April 3, 2004 was the day I decided I would attend Duke.
The only reason I can recall that date so specifically is because of what happened that night. The Blue Devils, obviously unaware of my newfound excitement for Duke Basketball, lost to UConn in the Final Four.
As I watched Chris Duhon's meaningless half-courter bank in as time ran out, I was reminded of a fact that is often used to demonstrate just how dominant the Blue Devils have been under Mike Krzyzewski: every Duke graduating class except one that has entered the University since 1982 has been witness to at least one Final Four. In other words, Duke would be back-and I and the other 1,600-plus new members of the Class of 2008 would get another chance to watch our team playing for the national championship.
Well, it's almost four years later now, and there are plenty of things that look a lot different than they did that night. First, Bob Knight is actually working for-not criticizing-the media. (Although apparently some things, like those hideous sweaters, don't change.) Second, DeMarcus Nelson is the only remaining player from Duke's original recruiting class of 2008, following Shaun Livingston's declaration for the NBA draft and Dave McClure's redshirt year.
Finally, Nelson is still without that trip to the Final Four, despite being a No. 1 seed and among the favorites to win it all twice during that period. This year's seniors are in serious danger of joining the Class of 1998 in the unfortunate club of Duke losers. That is, unless the Blue Devils can prove all the talking heads wrong by rolling through the West bracket-including a possible matchup against top-seeded UCLA in the Elite Eight-on their way to the Final Four.
Can Nelson and the rest of the Blue Devils do it? I wouldn't bet on it, but with the favorable draw they received when the brackets were released Sunday, I wouldn't count it out either.
Duke kicks off its NCAA Tournament against Belmont on Thursday (which by the way, is my favorite day of the year. If anyone is interested in joining my campaign to make this a national holiday, please contact me. Actually don't, because it would be a pointless exercise, but you know what I'm saying. My high school coincidentally used to give this Thursday and Friday of March off each year, allowing me to spend all day on the couch watching the first round. Throw in the tournament falling over spring break the past three years, and nothing scares me more than breaking my streak of couch celebrations next year-you know, when I'm a member of the real world).
In any case, the most relevant-and insufferable-part of the Belmont game is that most Duke students are likely to make a joke along the lines of "Belmont? Isn't that an off-campus apartment complex, not a college?" over the course of the next three days. But as long as the Blue Devils' bus doesn't break down on the way to the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C, Duke should-knock on wood-coast into the second round.
In that round, the Blue Devils would face the winner of West Virginia and Arizona. Without legendary coach Lute Olson, the Wildcats just haven't looked the same, so my bet is on Bob Huggins' Mountaineers to make it through to Saturday. West Virginia is led by versatile 6-foot-8 forward Joe Alexander, who has caught fire lately and is the type of player who could catalyze a Cinderella run. But versatile forwards are something Duke happens to have plenty of, and the Blue Devils simply have more weapons than the Mountaineers.
A potential Sweet 16 matchup against No. 3 seed Xavier is where it could get interesting. Members of the Atlantic 10, the Musketeers have been the best "mid-major" team in the country this year and have been wreaking havoc all season with their 3-point shooting and tough man-to-man defense. But their point guard and leader, Drew Lavender-who Duke fans might remember from when the Blue Devils played Oklahoma three years ago in Madison Square Garden-is still recovering from an ankle injury. Perhaps more importantly, Xavier hasn't faced a tough opponent in about two months, and Duke should be much better prepared for a Sweet 16 level of competition.
That brings me to UCLA, the overwhelming favorite to win the West and a very fashionable pick by the "experts" to win it all. There's no denying that the Bruins would be a tough matchup for the Blue Devils, with their bruising front line, experienced backcourt and deep bench. Still, it's not outside the realm of possibility-despite what's being said on ESPN-that Duke could give UCLA a great run, especially if Kyle Singler rediscovers his game in the tournament and outplays his old high school foe, Kevin Love.
A win in the Elite Eight would earn Duke a trip to San Antonio for the Final Four in the Alamodome-which just so happens to be the same site of Duke's 2004 loss to the Huskies. I'd take that as my graduation present.
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