Wednesday, March 21, 2001

UK-Duke would be classic matchup




By PAT FORDE
The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

        There is a Southern California fault line lying between where we are now and where the entire non-Angeleno world wants to be Saturday night. But barring upsets of seismic proportions Thursday night, we're going to get there.

        Kentucky-Duke. In Philadelphia. Reincarnation of a classic.

        Tell the Richter scale watchers to get ready for The Big One.

        Cue the Sean Woods bank shot, followed by the Christian Laettner hero shot. Those announcers screaming? Verne Lundquist and Len Elmore.

        Tell John Pelphrey for the millionth time that it's OK. Play the audio of Mike Krzyzewski's postgame radio address to Cat Nation.

        Anybody have a home number for Aminu Timberlake?

        This is it. This is the buzz matchup of the tournament.

        Wherever I've been this week, the same two questions keep coming up:

        • Is Rick Pitino coming to Louisville?

        (Answer: He's going to reduce the commonwealth to dishrag limpness, squeezing every last drop of patience out of the populace before announcing ... that he needs more time.)

        • Can the Cats beat Duke?

        (Answer: Beat Southern California first.)

        I should apologize to every coach in America. I know this violates Cliche No. 1 in the Coaching Handbook: Take it one game at a time.

        Fact is, we could be looking at UCLA vs. USC on Saturday instead of Duke vs. Kentucky. One or both California clubs can win, on talent alone.

        The Bruins have a kind of freakish, Rain Man quality: capable of blinding brilliance or abject ineptitude. Sometimes in the same half.

        The Trojans have a salty starting five that can hang with about anyone. Depth and bench work (Henry Bibby will have to convince me) remain their question marks. But they're coming off five days' rest, which should help a thin team.

        So there are other possibilities. Still, the imagination cannot be stopped from fast-forwarding.

        Heck, what do you think the selection committee (and its good friends at CBS) had in mind when it drew up this NCAA East Region bracket? Why are Billy Packer and Jim Nantz squatting on this one? Why do you think the media hotel in Philly has overflowed with national writers, kicking those who regularly cover the four teams into different digs?

        This potential dream matchup does a disservice to the occasionally overlooked UK-Duke II, the riveting rematch in St. Petersburg in 1998. UK fans remember it rather fondly: Kentucky rallying from 18 down to stun the Blue Devils, advance to the Final Four and win another national title.

        That game means more to the current teams. Shane Battier and Saul Smith were freshmen. Tubby Smith and Krzyzewski were the coaches.

        It's the older folks (including me) who cannot forget a single dribble of the '92 game, which was played in the old Spectrum. It was a dump, as I recall - far worse than Freedom Hall, and not much better than Michigan's Crisler Arena. (That's for you, Pitino.)

        But man, did those two teams dress it up that night. The folklore from the game is indelible:

        • Pitino taking his game-day jog into overdrive and finishing it by running up the same steps as Rocky.

        • Duke sprinting out to a 12-point second-half lead, forcing Kentucky from its zone and into the full-court scrum it knew best.

        • The incredible final minutes, when nobody missed - especially not Laettner (his line: 10 of 10 from the field, 10 of 10 from the line), who got the final shot.

        Who outside of Earthquake Country doesn't want a potential reprise of the greatest game ever played? Nothing personal, Southern Cal, but you're in the way.

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