Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Duke vs. Kentucky: The Rivalry That Started It All

1992 East Regional Final, Kentucky vs. Duke, Hill to Laettner, 2.1 seconds, spin, fadeaway, swish, Thomas Hill's shocked face, ballgame.

We've all seen it 10,000 times during every March Madness run on CBS.  The shot by Laettner, loved by some, hated by many more.  For me, I was in my sports formative years while watching that game.  I was seven and coming off a Super Bowl in which I had decided that since the Vikings were average, I'd root for the team with the cooler helmets, the Buffalo Bills.  I had the NFL figured out, MLB the Twins were riding high off a World Series so that was set until Sammy Sosa came along.  NBA was yet to be decided as the Wolves would get my attention once KG came but I began following the career of Dan Majerle starting in 1993 and didn't stop until his career did.  So as you can see, '91-'93 was my time to decide for the most part who I'd be a fan of.  Duke takes on Kentucky, I enter the game with little to no rooting interest, and following one of the best college basketball games of all time I had made up my mind.  I was a Duke fan. 

Many STOB'ers have already heard that story, they know it, they hate it, yet there it is again.  Why?  Because Duke and Kentucky are taking the court tonight in Atlanta and I feel like my Duke fandom has come temporarily full circle in some way.  The biggest difference is, in 1992 I entered the game a relatively bipartisan fan, and this time I enter it with hopes that John Calipari will be so embarrassed by the outcome he'll do all of college basketball a favor and retire, never to heard from again.  Likely that won't happen, and I am not wishing that just because Calipari's Cats are taking on Duke, I wish that every night in my nightly prayers, if I were to pray nightly, even when Kentucky isn't playing.  I hate Calipari's Kentucky.

I feel like I have an acquantence who is a girl and I know that her boyfriend is cheating on her.  Then she gets engaged, and I try to tell her, "He isn't good, he is cheating on you," only for her to not listen and continue on, showing me all the great things he does for her.  Then they get married, and she says, "See, I told you he is a great guy, he just married me and I couldn't be happier."  All the while I know what I know about her new husband's past, and I know someday she will be crushed and that marriage and beautiful memory of the great wedding they had will be forever be stained by the future divorce and bitter breakup. 

Cal is the cheater.  Kentucky is the gal.  Lucky for me, I don't care what happens to gal in this story.  Yet, that won't keep me from, and actually may make it sweeter to, say, "I told you so" to her once he shows his true colors.

Cal is back with a loaded freshman class.  Duke just oozes class. (YAY! Living up to Duke fan stereotypes is fun!)

In all seriousness this should be a great game. 

The freshman phenom (possible reason for the divorce between UK and Cal, with a recruiting/academic investigation already looming over his head) Nerlens Noel against the senior Mason Plumlee.  A coach known for class (not just a Duke fan thing here) in Coach K against a coach whose "classes" are usually a target for NCAA investigation.  Reigning national champ vs. perennial national power.  To me, good vs. evil in college basketball.  Unfortunately, I am not sure good wins.  I, one of the biggest Duke fans out there, am leery of Duke's ability to take on this young Kentucky team.

I don't know a ton about Kentucky, so I won't go into why they can or cannot beat Duke tonight because frankly I haven't a clue. 

Instead, here is what has me worried about my Dukies.  Mason Plumlee looks to be "the guy".  If you've followed his career, you already know the issue here.  Mason has lacked a consistency in his performances over his career that makes me hesitate to rely on him to be Duke's "guy".  Last year as a junior, he allowed (as the entire team did) a freshman Austin Rivers to ascend to the designation of "the guy" and to many, myself included, Rivers should not have been.  Either Plumlee has improved a ton in the offseason after flirting with the NBA draft, or he is "the guy" by default now due to there not being anyone else either talented enough, or ballsy enough to step up and try to take it from him on this year's Duke team.  We may learn a lot about which is true of Mason and his teammates tonight.

Some could argue, the 2010 team didn't have "the guy" either.  Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer all shared the designation and would each step up to the plate on different nights.  This could be the case for this year's Duke team as well.  Mason would be one of the guys obviously up for the job.  One would assume the next in line would be senior Seth Curry.  The sharpshooter didn't step up to the plate last year after a promising sophomore campaign.  With Rivers out of the picture, I expect Curry to get a better shot at living up to his abilities and one game in, the early returns are promising. 

Who, if anyone, will be the third cog if Duke is attempting to re-play the "2010 Star By Committee" plan?  The nominees would be senior Ryan Kelly, a smooth, inside/outside threat that showed flashes of brilliance early last year before fading.  Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon is another option.  The kid can stroke the three, and is a defensive presence on the perimeter the Devil's desperately need.  Quinn Cook, the sophomore point guard who struggled recovering from a knee injury last year, is also in the mix.  Cook will get Duke back to having a prototypical point guard running the show.  Something that outside of Kyrie Irving's 11 games Duke hasn't had much of late.  Mason Plumlee could benefit the most from Quinn Cook's ability to run the show, if Cook is the third cog, Plumlee's status as "the man" maybe even closer to being cemented as big men usually strive with a quality pass first point guard.

Time has changed me and my rooting interests.  Time will also change these two teams.  The 40 minutes they battle tonight, win or lose, may well set each on a course to having their own Laettner-esque moments come March.

Enjoy the game! (and Go Duke!)

P.S. - Please retire Calipari, nobody likes you...

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