If only this were March and it was not December. I'm not a Grinch, mind you. In fact, I love the holiday season. But anyone who watched Tuesday's Duke-Kentucky game had to be thinking that this game would've been perfect if it came deep in the NCAA Tournament and not a few days before Christmas. I can't remember a better played, more intense, more exciting regular season game.
If only the national championship game is as good.
Duke, as usual, beat Kentucky. The Cats lose so many big games to the Blue Devils (Christian Laettner, East Regional, 1992) UK fans must have nightmares when they see Mike Krzyzewski. This one didn't have nearly as much on the line but the 95-92 battle that took overtime to decide was certainly a keeper. The 3.0 rating it received on ESPN was that network's highest regular-season game in three years.
First, these may be the two most talented teams in the country. Kentucky showcased wing forward Tayshaun Prince, new point guard Clifford Hawkins and freshman shooter supreme Rashaad Carruth. The Cats are also happy that center Jules Camara is over his one-year suspension for drunken driving. If Tubby Smith gets this team to play hard every night, the Cats will dominate the Southeast Conference.
Duke's talent is known to every college hoops fan. Mike Dunleavy and (1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate) Carlos Boozer anchor the frontline. Chris Duhon and the incomparable Jason Williams form one of the top backcourts of the last dozen seasons. All four players are future NBA first-rounders.
Krzyzewski has built such a powerhouse in Durham that the Blue Devils are the Yankees of college basketball these days. They can get the best talent, play before packed houses in the best arena in the country and are on TV more than Donald Rumsfeld. At the start of every season, anyone hoping to win a championship must get through Duke.
Perhaps the best thing about this game was that you could see how the Yankees, make that the Dukies, can be beaten. The team's only weakness is its lack of depth (UK bench, 31-9) and soft rebounding (51-34). The same problems existed last year but the brilliance of Williams and Shane Battier covered them up. Now Battier is gone. Williams, though, is the best college guard since Allen Iverson. With Kentucky holding a lead throughout the second half, Williams scored 23 of his team's final 31 points.
"I think Jason was remarkable," said Krzyzewski. "He just put us on his back. When you have a great player you need to let that great player take you."
Kentucky's Smith shook his head and said "We had no answer for him."
There is legitimate talk about Duke sweeping into the NCAA Tournament undefeated. No team has gone unbeaten since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. That seems a bit far-fetched. Duke still has to play Maryland twice and at Virginia, among other stops around the ACC. It's easy to stub your toe in that minefield.
We'll even claim that the Devils aren't the team with the best chance of bringing an unblemished record into the NCAA's. That honor should go to Butler. After winning at Ball State last week, Butler's toughest game could be a potential showdown with Indiana in the Hoosier Classic next week. After that, the Bulldogs only face the iron of the Horizon League where subpar Detroit and Cleveland State teams look like the stiffest competition.