For all those fans chagrined at not being able to watch UNLV on television this season, the spectacle gracing TV screens last Thursday night must have been a welcome sight. No, it wasn't Vegas, which is serving a season-long banishment from the cathode-ray tube for NCAA violations various and sundry. Rather it was this year's model of last year's Runnin' Rebels: the No. 1-ranked defending NCAA champs, highfliers, man-to-man workers and trash talkers—young men unified in a zone just this side of arrogance, just that side of cockiness, and capable of bringing profound discomfort to anyone coming near them. It was the Duke Blue Devils.
On this occasion, it was seventh-ranked St. John's that had the misfortune of encountering Duke, in Greensboro, N.C., in the swan song of the three-year-old ACC-Big East Challenge. The final margin of the game, 91-81, didn't record the frightening split times the Runnin' Debils turned in—20-6 after seven minutes; 48-30 at the half; 68-37 with 14:45 left in the game. "It all happened," said the Redmen's coach, Lou Carnesecca, afterward, "so fast."
The deed was done by essentially the same Duke crew that had pinned UNLV with its only loss last season. Grant Hill and Thomas Hill and what seemed like every Hill east of Anita slashed in from the wings. A fierce Blue Devil man-to-man defense enabled what is essentially a half-court, motion-offense team to become an opportunistic band of fast-breaking brigands. (Is it the shoes, black Adidases that are new this season?) Center Christian Laettner led a parade to the free throw line from which the Dookies dropped in 38 of 44 shots. He was 13 for 13 from the stripe. When Duke went on to throttle overmatched Canisius 96-60 in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium last Saturday night, with 16,279 people on hand (the largest college basketball crowd in that city's history) to celebrate the homecoming of Erie County's own—Laettner attended private school in Buffalo and grew up in the suburb of Angola—the Blue Devils not only pushed their record to 4-0, but they also chased away any notion that the off-season losses of Greg Koubek (graduation), Crawford Palmer (transfer) and Billy McCaffrey (transfer) would cause them even the slightest hardship in 1991-92. "We want people to fear us," says forward Brian Davis. "And if someone expects to lose to us, we're going to kill 'cm."
Not that expecting to win is much help to the Blue Devils' opponents, either. "Their game is not complicated; it's simple," says Carnesecca. "But greatness is simple."
You could mark the Blue Devils' progress on Thursday by turning an car to those loathsome yuppies-to-be who populate Duke's student section. Not five minutes into the game, with St. John's more than halfway to the seven-foul limit, Laettner sank a layup to put Duke up 14-2. Thus came the chant: "Two points, four fouls! Two points, four fouls!" Then, early in the second half, the Devils stitched together a frightening 20-3 run that involved, in order, three layups (G. Hill, Davis, point guard Bobby Hurley), a charge taken (G. Hill), a dunk (G. Hill), another layup (T. Hill), two free throws (T. Hill), a spectacular blocked shot (Laettner), two more free throws (Hurley), a steal (Hurley) leading to a layup (G. Hill), another charge taken (Hurley), a layup (Laettner) on a smart pass (Davis), and the play that is rapidly becoming Duke's signature, a Hurley-to-G. Hill alley-oop slam. "Start the bus! Start the bus!" Moments later Laettner converted another Hurley lob pass, and the Devil rout was on, 70-41. "O-ver-ra-ted! O-ver-ra-ted!"
St. John's? Overrated? The Duke students must have forgotten momentarily that the Redmen were the recently crowned champions of the prestigious Joe Lapchick Memorial Tournament. But more about that later.
Although a calf bruise kept him from doing much against St. John's, 6'11" freshman center Cherokee Parks is the most significant addition to Duke's championship cast. Parks—could he be anything but Chief to his teammates?—is to Laettner what Laettner was to All-America Danny Ferry three seasons ago: a freshman post-stud-in-waiting. Parks is the first shot blocker that coach Mike Krzyzewski has had in his 12 seasons at Duke. He's also a quick-jumping re-bounder with a knack under the offensive glass and a close-in shooter with a touch so soft that he didn't get around to missing the first shot of his college career until the Blue Devils' third game. In practice and games alike, Laettner directs a stream of instructional patter in Parks's direction. "I'm all for it," says Parks. "He's a lottery pick. He knows what he's talking about."
Because Parks is a classic back-to-the-basket post player, Krzyzewski can play him alongside Laettner, who's facile enough afoot and with the ball to entice lumbering defenders away from the paint. There Laettner can either drop a three-pointer, as he did on Redmen center Robert Werdann, or dribble-drive to the hoop, an embarrassing fate met by Werdann's understudy, Mitchell Foster. You may recall that when Laettner outplayed Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning in the 1989 NCAA tournament and LSU's Shaquille O'Neal last season, he did so by inviting each less agile player to step outside with him. Thus, don't be at all astonished if, by February, Parks joins Laettner as a starter, and Davis, who's only 6'6", becomes a lethal off-the-bench provocateur. "Parks played against better competition in high school than Laettner did, so he's better tested," says Portland Trail Blazer scout Keith Drum, who attended the doubleheader in Greensboro. "The question is whether he'll have, for the lack of a better word, the arrogance to develop."
Did someone say arrogance? The student section may get all the pub, but the Blue Devils themselves dispense verbal disrespect well enough. Consider this: St. John's reserve guard Lee Green—he of the coif that looks like some prehistoric cave art, what with all the numerals, initials and even the school's name carved ornately therein—found himself Abounding the ball late in the first half.
"Nice 'do, man," said T. Hill, the man guarding Green for much of the night. "You'd better not move."
Topiary to make Duke's walk in the park more scenic, that was the role most of the Redmen played, at least until the final dozen minutes or so, by which time the Christian Asts, Duke's end-of-the-bench warmers, were kneeling at the scorer's table and the Christian Laettners were looking for BarcaLoungers. Only the effort of St. John's gifted senior forward, Malik Sealy, who ended the game with 37 velvety points, made the final margin even remotely respectable.
With Duke's win and youthful Virginia's impressive 76-66 overtime defeat of Georgetown in the prelim at Greensboro, the ACC finished out this year's Challenge with victories in six of the eight games, all of which were played last week. Thus, the two conferences split the 24 games that have been played over the event's three years. But while the series has been an on-the-court wash, to the bean counters in the respective league offices it has been more of a washout. The commissioners, the Big East's Mike Tranghese and the ACC's Gene Corrigan, cosigned a politically correct open letter that appeared in programs at each of the Challenge's four sites. In the letter to the conferences' fans, the commissioners blamed the demise of the Challenge on earlier exam dates and reform-driven NCAA legislation that will delay the start of the 1992-93 season until Dec. 1, one week after this season officially began.
While that's all true, there are also a few less high-minded reasons for the demise of the series. The financial windfall anticipated when the Challenge was launched never materialized. Ticket sales were disappointing (this year, the 15,781-seat Greensboro Coliseum sold out, but Atlanta's Omni was barely half full for a doubleheader featuring Georgia Tech), and no corporate sponsor was willing to put up the dollars both leagues felt their early-season skirmishes merited. Further, while ACC officials are now exploring the possibility of launching a similar series with the Big Ten, the most powerful Big East coaches have never liked playing such high-profile games so early. As Carnesecca had said earlier in the week, "We coaches would rather play Little Sisters of the Poor." The Redmen have made that shamefully clear by going 34-0 in the 17 years of their aforementioned Lapchick Tournament, a.k.a. the Slapstick Tournament, which in the past three seasons had matched St. John's against such adversaries as Wright State, Central Connecticut State and Drexel.
At least Looie's honest about it. Perhaps Providence coach Rick Barnes can explain why playing the Ivy League's Brown at home and losing (71-69 in overtime, on Dec. 1) is somehow preferable to playing the ACC's Maryland in the Challenge and losing (76-66, on Dec. 4).
All of which raises this essential question: Is it just a coincidence that Duke likes to play these big games in December and then always seems to wind up in the Final Four? "I don't know yet how this game will help us," Krzyzewski said after knocking off St. John's, "but I do know those two losses [to Georgetown in last season's Challenge and to Syracuse two years ago] helped us. We really like playing tough games. We use December to get ready for the conference, the same way we use February to get ready for March."
Yes, the Dookies have their East Carolinas, their Canisiuses, even their Harvards on the 1991-92 schedule. But they'll also play at Michigan, LSU and UCLA, in addition to the usual ACC home-and-home gauntlet. All of which guarantees that, unlike the UNLV team of a year ago, Duke will likely enter the NCAA tournament with a number of losses.
"We're not as good individually as a lot of people think," says Krzyzewski. "But collectively we're pretty damn good and can get better. That's our attitude. If we keep it up, because of our level of competition, we will get better. And that level of competition is something UNLV didn't have last year."
The Vegas of this year has served notice that, whether defending the post or defending its title, it won't be doing anything defensively.