I don't often write about sports, but since last night was one of the high holy days for a college basketball fan, I have to. For those who don't know, I am a Duke fan. No, I'm not a bandwagon fan who jumped on when they became the New York Yankees of collge basketball, I've been a Duke fan since my sophomore year in high school in the early 80s. I'm also just in general a huge college basketball fan. I think it really is the greatest sport there is. I don't think any sport can match the drama of the NCAA tournament, and no other rivalry in the sport, or any other, can come close to matching the intensity of the Duke/North Carolina rivalry. It's one of the few things in sport that is not overhyped.
Two schools, 8 miles apart, one public and one private. Both are in the top 5 most winning programs in college basketball history. Both have had hall of fame coaching legends, Dean Smith for 37 years at North Carolina and now Coach K at Duke (with Roy Williams, the current Carolina coach, well on his way to legendary status himself). Both teams have had so many all-americans and future NBA stars that you can hardly keep track of them all. And all they want to do is beat the other team. You can't script a better rivalry than that. Don't believe me? Look at what the students do when this game comes around.
3000 Duke fans camped out for weeks to make sure they had a ticket to the game. And this is so common that the university actually has an entire section of campus set aside just for the tents, and they call it Krzyzewski-Ville after the coach. The students camp out for so long, weeks at a time, that the university even provides internet access all around the tent city so they can sit and do their homework and research from their tents. This is serious obsession. While in the tent city, the students plan their attack on the opposing team, and when it comes to Carolina, they've come up with some brilliant ways to heckle them. My favorite was about 5 years ago, after a rather embarrassing search by North Carolina to find a coach to replace the legendary Dean Smith.
When Smith retired from coaching, his top assistant, Bill Guthridge, was named the head coach. But everyone knew that he wouldn't be there long, he was already well into his 60s. After 3 years, Guthridge stepped down and the real search to replace Smith began. The assumption had always been that Roy Williams would leave Kansas to replace Smith at Carolina when he retired, but Williams shocked the world by turning down the job (he ended up taking it 3 years later). A lot of names were thrown around, all former Carolina players or coaches, before they finally ended up with Matt Doherty, a former teammate of Michael Jordan's at UNC who only had one year as a head coach. He was obviously not their first choice, or likely even second or third. The Duke fans saw an opportunity to poke fun at Doherty. The first time the Tar Heels came to play at Duke with Doherty as the coach, thousands of students were all wearing the same t-shirt. It said:
I Said No To Dean Roy williams Larry Brown George Karl Britney Spears Elian Gonzales and finally... Matt Doherty
Even Doherty had to laugh about that. But that's what the Duke/Carolina rivalry is all about. Those kids don't just enjoy it, they live for it. And last night's game lived up to the hype.
This was supposed to be a down year for Duke, after losing their senior leader, their best player, and their best recruit to the NBA in last year's draft. Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston were the future of Duke basketball, but they both entered the draft early and were top 5 picks. But this is Duke, and a down year for them still means they're in the top ten and a final four contender. Carolina, on the other hand, was supposed to have their best team in a decade, with 3 genuine all-american candidates and the best freshman in the nation on the team. And they've had a great year, coming into the game ranked #2 in the polls. On paper, they are a better team than Duke this year. But games aren't played on paper, they're played in arenas and on courts surrounding by 3000 rabid screaming fans. It's enough to rattle any 19 year old kid. Marvin Williams, the best freshman player in the nation for Carolina, had shot 87% from the free throw line this season; he missed his first three at Duke last night while trying to get his wits about him in a hostile environment.
Duke led for most of the game, up by as many as 11, but Carolina kept coming back to make it close. And at the end, when the pressure was at its peak, Duke seemed to wilt just a bit, allowing the Tar Heels to come back to within one point. Carolina had the ball with 18 seconds to go, down by one. There was no timeout called to set anything up, but JJ Redick, the Duke all-american guard known more for his offensive game (he's the best shooter in the country), knew that he had to guard Rashad McCants, the Carolina all-american, and he knew they were going to try and get the ball in his hands. Sean May set up a screen down low for McCants, who ran toward the screen, but that was a decoy. He suddenly stopped and reversed direction, stepping out to the three point line as their point guard, Ray Felton, went to that side of the court to make the pass to him. But Redick had beaten McCants to the spot on the floor where the pass was supposed to go, preventing Felton from being able to make the play. Felton panicked for a moment and picked up his dribble, then made an ill-advised pass to another player, who scrambled for a moment and kicked the ball out of bounds. Game over, Duke wins by 1.
After the game, Redick told Doris Burke that he knew what play they were going to run and that's why he jumped into the passing lane. It was the same play they had run last year against UConn to beat them. I thought he was probably being self-aggrandizing in taking the credit for that until I saw Roy Williams' press conference, where he said that in fact they were running the same play they had run against UConn last year, and had run many times since, and that Redick really had anticipated it and played it perfectly.
All in all, just a great game. Bodies hitting the floor for loose balls, star players feeling the pressure of the moment, unsung heroes coming off the bench to have the game of their lives (Duke freshman Demarcus Nelson, who had played sparingly the first part of the season, had a huge game under that intense pressure), an incredible battle on the inside between two of the best big men in the nation (Sean May from North Carolina had an amazing game, 23 points and 20 rebounds). You couldn't ask for a better game. In the end, it was Duke's defense that got them the win and put them on top of the ACC standings. But on March 6th they'll do it again, this time on North Carolina's home floor. And that game could very well decide not only the ACC champion but have national title implications as well. God I love this game.
It kind of makes you feel all tingly, doesn't it? Or is that just me? It's almost March...