Duke is preparing for the national championship game, and oversimplified story lines are being drawn.
Upstart fan favorite against the neighborhood bully.
Gritty college Davids who play the game the right way standing up to the future pro star Goliaths.
Yes, the plucky Blue Devils were that kind of perceived underdog, a quarter century ago.
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When Duke takes on Wisconsin in college basketball’s national championship game Monday night, the roles have been somewhat reversed.
The Blue Devils are the establishment, the Badgers the fun-loving party crasher that wins on guile, experience and work ethic.
At the Final Four in 1991, Duke had to get through fire-breathing UNLV, the same team that had walloped the Blue Devils by 30 in the previous year’s title game.
Duke slayed the giant and knocked off Kansas for the program’s first national championship after coming away empty in four Final Fours over the previous five years.
The drama back then developed a good vs. evil theme that offended the Runnin’ Rebels.
“You can call us bad guys, you can call us thugs,” UNLV star Larry Johnson said then.
OK, so that wasn’t as bad as the open mic muttering of Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison, who breathed an expletive and racial term when a teammate was asked about Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky after the Badgers beat the Wildcats in an outcome that if not shocking at least came with a beast-conquering quality.
But the point is, in both cases, the insults fed the morality play narrative.
Wisconsin wears the halo now.
The Badgers are the darlings here and did nothing to hurt that image on Sunday. Coach Bo Ryan also was asked about 1991. That’s when he won his first of his four NCAA titles at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.
“The training-table meal was hot dogs,” Ryan said. “The morning of the game, I had a cream doughnut and a diet pop. … I think there was a stringer from the Madison paper that actually showed up and covered the game.”
The Wisconsin players brought their A game to the news conference.
“I don’t really know how to answer questions,” forward Nigel Hayes said. “I just thought I was brought here to say some words and you guys might laugh.”
Later Kaminsky responded to a query by offering an optional direction.
“So, do you want like an intellectual answer?” he said.
Exchanges brought chuckles, and most of the answers were better than the questions. All were thoughtful. Aren’t these great kids?
This was the same portrait of Duke before the Blue Devils won their first title. They were well-spoken kids from an academic powerhouse. How could you not pull for them?
The Blue Devils had re-energized after their UNLV triumph, just as Wisconsin must do after beating Kentucky. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recalled how well his team handled the moment.
“It wasn’t just the emotion in the locker room,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought we handled that well. It was the emotion in the hotel. It was so packed, they were right next to you.”
Wisconsin can relate. The lobby of their team hotel Saturday night was shoulder-to-shoulder delirious.
“Wild,” Kaminsky said. “I could hear them all the way up on the eighth floor until 1:30. I wish they had stopped a little earlier.”
Duke then, like Wisconsin now, never thought it would lose the semifinal, as monumental as the victory seemed at the time. Krzyzewski thought he had the best player on the floor in freshman Grant Hill. The Badgers believed they knew how and where to attack Kentucky. Ryan said the team never talked about Kentucky’s record or ranking. Wisconsin wasn’t intimidated.
The Blue Devils won’t wear a black hat in Monday night’s game, but they are the game’s power, the familiar brand. Had Kentucky emerged on Saturday, that title game would have been billed as a clash of titans.
Now, although the Blue Devils and Badgers are No. 1 seeds and the game is seen as a toss-up, the team coached by a guy who chased a doughnut with a diet pop and talked to a single reporter after his last championship-game appearance, the one whose players make everybody laugh, becomes the people’s choice.