Friday, March 26, 1999

Duke thanks UC, UK for waking them up

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — If Duke claims the 1999 NCAA championship, the avenue the Blue Devils will have followed will have been as much I-75 as Tobacco Road.

        The Blue Devils did not recently travel to the University of Cincinnati or the University of Kentucky for a basketball game. They played UC in Alaska. They played UK right here, where this weekend's Final Four will be contested at Tropicana Field.

        Those meetings with the Bearcats and Wildcats, though, were as important as any victories Duke claimed in Atlantic Coast Conference shrines such as Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Dean E. Smith Center or Reynolds Coliseum.

        In the past 369 days and 38 games, UK and UC are the only two teams to defeat Duke, and the Blue Devils would not be the same team had they not lost those games.

        Against UK, the Devils learned they could lose if they did not finish what they started.

        “Any time we get somebody down, we try to put them away,” All-American guard Trajan Langdon said. “Because I think everybody remembers the Kentucky game, how bad they felt.”

        Against UC, they learned they could lose if they did not start what they finished.

        “We were a very different team in November when we played Cincinnati,” sophomore forward Shane Battier said. “We were AP No.1, had Parade All-Americans, and we had started to read our own press clippings and believe them.”

        In those two games, Duke learned the importance of the intensity needed to bury opponents and the concentration that keeps leads intact.

        You have to be pretty dumb, as UC coach Bob Huggins says,

        to need to lose to learn. But Duke has been dumb enough to compile a 32-game winning streak since falling to UC and a 33-0 record this season in games it led at halftime.

        As UK recovered from a 17-point deficit with less than 10 minutes to play in their South Regional final against Duke last March, the Blue Devils first relaxed, then panicked.

        It is not uncommon for gifted teams to maintain their focus during a game. It takes a great deal of energy to advance 15 or 20 points ahead, and it can seem a waste to get 30 or 40 points ahead. That Duke now seems immune to such lapses may be because of the UK game.

        When Temple cut a 20-point Duke lead in half midway through the second half of last week's East Regional final, the Blue Devils almost coldly lifted that lead right back to 17 points.

        “It was one of those things where I knew they were trying to come back, and I was talking about Kentucky last year,” said junior forward Chris Carrawell. “I was telling the guys, "It's not over.' Last year, we hadn't been in that situation. This year, we knew how to react.”

        The UC game in the Great Alaska Shootout championship provided a different challenge for Duke, which saw its defense beaten by the Bearcats' execution.

        UC built a 19-point first-half lead by more or less ignoring the Devils' wing pressure and taking the ball to the top of the key, then entering it to Kenyon Martin or Pete Mickeal where they could use their quickness to create scoring opportunities.

        “Although we were a good team before,” Battier said, “we were nothing near where we are now. What the Cincinnati loss allowed us to do was recommit ourselves to Duke. And that started at the defensive end.”

        Duke since has not allowed an opponent to hit 50 percent from the floor, and arrived at the remainder of its games prepared to play. The Devils trailed at the break only once more, when they visited Georgia Tech Feb. 6 and were down 10 in the second half but rallied behind 16 points from Langdon to earn an 87-79 win.

        “I think they're a much different team than they were the first time,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team was the first of 32 to fall to Duke after the UC loss. “Elton Brand didn't play as well against us the first time; I don't know if it was us or him. I think Shane Battier has raised his game a couple levels and Corey Maggette is raising his level a lot. I think they are a lot, lot better than they were then.”