I feel pretty confident that 10 years from now, the harshest critics of Mr. Paulus will be feeling mighty foolish about giving up on a player that Coach K obviously believes in.
Don't believe me? Just jump in my time machine and zip up to 2017 and take a look.