The most outstanding player of the Midwest Regional was only the ninth man up the ladder when it came to net-snipping time after Duke's 78-61 victory over St. John's Sunday afternoon at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. Never mind that little Bobby Hurley, he of the woeful countenance and baggy shorts, had scored 20 points and collected four assists in 36 brilliant minutes, with only one turnover. He even collared a team-high seven rebounds, for heaven's sake. In the button-down world of Duke basketball, there is an order to everything, so Hurley, a sophomore, had to wait his turn.
When he finally ascended and the Duke fans began chanting, "Hur-LEE, Hur-LEE," he looked uncertain for the first time all afternoon. His smile was shy, almost apologetic, because Hurley, a coach's son, had always been taught to take his basketball seriously. Nobody ever drilled him on how to celebrate. But then, just before putting scissors to the net, he did his best to enhance the moment. He hooked a thumb under a shoulder strap of his jersey and briefly pulled it up for all to see the DUKE across the front, much to the delight of the school's fans.
Duke was heading for its fourth consecutive Final Four appearance, its fifth in the last six years. Amid the euphoria, it was possible—almost—to forget who will be awaiting Hurley and his teammates when they show up in the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome Saturday evening: UNLV, the dreaded unbeaten, top-ranked, flirting-with-immortality defending national champs. Yes, the same team—no, strike that, a better team than the one that last year did a Dr. Hannibal Lecter number on Duke's face, 103-73, in the goriest championship game ever.
The most pitiable victim of that rout was Hurley, who ventured into the jaws of coach Jerry (the Shark) Tarkanian's killer defense with such trepidation that he became physically ill during the warmup. His performance was so disastrous—two points on 0-for-3 shooting, and five turnovers—that Hurley didn't recover until the start of practice last fall. The game had such a devastating effect on him that he even had nightmares about sharks (honestly) all summer long.
"That had to be because of UNLV," Hurley says. "I'd dream I was in a swimming pool with sharks all around me. Sometimes I'd get away by jumping out, but other times I'd stay in. But I wasn't scared."
Yet the nightmares bothered Hurley enough that he finally did what coach Mike Krzyzewski always likes his underclassmen to do whenever they have a problem: He sought a senior's help. Hurley went to forward Greg Koubek, who was taking a course in dream analysis. Hmmmmmmm, Koubek said. Yep, sounded like a definite case of Shark Aftershock. Alas for Hurley, Koubek got only a B in his course, so the nightmares didn't disappear until Hurley became engrossed in a season that has been a dream, at least so far.
With three starters (center Alaa Abdelnaby, guard Phil Henderson and forward Robert Brickey) gone from last season's 29-9 team, Krzyzewski knew that much of his current team's success would depend on Hurley and Christian Laettner, the 6'11" junior center whose superior ability to bang inside or handle the ball on the perimeter makes him one of the most versatile big men in the college game.
As the season progressed, roles evolved. Sophomore guard Thomas Hill and junior forward Brian Davis, 6'4" and 6'6", respectively, emerged as solid contributors on both ends of the floor. The selfless Koubek, who will become the first player ever to play in the Final Four during each of his four seasons, provided leadership. Sophomore Bill McCaffrey developed as a free-shooting zone-buster and capable ball handler. And 6'7" freshman Grant (Fresh Prince) Hill, son of former NFL running back Calvin Hill, provided dynamic all-around skills.
There were a few rough spots along the way, one of the most serious of which involved Hurley's tenuous relationship with his teammates. At more than one team meeting, Hurley was criticized for being too immature during games, pouty and petulant. At first he didn't respond well to the charge. "I thought they were all ganging up on me and pointing the finger," he says. But soon Laettner, more than anyone, made Hurley understand that the players only wanted him to live up to his potential—because, truth be told, he was Duke's indispensable man.
Indeed, Hurley starts everything for Duke. His pressure this season on such standout opponents as Kenny Anderson of Georgia Tech, Chris Corchiani of N.C. State and King Rice of North Carolina keyed Duke's superb man-to-man defense. And when the Blue Devils have the ball, it's up to Hurley to handle the defensive pressure, find the open man and open up the middle for Laettner by converting shots from the perimeter.
Although Hurley played reasonably well in guiding Duke to a 26-7 regular-season mark, he has been exceptional in the postseason. In Duke's four NCAA tournament victories, Hurley has scored 41 points and dished for 27 assists, while committing only four turnovers in a combined 139 minutes of play. In the Silverdome last week, he outplayed both Chris Smith of Connecticut and Jason Buchanan of St. John's, even though both were taller and quicker.
In the Midwest final, the Devils were confronted by a no-name team that was best known for coach Louie Carnesecca's wardrobe of hideous sweaters. Forget Vegas. St. John's was Vague 'R' Us, despite the presence of 6'8" junior forward Malik Sealy, one of the game's most underpublicized superstars. (So much for the myth of the power of the New York media.)
Against Duke, however, three things happened to the Redmen in the first eight minutes that spelled doom: Buchanan got in foul trouble against Hurley (and spent 12 minutes on the bench before intermission), center Robert Werdann aggravated a lingering calf injury that would sideline him for the entire second half, and Sealy was shut down by Thomas Hill and Davis.
Duke, meanwhile, was getting superb play from everyone, but especially from Hurley, who had 13 first-half points and three assists. When Laettner made two free throws to give the Blue Devils a 37-20 lead with 2:47 remaining in the half, it seemed clear that the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champs were going to put up their Dukes once again against UNLV.
Although the nation hasn't exactly been awaiting this rematch, there are some reasons to believe that the contest may at least be, well, a contest. For one, Duke is deeper, faster and stronger than it was a year ago. Two, Krzyzewski will have more than one day to formulate a game plan. Three, this Duke team handles the ball slightly better than last year's, having committed 16.6 turnovers a game compared with 17.4 in '89-90. And four, Hurley is so improved that Runnin' Rebel point guard Greg Anthony may not even recognize him. At least, that's what Hurley believes.
"This year I know what to expect and how to pace my body," Hurley said on Sunday after the net-cutting ceremony. "Last year at this time I was really sick and worn out. A lot of it had to do with adjusting to college. But this year I'm fresher. Plus, I think I know how to win. I'm glad to have the chance to play Vegas again. That's the only way we can find out if we have an excellent basketball team."
Or whether Hurley will be spending another summer having nightmares about sharks.