There are neutral courts, and there are neutral courts. But I am fairly certain there will not be any neutral courts for Coach K. and his Blue Devils this season. And that might hold true for “away” games as well. As notoriously difficult as it is to get tickets at Cameron Indoor Stadium, this traveling road show may out gross Ed Sheeran, U2, Bruno Mars, Garth Brooks, and The Rolling Stones combined.
Not what I teased the other day was it.
I took stock of the spectacle that I had witnessed and thought it over for a day. Initially I was going to wax prosaic about the way the game was played. How both squads integrated true freshmen into integral positions in their respective lineups. How the coaching prowess of both Coach K, and Coach Few were on full display as both teams played at fast pace, yet still displayed teamwork and some really nifty play design seldom seen in the current way the game is played. They didn’t sacrifice playing fast and showcase individual skill for running actual sets and utilizing fundamentals.
I was fully prepared, actually I began the thought while on site, to compare the 7’0” 190 pound Frosh of Gonzaga, Chet Holmgren, to myself when I was 6’0” 150 pounds and couldn’t bench press my own size 15 shoes.
I had pinpointed, to me, the exact moment in the game when the complexion of the game changed. 19:36 left in the 2nd Half, (they supply the media with great notes) when Gonzaga Forward Drew Timme, picked up an offensive foul, his third, on a typical post move for him. A little shoulder, a little hip, a little chicken wing, but this time it was called. At 19:13, Timme misses a close one, and what was once automatic was no longer so.
I was going to point out that Duke Freshman, Paolo Banchero, and his 21 points, could have won him the Continental Tire MVP. Though Wendell Moore Jr. was not a poor choice. Banchero, showed he was ready for the bright lights and his game was needed to be more fleshed out than Holmgren’s for his team to be effective.
I thought of detailing what I saw from a distance as an interesting dance taking place between the Blue Devils, heir apparent Assistant Coach Jon Scheyer, the Duke team, and the Head Coach himself. If you have ever been the next guy, officially or unofficially, the dynamic is most definitely different. Scheyer seemed to make more authoritative suggestions in the timeout huddles than I remember him making previously, and was the first off the bench to direct traffic. It may have been a trick my eyes played on me, but I noticed a subtle handing of the scepter of power. Very subtle.
I noticed quality play from both teams which give me hope for the state of college basketball. With the super seniors, transfer portals, NIL’s, and various other different directions the game is taking, one is never quite sure what to expect. Different isn’t always bad, it’s just as you age it seems bad. Let’s see if any of these things ruined the game. Freshmen eligibility, the Hardship Rule, the shot clock, the three -point line, One and Done, NCAA Tournament expansion. NCAA tournament Play-in Games, or Conference Realignment. Did any of these things ruin the game? No, yet old farts like myself keep bemoaning the fact that the game is not what is once was. Neither are my knees, get over it.
But one thing actually made me raise an eyebrow, it actually made me pay attention. Insert your own joke here. What was fantastic was how many Duke fans were here in Las Vegas. Now, I don’t know if they outdrew the Gonzaga fans, but the Zags are a west coast team, that plays their conference tourney here in Vegas and were playing the legendary Blue Devils. A chance for the Bulldogs to measure themselves and see just how grown-up they really were. Duke, not so much. Another challenger to the throne, yawn. Another venue, been there before. Another game against a number one. UNC, Kansas, Kentucky, we play them all.
In a two-week span, Las Vegas had witnessed two of the best boxers on the planet showcase their talents (Canelo Alvarez and Terence Crawford). The Oakland Raiders hosted the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Vegas Golden Knights hosted the Carolina Hurricanes, the Detroit Red Wings, the Columbus Blue jackets, and the following evening the Edmonton Oilers. And if I am not mistaken 27 college basketball tournaments, ones meant to be in town and ones meant to be in Hawaii. The Blue Devil faithful came out in droves. They may not have been the most boisterous, I saw those Chaminade fans even if they didn’t see me. And there is an outdoor venue that I will forever call “Little Milwaukee: from now on. The fact that the Duke fans were out and visible was amazing. They wore their blue as well as the UCLA crew a few days before.
I don’t know if I believe in kismet or fate, I don’t know if Coach K. is owed another title in his farewell tour. But I know a few numbers. 57, 50, 36. Eddie Robinson (Football/Grambling State), Connie Mack (Baseball/Philadelphia Athletics), Dean Smith (Basketball/North Carolina). Seasons coached by those gentlemen respectively. To be able to have survived at one post for this long, in this day and age is remarkable. Think of what you have done for the last four decades, a large portion of the population hasn’t even existed for four decades. So, it is easy to be sentimental about what the Duke Blue Devils can achieve for their outgoing legend, but when I really started to think about this after the game, one thing struck me. The fans just might carry this team to places it couldn’t have otherwise reached.