It’s pre-conference action at both its best and at its worst with annual fiascos like Georgetown-Howard going side-by-side with stellar matchups like Maryland-Arizona.
Yet one thing always stays the same in college hoops, no matter what time of the year. Duke and Kentucky consistently win games. Lots of them.
Since Kentucky beat Duke in the 1978 championship game, the dynamic duo have produced five national titles and made 13 Final Four appearances.
But just as compelling as all their individual success is the level of play that is brought out when the two teams collide. The Wildcats and Blue Devils proved that once again on Dec. 18.
This time, it was the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. With virtually nothing at stake besides pride –both teams are locks to make the NCAA tournament as high seeds –the two staged an epic battle won by the Dukies 95-92 in overtime.
Those who watched the game last night may have been recalling images of 1992, when Duke beat Kentucky 104-103 in overtime in Philadelphia on a last-second turnaround jumper from the foul line by the Blue Devils’ Christian Laettner. In everything but importance, last night’s game came very close to matching that epic game that sent Duke on to an eventual national title.
There were clutch baskets, amazing block shots and an incredible energy and intensity that is rarely seen before the conference season.
The two teams went back and forth, with seven lead changes in the final five minutes of regulation before Duke eventually prevailed.
One minute, there was Kentucky’s Tayshaun Prince, the 2000-2001 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, taking the Blue Devils off the dribble on a sweet crossover before pulling up in the lane to bury a jumper.
Back came preseason first-team All-American Jason Williams, burying crucial three-pointers in the final minutes en route to a jaw-dropping 38-point performance.
For Duke, it was the sixth win in its past seven games against Kentucky. Yet despite the lopsided record, the two seem to bring out the best in each other and in their fans.
It is always a tournament-like atmosphere when these two suit up and last night was no exception. Most of the 20,029 people that came to see the Jimmy V Classic, which also included an earlier matchup between Alabama and Temple, came dressed in Kentucky or Duke blue.
Alumni and students of both schools come in droves to see their teams play no matter where they go, and they are as fanatical about college basketball as you can get.
George O’Leary, who was initially named Notre Dame head football coach before admitting that he lied on his resume, said the two best jobs in sports would be with the Fighting Irish football team or baseball’s New York Yankees.
You can add Duke and Kentucky basketball to the list, by George. From the A-list of college stars — All-Americans Jack Givens, Laettner, Jamal Mashburn, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Antoine Walker –to the A-list of games played against each other, including a thrilling come-from-behind victory by the Wildcats in their 1997-98 national title run, these two have tradition to spare.
When Rick Pitino left Kentucky in 1997 for the greener pastures of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, the Wildcats didn’t panic. They hired former Pitino assistant Tubby Smith from Georgia and won a national title the next season.
When Mike Krzyzewski was forced to the sidelines with an ailing back in the1994-95 season, the Blue Devils still won 13 games. And in the last three seasons, Duke has won a national title (2000-2001) and gone to two Final Fours.
And on Dec. 18, 2001, the Wildcats and Blue Devils reminded us once again just how good basketball can be, no matter what time of the year.
Kipp Hanley is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or e-mail him at [email protected]