When Duke meets Wisconsin tonight in the national title game, it will be the 11th time in my lifetime that the Blue Devils have played for the national title.
I was in high school when Jeff Mullins and Jay Buckley led the 1964 Devils to the championship game in Kansas City, where they were dominated by John Wooden’s first title team at UCLA (one of three championships he won without Sam Gilbert’s help).
I was a young sports writer for the Durham Sun in 1978, when Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel and Gene Banks led a very young Duke team to the title game in St. Louis. Don’t get me started on Jim Bain’s ridiculous technical foul call that turned the game in Kentucky’s favor early in the second half. I do have a lot of respect for Goose Givens, the Wildcat star who had the game of his life (41 points) to lead Kentucky to the six-point victory.
Obviously, I’ve been around for Mike Krzyzewski’s first eight tries – disappointments in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1999; triumphs in 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010. Tonight could lift Coach K to a winning record in title games and give him a fifth championship ring – one for the thumb as Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers famously declared back when they went for their fifth Super Bowl title in the early 1980s.
It would also break Coach K’s tie with Adolph Rupp for the second-most titles won. Both have four championships at the moment – only Wooden (10 titles) has more. For Duke, a fifth title would tie Indiana and UNC for third place all-time, behind only UCLA (11 titles) and Kentucky (eight titles).
So much is at stake – but not as much as might have been on the line had Kentucky won as expected Saturday night and brought a 39-0 record into the title game.
To be honest, the previously unbeaten Wildcats have dominated this tournament, at least in the eyes of CBS and ESPN and most of the national media. In many quarters, the Wildcats were already enshrined as one of the great teams in history after rolling through the season without a loss.
It was eerily similar to the accolades that unbeaten UNLV brought to the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis. That team was humbled by Coach K’s first national championship team.
I admit I was hoping that K’s current team would get a chance to do the same to this year’s "invincible" No. 1 team.
In fact, I spent most of Saturday working on a story about a Duke-Kentucky championship game matchup. I talked about the legacy of the two programs – one the most successful college basketball program of all time … the other, the most successful program of the modern era,
But I also talked about my doubts about this Kentucky team.
Before the tournament started, I wrote for another outlet that I thought Kentucky was both the best team in the tournament and the most overrated team in the field.
Don’t get me wrong. I respect what Kentucky accomplished this season, but I thought the accomplishment was somewhat deflated by the unusual weakness of the SEC. The collapse of Florida (which finished with a losing record) robbed the league of another quality team.
The best SEC teams that Kentucky beat – Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss – would have been mid-level teams in the ACC. Clemson beat LSU and Arkansas, Georgia Tech beat Georgia for goodness sake. And the Wildcats had to win a number of close games to stay unbeaten – overtime at home to Ole Miss; double overtime to NIT-bound Texas A&M; by two points at LSU. To get to the SEC title game, Kentucky beat two teams with losing records.
Preseason, Kentucky had an impressive neutral court victory over a good Kansas team. The ‘Cats went to Louisville and beat the Cardinals by eight (less than Duke beat them in the Yum Center). They beat a good UNC team in Lexington. They blew out UCLA and Texas – two teams that made the NCAA field, but didn’t deserve to.
All in all, it was a good resume, but not evidence of invincibility. The Illinois team that didn’t lose until the last game of the 2005 regular season compiled its 29-0 start against a much tougher stretch of opponents. The 1999 Duke team that was 37-1 when it reached the national title game was MUCH more dominant against a much, MUCH better schedule.
Of course, those teams lost in the Final Four too. We should have seen it coming for Kentucky after the Notre Dame game. The Irish are a tough team – as they proved by beating Duke two out of three times this season – but Mike Brey’s kids didn’t play an extraordinary game against the ‘Cats. Normally, one of the best 3-point teams in the country, the Irish missed 10-of-14 3s. With the lead down the stretch, the Irish missed three free throws (a miss by Zach Auguste was not surprising, but Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton are normally deadly in that situation).
Still, Notre Dame led most of the way and could have won it at the end.
My point is that Kentucky was a very good team. Had they played in the ACC, they would have battled Virginia, Duke and Notre Dame for the ACC title – the outcome probably hinging on the ACC’s unbalanced schedule.
But they would not have been unbeaten.
And I would have made that argument before the Wisconsin game.
TAKING ON THE BADGERS
I’m not sure Duke is better off facing Wisconsin than they would have been against Kentucky.
It’s just possible that Wisconsin is simply better than the Wildcats.
Of course, Duke beat Wisconsin 80-70 back on Dec. 3. The Blue Devil victory came in the Kohl Center, where the Badgers are nearly invincible. It was their only home loss of the season.
It’s hard to gauge how much to make of that game. It was very early in the season. At the time, Duke had Rasheed Sulaimon, who contributed 14 points (2-of-3 3-pointers) in 21 minutes of action. Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker, a key player for the Badgers, was just back in the lineup after an injury and was ineffective with five points and four rebounds in 24 minutes.
On the other hand, Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson had his best game of the season with 25 points on 7-of-12 shooting (3-of-5 3-pointers). He was hurt soon afterwards and missed much of the season. Jackson returned late in the year, but has not been nearly that effective since.
So obviously, the two teams have changed.
Overall, it’s a tough call. Duke played extraordinarily well at Wisconsin – shooting 65.2 percent from the field and hitting 7-of-12 3-pointers. Can they shoot that well again? Yet, when you look at the evolution of the two teams, it seems to me that the freshman-dominated Blue Devils have improved more over the course of the season that the veteran Badgers.
Then there is the rematch factor.
I think it was a poster (kedsy?) on DBR who first noted that this Duke team has been consistently better in rematch games.
The Michigan State rematch was the latest manifestation of that phenomenon.
. Duke has now played six rematch games against 2015 opponents. In every case, Duke fared better in the rematch – no matter where the first game was played. The list:
-- Wake Forest: Duke won by 8 in Lawrence Joel Coliseum, then won by 43 in the rematch in Cameron
-- N.C. State: Duke lost by 12 in the PNC Arena, then won by 24 points in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro
-- Syracuse: Duke won by eight in the Carrier Dome, then won by 19 in Cameron
-- Notre Dame: Duke lost by four in South Bend, then won by 30 in Cameron
-- UNC: Duke won by two points in overtime in Cameron, then won by seven points in Chapel Hill.
-- Michigan State: Duke won by 10 in Indianapolis (the Banker’s Life Field House), then won by 20 in the NCAA semifinals in Indianapolis (Lucas Oil Arena).
It should be noted that most commentators dismissed the predictive factor of the first Duke-Michigan State game … it was early in the season and the two teams had changed a lot. Right.
It also should be noted that the third matchup between Duke and Notre Dame resulted in Duke’s last loss of the season in Greensboro in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Luckily, this is the second Duke-Wisconsin game, not the third.
None of this is any kind of guarantee of victory Monday night, but the evidence is that Duke does play better in rematches. I repeat, I think it’s likely that a young Duke team has grown more since Dec. 3 than an old Wisconsin team.
DUKE’S PLACE IN HISTORY
I wrote earlier in this article about how I was approaching a potential Duke-Kentucky matchup in the title game with the attitude that it matched the greatest college basketball program in history with the greatest program in modern times.
That comes from the Duke-Kentucky preview I wrote Saturday but won’t get to use. Still, I don’t want it all to go to waste and the evidence I presented to defend my assertion that Duke is the best program in modern times is still valid – and will only get stronger if the Devils add another title tonight.
So here’s my argument.
No one would dispute that Duke and Kentucky are two of college basketball’s blueblood programs – along with Kansas, UNC, UCLA, Indiana and maybe UConn.
But I would argue that over the entire span of college basketball history, Kentucky is the clearcut No. 1 program – yes, UCLA has more titles (with 10 of the 11 coming in a 12-year span in the 1960s to the mid-70s), but Kentucky has more all-time wins, more NCAA Tournament wins and a much longer history of sustained success.
Duke can’t match that history.
But I would argue that Duke has been the most successful basketball program in the modern – defined by the 64-team NCAA Tournament – era. Since 1985, when the NCAA Tournament took its familiar shape, no team, no coach and no program has had as much sustained success as Duke and Coach K.
That includes Kentucky.
The numbers are hard to argue with (since 1985):
4 – Duke
4 – UConn
3 – Kentucky
3 – UNC
2 – Louisville
2 – Florida
2 -- Kansas
I’m going to add two more teams to this list:
1 -- Arizona
1 – Michigan State
I believe those nine schools have been the best in the modern era. A number of other schools have enjoyed sporadic success in this era – Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, UCLA, Syracuse, Ohio State. But over the 31-year period we’re talking about, they don’t qute compare with the nine programs we’re talking about.
Obviously, Duke and UConn are tied in titles during the modern era (at least until after tonight’s game).
But take it beyond championships:
FINAL FOUR APPEARANCES
12 – Duke
8 -- Kentucky
8 – North Carolina
8 – Kansas
7 – Michigan State
5 – UConn
5 – Florida
4 - Arizona
3 – Louisville
Duke’s superiority becomes clearer. And look at the tournament overall:
NCAA TOURNAMENT WINS
87 – Duke
75 – UNC
74 – Kansas
64 – Kentucky
55 – UConn
54 – Michigan State
52 – Arizona
48 – Louisville
42 – Florida
Clearly, Duke has been the premier NCAA Tournament team in the 64-team tournament era.
And it’s not just NCAA performance.
The best measure of a team’s regular season strength is the final AP poll (taken before the NCAA Tournament).
Check out the No. 1 AP poll finishers since 1985:
7 – Duke
3 – Kentucky
3 – UNC
2 – Kansas
1 – Louisville
1 – Arizona
1 – Florida
Note: Neither UConn nor Michigan State has finished No. 1 in this period.
Extend that to top 10 finishes since 1985:
25 – Duke
18 – Kentucky
18 – UNC
17 – Kansas
14 – Arizona
10 – UConn
7 – Michigan State
6 – Louisville
3 – Florida
Duke’s regular season superiority is every bit as clearcut as its postseason superiority.
Obviously, measuring the program from 1985 is somewhat arbitrary. Go back six more years and Louisville, Michigan State and UNC gain another national title.
But 1985 IS the start of the modern NCAA Tournament. It’s not a trivial time-frame – it’s the most recent three decades of college basketball. And in those three decades, Duke basketball has been the national standard of excellence.
We’ll see if that superiority holds up over the next decade or so. Even with a loss tonight, Duke would still remain the best program in modern times. With a victory over Wisconsin, Duke would widen its lead on the rest of the field.