This is the third time the Final Four will be conducted inside a dome in downtown Minneapolis and the first in which we have not been imposed on by the presence of Duke.
There have been numerous locals encountered in the past several days — media and hoop-heads — lamenting the Blue Devils’ absence, generally with a comment such as:
“I really wanted to see Zion Williamson tear it up right here in the midst of our Frozen Wasteland.”
Sorry. That’s not a good enough excuse to root for Duke.
We already were required to watch two of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s five national champions celebrate here: in 1992 with a blowout of Michigan, and in 2001 by handling Arizona.
It was that Monday night when I realized my enmity toward Duke had become compulsive. Here were the Dookies taking on the chronically smug Lute Olson, and I found myself rooting for Midnight Lute. That was Jerry Tarkanian’s handle for him — based on Tark’s belief that Lute would sneak in under the cover of darkness and steal recruits.
The second title in Minneapolis came on the 15th anniversary of becoming anti-Duke. That measured decision came in about a 20-minute period on the Sunday before Duke and Louisville would play for the 1986 championship in Dallas’ Reunion Arena. I got so tired then of hearing media gush over how clever and articulate were these Dookies that I became a Louisville fan.
Give me the choice of rooting for Jay Bilas from ritzy Rolling Hills, Calif., or Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner from the streets of Camden, N.J., I’m going with the high school teammates from Camden.
Louisville got it done, 72-69, thanks to Never-Nervous Pervis Ellison, and then we endured what would become the traditional Krzyzewski platitudes toward his great young men and for a foe that had conquered them.
Can’t help it. Gushing doesn’t do it for me.
Duke was back in the Final Four in 1988, and Krzyzewski was outcoached in the semifinals by Kansas’ Larry Brown. The Dookies were hammered by Seton Hall in the national semis again in 1989, and then came the greatest evening I’ve ever spent in a basketball arena (McNichols in Denver):
UNLV 103, Duke 73. Tark’s Runnin’ Rebels were so good that not even Krzyzewski’s platitudes came off as gratuitous.
I wasn’t covering the 1991 Final Four: I could only scream from my TV den, “That wasn’t a charge; Bobby Hurley flopped,” as Duke defeated UNLV 79-77 in the semifinals, to end what was an unbeaten run for the Rebels. Duke beat Kansas 72-65 two nights later, for Krzyzewski’s first national title. It had to happen sometime, even if the Hurley flop did put me squarely in a camp where I remain 28 years later:
Krzyzewski and Duke get the calls when they need them.
You can argue. You can point a couple of important whistles that have gone against Krzyzewski, aka The Intimidator, but you’re not changing my mind:
You want to beat Duke, you have to beat seven guys (a theory that accounts for the possibility of one neutral official among the three).
One year after the Hurley flop, Christian Laettner scored off the heave-and-shoot to beat Kentucky 104-103 in overtime in a regional final in Philadelphia. The 1992 Final Four was coming to Minneapolis, and I was in Lexington, Ky., for a regional that had an off day.
Eight floors high, the hotel shook with the anguished screams and wall-pounding that took place when Laettner hit that cutthroat shot.
I’d been in Laettner’s presence a handful of times, and he came off as arrogant. Then, he was drafted third overall by the Timberwolves, and we had a chance to find out not only was Laettner a back-to-back national champion — he was also the undisputed world champion of arrogance.
Three seasons later, there was no going back for Coach K and me:
That’s when he had his worst team in what’s now 39 years, coincidentally opted for back surgery before the start of the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, and then he had all those losses — including 2-14 in the ACC — put in the lap of fill-in coach Pete Gaudet, where they remain in the Duke record book.
There’s a baseball writer from Chicago, a friend with whom I exchange anti-Duke sentiments over the winter. I sent this message on Friday: “What are your three best reasons for hating Duke? I don’t want to miss a key one.”
Seven minutes later came the response:
“False hustle, can’t play defense despite the hype, preach academics and they’re all one-and-dones. And, they’re usually good for one annoying player, from Laettner to Grayson Allen.”
So, to summarize: Missing Duke in this Final Four in the new Minneapolis dome? Yeah, like Kirk Cousins misses Khalil Mack.