Sunday, March 07, 1999

Duke dominance doesn't diminish dance




BY PAUL DAUGHERTY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Duke is playing against Duke. When the 64-team race is announced tonight, 63 teams will compete against each other. Duke will go against the standard it has set.

        Madness will occur. It always does. The NCAA tournament is the funhouse of our games. It is the one event that never lets us down. It's amazing how Super Bowl pros can fret over “distractions” and “pressure” while 18-year-olds blithely hit shots to win tournament games.

        There will be happy heart failure in the next two weeks. But it won't come from Duke, the New York Yankees of quasi-amateur basketball, whose every game seems like a doubleheader against the Twins.

        This was a weekend of stumbles: UC, Auburn, Stanford, Ohio State. Northwestern nearly took out Michigan State, Seton Hall left Connecticut gasping and grateful.

        Not Duke. Duke rolled. Duke grabs leads that sound like tennis scores: 40-15, 30-love. The Road to St. Petersburg will be paved by the teams Duke will squash. If that's not enough, the Dookies will wave their B.A. degrees at you on their way home.

        It's bad enough to lose to them now. But 10 years down the road, you'll be working for them.

        It defies logic. The best players rarely play four years, or even three. The turnover is continuous. Lamar Odom may leave Rhode Island after a year; Maryland's Steve Francis likely will do the same.

Duke's good, stays good
        It's easy to get good quickly, much harder to sustain it. There is more parity in college basketball than in the NFL, where parity is legislated. Sixty-three teams will show you that, beginning Thursday. One won't.

        “Even the Patrick Ewing Georgetown teams were never looked at as being the total favorite,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said recently. He was speaking of conference tournaments, but to extend the analogy to the Madness isn't a reach.

        “St. John's had Chris Mullin and Walter Berry,” Williams said. “Syracuse had Pearl Washington.”

        Duke annihilates teams. The Blue Devils allowed Clemson to hang around, until the Tigers cheap-shotted Duke guard Trajan Langdon. The Blue Devils went on a 26-0 run. They've beaten Virginia by 46 and Georgia Tech by 41. They embarrassed North Carolina in the regular season finale at Chapel Hill.

        The Blue Devils are so good, they evoke the sort of incredulous, are-you-kidding-me? laughter you heard when the Yankees blitzed the Padres in the World Series last fall, or every time Michael Jordan laced his sneakers in an NBA Finals.

        Why Duke? Why is every Blue Devil a “good kid?” Why do they always play with togetherness? Why does coach Mike Krzyzewski cry so much? The man has the best tear ducts in the business.

        Duke has a great academic reputation. It has tradition. Duke is in the ACC and on TV more than reruns of Friends. To prospects, Krzyzewski points to his former players in the NBA. To moms, he flashes the nearly spotless graduation rate.

This must be the life
        He can haul them all to the gorgeous campus in the North Carolina pines and show them the gorgeous gothic, stone buildings. He can take them to a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a building like no other in college basketball. Duke students work hard and play hard. They walk that fine line between fun-loving young adults and snotty rich kids.

        Once, after Krzyzewski publicly scolded them for chanting “Bull----” after a foul call, they started yelling “We beg to differ!” What's not to like?

        The last team so seemingly invincible was UNLV in 1991. Duke beat the Runnin' Rebels in the national semifinals. But that Duke team had Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley. Duke has no challenger this year with that kind of talent. If they don't reach the Final Four, it will be because they've let the pressure of expectations get to them.

        The Madness is here, and that's good. It is the greatest show on earth. Even if this Duke team is playing under its own bigtop.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

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