Duke Basketball: The Thrill of Defeat

Over at TSF, AXG kicked off a great discussion thread.  I found that I was going a bit long, so I decided to post here instead of over at The Starting Five.

What’s with all the contempt for Duke basketball?  Why don’t you love the Devils?
First things first.  They win.  They haven’t been caught cheating.  Players graduate.  They’re not on the blotter.  And, Duke is the whitest school in the nation (or at least it seems that way).  Only the first four things on that list matter because say what you will, the Cameron Crazies keep it really, real.  Given the demographics of the nation, it makes PERFECT SENSE that this team would get the type of media love that they get.  It’s all understandable and most of it is deserved, but…

(Confession: I’m a Duke hater – but haven’t always been.  Back in 1986, they were cool.  They weren’t cooler than Louisville, but they were cool.  If you saw Johnny Dawkins flush a reverse in the face of that shocked and awed defender from Navy, you couldn’t help but be impressed.  For me, the hate that hate produced wasn’t born for another few years. )

The Beef:

1. Over-hyped Program.  Since the Laettner-Hurley years, the team has been phenomenally successful and has been all over the tube.  Announcers like Packer, Nance, Vitale and others love the program (they should), but they act as if the PLAYERS are the greatest thing since sliced bread.  That’s just an out and out lie.  Duke’s success is based on a system that Bobby Knight created at Army and advanced at Indiana.  Knight won three national championships using many of the techniques that his protege uses to this day.  Coach K did what proteges do…he took the teachings to the next level.

The media, though, routinely shaped the idea that Duke’s players were better than they really were.  And, I believe that’s at the heart of the contempt.   The team earned a reputation based on the success of the Dawkins-Amaker-Alarie trio (Bilas was there, don’t remind me).  They made deep tournament runs and put the school on the map.  Since 1986, no one has won more consistently.

It’s why Duke was a #2 seed in this tournament.  The team simply wasn’t that good.

2. Asterisks.  Duke deserve a great deal of credit, but among most of the folks that I know, their greatest accomplishments come with asterisks.  I’m sure this is a heretical position on Tobacco Road, but it is widely held in many other locales.  The bottom line question is one of legitimacy and it is borne of concerns about their ability to impact revenue for media and the NCAA and the apparent inconsistencies  in officiating (more later).

Back in 1991, Duke went from getting blown out by UNLV (30 points) in one year (1990) to beating a better UNLV team the next year.  Back in ’91, the word following that miraculous win where Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and company were defeated was that coaches Gene Keady (Purdue) and Lou Henson (Illinois) actually walked out of the game because of the officiating (more on that later).  Far be it from me to suggest that a team based in the betting capital of the world fixed a game against a prohibitive underdog they’d easily dispatched by 30 points the previous year.  I’m sure that game was legit.

As for the next year, they played a Michigan team without a coach. The difference between the teams that Duke and North Carolina beat in successive years was that when Steve Fisher first took the position, there were mature players like Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills and Loy Vaught who didn’t need a coach — besides, they beat PJ Carlesimo’s Seton Hall team and we know what Latrell thought of his coaching chops (Choke!!!) When Coach K knocked off Michigan, the Fab Five were glorified high school players with tremendous talent — and no adult leadership. When push came to shove, they refused to key their offense through the reliable combination of Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard. Instead, they opted for flashy, but fundamentally flawed post play from Webber or poorly timed outside maneuvers from King and Jackson or Pelinka.

So, what’s left in terms of capturing the crown? The 2001 crown where they were #1 from wire to wire. The players deserve props for all their success, but I can’t get carried away.

3- Favorable bracketing in the NCAA tournament. Duke almost always has a spectacular regular season…and they almost always get seeded in a diluted East regional bracket. For years it seemed like the toughest teams were playing in the South or Midwest brackets. The East bracket would have one or two tough teams and precious few of them posed talent/stylistic challenges for Duke. Their path to the Final Four was usually significantly easier than the top seeds in other regions.

4- Level of NBA Talent.  Coach K has been kicking butt and taking names for a long time. It’s only ben very recently that these guys have enjoyed some measure of success in the league.

Laettner was not only drafted high, but he was also selected to the national team ahead of Shaquille O’Neal.  It was preposterous then.  It is preposterous now.  35,000 points and four NBA titles later, that decision still rankles some aficionados of merit in this nation.  Christian Laettner was an excellent collegiate basketball player.  He had issues with self-control, but was never subjected to the unending media scrutiny and judgment (aside from that levied from fans who saw through the facade).  Sometimes it is not enough to be the best.  Sometimes you have to be in the right place with the right face at the right time.

In fairness to Duke, they’ve never had the best players.  Bob Knight didn’t have the best players either.  Occasionally Knight would have an exceptional talent like Isiah Thomas, but more often than not, his teams were led by effective systems players like Steve Alford and Quinn Buckner.  So it has been with Duke.  The difference, it seems to me, is that Knight’s era of elite success ran from the mid-1970’s through that 1997 baseline jumper by Keith Smart.  Coach K and Duke have been beneficiaries of the explosive popularity of the NCAA tournament.  The field expanded to 64 teams one year before Duke’s 1986 run which ended in a loss to Louisville.

I could go down the list of players like Danny Ferry, Mark Alarie, Chris Carrawell, Phil Henderson, Alaa Abdelnaby, Cherokee Parks, Robert Brickey, Thomas Davis and so many others but it is clear that Duke is not North Carolina or Connecticut or Arizona  when the conversation is about NBA talent.

Still, it makes one wonder whether or not the public perception of this perennial powerhouse is even accurate any more.  They’ve missed the Final Four for half of this decade.  Duke has only won one championship since 1992.  It may be that all of this contempt isn’t even worth it anymore.


5. Officiating. I’m saving the best for last.  Everyone says it so it must be true.  Right?  Maybe.  I don’t want to say much except that Duke games are predictable.  They tend to lose to the same types of teams – year in and year out…and they do not play very many of these teams in the regular season or the tournament (until the Sweet 16 or Elite 8).

The fly in the ointment for Duke is an athletic, physical team that can make free throws.  Teams that are not athletic and physical tend to get manhandled because Duke, like Indiana under Knight, plays a very aggressive style on both ends of the court.  They like to get under your skin.  Some teams don’t care and have the perfect answer.

I always feel like I know whether or not Duke will win based on whether or not the big men on the opposing team draw 2 early fouls…or if the refs call every single touch foul in the game. I’ve found, using my own unscientific methods of observation and fading recollection, that invariably Duke struggles when such is not the case.  In most seasons, Duke makes more free throws than their opponents attempt.  That’s not entirely unusual in the college game, but it is difficult to do against elite competition.  During their historic run in the early 90’s, Duke seemed to pull this off with regularity.

How did they do it? On defense, they aggressively overplayed passing lanes and forced dribblers into the lane where some slow-footed sloth was waiting to draw a charge by standing almost directly under the rim.  I’ve always found this to be the single most annoying feature of Duke basketball.  Charge!!

Loyola Md Duke BasketballThey play ROAD BLOCK Basketball.  It’s ugly and predictable.  It only works when referees ignore a few critical things like the position of the defender when the offensive player leaves his feet, or whether or not the defender flopped, or whether or not the riding defender is actually forcing the ballhandler into the charge or something along those lines.

Times have changed and players cannot stand under the rim and draw charges all night.  The road block rules have changed.  Little semi-circles all over the land have been painted on courts to assist officials in distinguishing between offensive fouls and offending foul calls.  Players have to actually have to get out and defend…no more standing under the rim waiting for whistles to change momentum.  Now, we see what happens when teams are not hampered by the referees; you very often see a taste of what Villanova put down last night. The Dukies could get back on top, but it’s not likely to come at the expense of big, strong, powerful teams like Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Louisville and Villanova — they may have to reinvent themselves.  They may have to one-up Coach Knight one more time and figure out how to play defense above the rim instead of their old fashioned way – below the knees.

There is no doubt that folks hate on Duke because they’re good, but I believe most of it stems from the fact that they’re simply not as good as advertised.


  1. Amen, Brother Temple!

    Under overhyped, I think that most folks are simply tired of watching, say UCLA play Stanford, and having to hear Dukie V talk about Duke and Coach K all night. I understand that Vitale loves Duke and the Crazies, but we don’t want to hear about them 24/7!

    As for asterisks, put a big one down for the ’92 tournament. Everyone remembers Laettner stepping on dude’s chest, and the refs not doing anything about it. I remember later how Coach K said that he made Christain write a letter of apology to the guy after the season was over!

    Also, recall when Duke won their last championship in ’01, they played Maryland in the national semifinals. Maryland thoroughly outplayed Duke in the first half and the second half started the same way. Suddenly, the refs swallowed their whistles whenever Duke would foul Maryland. I even remember the announcers being astonished at what was happening. I believe Packer seemed amazed that the fans would boo Duke because the officials decided to let them play “Duke” basketball.

    Living in the heart of ACC country, NC to be exact, I have to put up with the Duke thing all the time. Funny, before when Duke started to win in the mid-80’s, Duke was an afterthought. I even read one article where Duke came close to firing Coach K after Jimmy V won the championship in ’83. They had both been at their respective schools since ’80, and Valvano took the players that Norm Sloan recruited and won a championship with them. Duke fans wanted him gone because he couldn’t achieve the same instant success. The AD at the time, wisely stuck with him, though.

  2. I just can’t stand them. We saw through the rape scandal the character of some kids from the Duke program. They may graduate but many of them are pigs. Rich spoiled brats that get whatever they want even if it’s in poor taste. I’m speaking about the school now not the basketball team.

  3. Yep, I would have to agree with every letter of this article. Just like you T3, I used to like Duke during the Johnny Dawkins days. The backwards-reverse dunk was sick! But, as you said, it wasn’t until they became an overhyped-media-darling program is when I started hating them. The game against Kentucky when Laetner stomped into the stomach of “whatshisname”(I forgot his name) and the refs didn’t call it, just added fuel to the flame. And not to mention back in late 1997 when I visited their campus and got the “cold” treatment by the resident white male students when I walked through one of their dormitories.

    I absolutely, positively, 100 percent HATE them….and I was elated that they got their asses handed to them last night by Villanova.

  4. “I’m sure that (’91) game was legit.”

    You can’t believe that. All the hell we raised watching that game. Come on, man!

    Augmon had a freshman [GHill] on him and made exactly two attempts to score the basketball. TWO!!! He straight up point-shaved. Remember those pictures surfacing with him and Anderson Hunt and that white cat that was caught up in some other betting/fixing scandal in that hot tub/jacuzzi?

    GAnthony had all those fouls hung on him by the refs (and they eventually foul him out) cuz Hurley couldn’t stay in front of him.

    Most bizarrely, Anderson Hunt finished with, like, 29 points, but went undrafted (although he, admittedly undersized for a two, was in a few camps).

    Tell me you you don’t really think that game was legit. As you said, Keady and Henson obviously didn’t.

    For me and I believe many, that was the beginning of fraud basketball as it relates to Duke. It was obvious to me that the officials wanted to try and create another ‘Nova/GT thing.

    I generally don’t watch a game if Duke is playing for all of the officiating reasons that you’ve cited.

  5. BTW, on that Nova-GT thing, the refs were definitely of service to the Cats, but that game was bad news from jump street. Georgetown really didn’t need to play them. They needed to play Memphis or St. John’s or anyone – but after 2 other games, it was really a lot to ask. And then there was Harold Jensen. Damn, damn, damn.

  6. T3,

    The game against Kentucky when Laetner stomped into the stomach of “whatshisname”(I forgot his name) and the refs didn’t call it…..who was that player (whatshisname, the victim)?

  7. Aminu Timberlake. And a little side story – here.

    This might make you feel a little better.

    Then again, it might not. You might need more.

    For me, part of my visceral contempt for Laettner is grounded in the fact that he and Stockton and Chris Mullin stole roster spots on Dream Team I. None of those players had any business anywhere NEAR that team. Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins and Shaquille O’Neal should have been on that team. A part of me is surprised that they each agreed to play on Dream Team II after the clear snub of being denied their earned right to participate on the first team. This nation has “phenotype” issues and would have been deeply embarassed if Larry Bird was the only “white” player. Identity politics and affirmative action are a real bitch. Long live merit. Merit is dead.

    Laettner’s incident with Timberlake was Exhibit A of the ties that bind him to the All-Angry White Man roster. The other starters are Psycho T, Ryan Leaf, John Rocker and Paul O’Neill. Talk about BENT out of shape.

    The All-Angry Black Man roster, of course, is headed up by Latrell Sprewell – but only if PJ Carlesimo is in the building…otherwise, he’s reputed to be a very nice guy.

  8. Ok, thanks. For some reason I was thinking Sellers, even though I couldn’t remember his first name.

  9. Word had it, at the time, that Isaiah was left off the team because Jordan threatened not to be on the team. It was communicated through back channels that Jordan’s antipathy towards Isaiah stemmed from Jordan claiming that Isaiah froze him out of the All-Star game that previous year or so. It wasn’t an idle threat, either, as Jordan covered up the logo of the sports apparel of whomever it was with the American flag because it did not contain a swoosh…

  10. Burundi….I think that it was during Jordan’s rookie season that it was stated that Isiah froze him out of the All-Star game.

    Oh yeah….and Reebok was the sponsor during the ’92 olympics.

  11. Burundi:

    Get your head out of that Bible — what’s up with spelling Zeke’s name like that?

    That’s a great point about Mike’s influence on the team; though it seems to me that if folks were honest about the process, it would have made sense to force his hand. I doubt he would have been willing to take that PR hit (which he would STILL be feeling) over a personal beef with Isiah. MJ would have been skewered for years and would have had no place to turn. It’s not like he was taking a principled stand – like Ali or Mahmoud Abdul Rauf. The media would have raked him over the pitch black coals demanded a pound of flesh.

  12. GN: And Jordan allegedly carried a grudge since then—and you recall when the Bulls finally beat the Pistons and the Pistons left the court without shaking their hands because the Bulls cried so much to the Refs. There had always been major beef there.

    T3: You’re right, but there might not have been a hit because you’re using after-the-fact (a posteriori) knowledge of how big the Dream Team actually turned out to be to make that argument. The Dream Team, upon Jordan declining to be involved, could have gone the way of this World Baseball whatever which many of the top U.S. players declined to take part, last month. I didn’t google Zeke being left off that team, but this is what was going around in certain basketball quarters in the D. I believe I may have even heard an announcer or two speculate on this, as well. I thought that the Zeke-Jordan rift was well-known…

  13. As an aside, I think you also underestimate how hated the Pistons were/are, then. In my estimation, it cost them two championships. Even now, Dumars is in the process of adopting the NBA’s star system by getting rid of Chauncey Billups to go after a big name in ’10. The galling thing to Zeke must have been that Chuck Daley, if I’m remebering correctly, was one of the coaches on that team.

  14. Burundi: A couple of points…

    1) The PR hit would have been huge. My analysis wasn’t based on after the fact assessments. It was based on a recollection that this particular squad was pulled together because of a 3rd place finish in the 1988 Olympics. That team was smoked by the Soviets and was decidedly mediocre. It was a long time ago, but it touched off a crisis in USA Basketball. The key to this story isn’t about what the team achieved, but about why they were created.

    They reached for a quick fix — nationalist appeals to the best US players to get in there, right the ship, and buy enough time for the organization to come up with a long term solution. Things have progressed to the point now, internationally, that there is no solution other than sending the best players. If the US sends less than its best, they’re probably not going to win. It’s that simple.

    The 1988 loss was not something that could be blamed on officiating as in 1972. It was a watershed moment in the history of USA Basketball. Had Jordan opted off of that team, he would most definitely still be living with the weight of that decision. His presence was superfluous to them winning, but given his stature and previous participation as a collegian, he would have looked like a petulant bitch – to say the least.

    2 – There is no cultural imperative that could shame US ballplayers into participating. There isn’t even any history comparable to OLYMPIC basketball. There is no expectation of dominance — and no history. A significant number of MLBs best players were not born here and would not play for the US team. Teams from the DR, PR, Venezuela, Korea and Japan are absolutely capable of beating any US team that plays — assuming they also send their best players. In other words, the consequences of non-participation are zero. So, based on that, I’d say Jordan wouldn’t have had that “out.”

    3 – Chuck Daly, as I recall, was THE coach.

    4 – The Pistons earned most of that hate. They didn’t care then…why should you?

  15. Well, that’s where I’m not objective. I don’t feel that they deserved it, but hey, I’m both a native son of those parts and both a fan. Detroit’s egalitarian style of play, sans a superstar aside from Isiah, lacked the flash and multiple superstars of the Lakers and the Great White Hope, other stars, and Russell’s shadow in Boston.

    I’m pretty sure that if you do some digging, you’ll find that it went down just that way. Think about it: Zeke & co., a nucleus Zeke helped engineer with the jettisoning of Adrian Dantley and the acquisition of Mark Aguirre, MADE Chuck Daley. There had to be a HUGE reason why he wasn’t on that team. Absolutely nothing else makes sense.

  16. Oh, did you know that Zeke’s middle name is ‘Lord’? That’s where the JC spelling default came in.

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