Immediately after Bobby Hurley grabbed Anderson Hunt’s errant 3-point shot the celebration began. Everyone associated with Duke Blue exulted in an epic win over the Runnin’ Rebels of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
Well, almost everyone. The CBS cameras panned to Mike Krzyzewski who had the look of an exasperated parent scolding a four-year old for drawing on the wall.
“Keep it down” was the clear message. The job isn’t over. We have one game left.
That final opponent was Kansas. Despite the fact that Duke and Kansas were two historically elite programs they somehow managed to avoid each other until December 1, 1985, when Duke beat Kansas 92-86 in Madison Square Garden, the title game of the inaugural Preseason NIT. They met later that season in the Final Four, Duke winning again, this time 71-67. Two years later Duke edged Kansas in overtime in Kansas but lost a rematch in the Final Four. Duke defeated Kansas 102-77 in Cameron the following season.
That meant the 1991 title game was the sixth time the programs had met in a six-season span.
Roy Williams was in his third season in Lawrence after replacing Larry Brown who brought the Jayhawks a national title in 1988 and a probation that led to a post-season ban for a team that went 6-8 in the Big 12.
But Williams rebuilt the program in a hurry. There’s a narrative that Williams is only successful if he has an overwhelming talent advantage. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1991. In a Final Four dominated by future NBA players, Kansas had 6-8 senior center Mark Randall and guard Adonis Jordan. Randall would average 2.6 points per game in 127 NBA games, while Jordan played all of 10 games.
But they were pretty good college players, as were guard Terry Brown and forwards Alonzo Jamison, Mike Maddox and Richard Scott. Twelfth-ranked Kansas outscored opponents by 15 points per game and entered the title game off upsets over third-ranked Indiana, second-ranked Arkansas and fourth-ranked North Carolina, three teams ranked higher than sixth-ranked Duke.
In other words a Kansas win would not have been the big upset it might appear to be in hindsight.
Not that upsets were uncommon in NCAA title games. In fact, they were quite common in those days. In 1983 Houston’s Phi Slama Jama defeated Louisville’s Doctors of Dunk in one semifinal, a 1.v.2 clash, while NC State defeated Georgia in the undercard.
An obvious mismatch loomed between Houston and the Wolfpack in the title game.
We all know how that turned out.
An almost identical scenario took place two years later. Top-ranked Georgetown defeated third-ranked St. John’s in one semifinal but lost to unranked Villanova in the championship match. In 1988 fourth-ranked Oklahoma beat second-ranked Arizona and then lost to Danny Manning and unranked Kansas, the same Kansas team that had dispatched fifth-ranked Duke two days earlier.
Enough recent cautionary tales to sober up even the most confident team.
And Duke was confident, perhaps over-confident. Duke only had time for one practice after beating Vegas. There wasn’t a lot of scouting information to disseminate. Williams ran the same system he had learned from Dean Smith, hit the boards, fast break at every opportunity, use the bench. Duke knew that drill inside out.
But there were other imperatives. Krzyzewski knew his team had been praised for doing the impossible and he needed them to focus on the task at hand.
“We were a little full of ourselves and Coach K could see it right away,” Greg Koubek told me a few years ago. “He let us have it. He told us we hadn’t done anything and that we couldn’t’ beat Kansas if we didn’t play with more hunger and passion. He made his point.”
Thirty-eight games down, one to go.
Come see us on the boards as we relive it!