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. )
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!!
They 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.