Tuesday, March 09, 1999

UC-Duke rematch in offing

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What has Duke done to deserve this? The Blue Devils won 31 basketball games, on average, by more than 25 points. They have won 27 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation. They own eight victories against teams that earned top-three seeds in the NCAA Tournament. They had the No. 1 ranking for much of the season. They lost just once.

        It would seem a performance such as this earned Duke the opportunity to avoid the only team that found an answer for its wealth of talent and extraordinary coaching until at least the NCAA Final Four.

        So what are the Cincinnati Bearcats doing in Duke's neighborhood? Both teams are in the tournament's East Region, which means three victories by each

        one would set up a regional final at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., for the right to visit St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field with the last remaining teams in the NCAAs.

        “I think when they decided that bracket, the seeding, they saw the opportunity to have something special happen,” said UC forward Pete Mickeal. “That could be an opportunity if they keep winning, we keep winning.”

        It could have been an opportunity, just as surely, if both teams had kept winning until they reached the Final Four. This should have been Duke's privilege. For defeating Maryland twice and North Carolina three times and Michigan State, St. John's and Kentucky once each, the Blue Devils should have been rewarded with the opportunity to earn their way to a 12th Final Four without encountering UC.

        Selection committee chairman C.M. Newton, the athletic director at Kentucky, acknowledged some thought had been given to the possibility of avoiding rematches, but that did not prevent UC and Duke from being grouped together.

        In 1991, when Jerry Tarkanian coached a UNLV team that was even more dominant in the regular season, he complained bitterly that the committee was trying to bring down his Rebels by matching them in the second round against Georgetown, which featured Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo but nonetheless struggled to an 18-12 record.

        Tarkanian thought it was part of an NCAA vendetta against him for bringing the lawsuit that wasn't settled until last March, with Tark receiving more than $2 million.

        You wonder how he would explain this.

        There would seem to be no NCAA vendetta against Duke or Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils often are lauded as an example of what high-major basketball can be at its best.

        It is possible the rematch will not occur. Though it's not likely, Duke could lose one of its first three games: against Florida A&M, the College of Charleston-Tulsa winner and then a Sweet 16 game that would likely be against Wisconsin or Tennesssee.

        UC has a far more difficult path and a recent history of stumbling in the first two steps. The Bearcats open with George Mason, then would play the winner between Temple and Kent and, if they survive, might wind up in a brutal regional semifinal against second-seeded Miami (Fla.).

        It also could be that Duke would enjoy a rematch, to answer one of the two lingering questions that remain for this team. If the Blue Devils could personally eliminate the Bearcats on the way to the national title, they will have accomplished everything possible short of an unbeaten season. They cannot retrieve that possibility, but they can gain revenge against the team that spoiled it.

        The Bearcats may not appear to be a particularly imposing opponent for Duke at this stage, as they've lost four of their final 10 games against teams not quite as gifted as the Devils. But if they were to play again, UC would be riding a confidence-building string of three wins against NCAA Tournament teams, so that contention would be baseless.

        Cincinnati-Duke II is a game that may never happen, but if it does, it will happen too soon to do justice to what the Devils have accomplished this season.


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