Duke knows now means little later

JOHN EISENBERG B

January 09, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- A big blowout in January: big deal.

The Duke Blue Devils were every bit the monster last night at Cole Field House.

Didn't mean a thing.

OK, maybe it did mean something. In wiping out shallower, smaller, less-everything Maryland, the top-ranked, unbeaten, team-for-the-ages Dukies demonstrated again that they are worthy of the awe -- make that aaaah -- they engender.

It's the same aaaah that the top-ranked, unbeaten, team-for-the-ages UNLV Runnin' Rebels were collecting this time last season. Collecting all season, in fact, right up to the moment Duke knocked them out in the Final Four.

At which point every prior dribble of their marvelous season was rendered irrelevant.

All those big nights in January that the Rebels had? Those monster blowouts they ran up? Big deal. Didn't mean a thing. Losing to Duke was the season's headline. Rebels: not quite.

It is what has happened to college basketball: The regular season has been reduced to a four-month tuneup. The NCAA tournament is now the only yardstick by which teams measure their seasons.

Nights such as last night at Cole offer the best and worst about the game. A hot gym, a jacked-up crowd, pros-in-the-making on both sides: There truly are few more electric events in sports. But the caveat was a doozy: It didn't mean a thing. Sorry, it just didn't.

Now, things might have been different had the Terps been off probation and eligible for the tournament. They're the kind of modest, hustling team that would need big wins to get their NCAA bauble. For them, big nights in January would be a big deal. Huge.

But they don't mean a thing to the Dukies and three dozen other top teams who already are guaranteed tournament berths. These teams couldn't win less than 20 games if they tried. Their seasons are judged solely by their NCAA showings.

Carolina won the ACC tournament last year, if you recall. But you probably didn't recall, right?

Ohio State won the Big Ten, got seeded first in a regional and then lost to someone in a game no one remembers. It's like magic: lose to the wrong team in the NCAAs and it's like you didn't win a game all season.

March Madness is a wonderful, exhilarating three weeks, but what it does to the rest of the season is just plain rotten. (This, incidentally, is why I'm dead against a college football playoff, which would rob all the importance from the four months of games that precede it. As Keith Jackson would say, "Tain't right.")

At this point in the basketball season, and all the way up to March, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and the coaches of the other top teams are worried more about development than winning.

Of course they want to win, but a loss goes down easily if the coach sees his zone defense or motion offense starting to jell.

A few years ago, after Georgetown had beaten Pitt in a tough, late-season game that was significant in the Big East standings, John Thompson came into the interview room and said it was a good tuneup for the NCAAs.

"To me it's always performance until you get to March," Krzyzewski said after last night's 83-66 win, which ran his team's record to 9-0. "Of course you like to learn by winning. I don't ever like to learn by losing. That's not so great.

"But see, I was very disappointed after our last game [against Florida State] and I'm very happy tonight. The margin of victory was about the same in both games. But I saw some things I didn't like against Florida State, and tonight we played very, very well. We played some beautiful basketball out there at times tonight."

They did, indeed, particularly at the beginning of both halves. They ran out to a 21-6 lead in the first eight minutes, and after Maryland regrouped and kept the margin around there the rest of the first half, the Dukies scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Now, a win is a win is a win, but what Krzyzewski will take from the game is the outside shooting of Thomas Hill and the 40 consistent minutes his team played. Neither had been in evidence this season.

Such developments are, to a coach, much more important than the final score. A loss would have meant nothing to a team assured of an NCAA spot. It is the little touches that Krzyzewski wants -- the poise, the balance -- because that is what he is going to need in March.

Because there is some team out there just starting to get it together, much as Duke was just starting to get it together this time last year. You couldn't have envisioned the Devils beating UNLV this time a year ago. But then, a four-month exhibition season is plenty of time to get yourself ready.

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