PHILADELPHIA -- Can I make a little confession here?
I love Duke.
I love the Duke students/fans/crazies and their antics. (My personal favorite: It's the second half at Cameron Indoor one night when the scoreboard malfunctions and everything comes up zero. The Dookies stand up and sing the national anthem. Think about it.)
I even love Coach K.
I'm in the tank for Duke big time. And don't talk to me about the who-do- these-people-think-they-are backlash or about sanctimony or anything else.
These guys are the real thing.
Allow me to quote Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo on Duke: "These guys are the real thing."
If they beat Kentucky tonight in the East Regional final -- and any time anybody beats Rick Pitino is a good day by me -- the Blue Devils are going to the Final Four for the fifth year in a row, and the sixth year in seven.
Is this remarkable?
Let's go back to P.J., whose team lost to Duke on Thursday: "I think it's amazing. When UCLA won all those championships, you almost got used to it. But now the game has just exploded, with so many good teams. The regionals are mixed and matched. Duke plays in a killer conference. You can't compare Duke and UCLA because so much has changed. It's like apples and oranges. What Duke is doing right now stands alone.
"Of course, Duke has one [title] and UCLA's got nine or 12 or whatever it is." (Actually, it's 10).
I know it's no longer hip to love Duke. It's like rooting for IBM or Japan Inc. I mean, here you've got this elite school with the elite student body that looks like it stepped right out of a Gucci ad and gets to have a basketball team that never seems to lose.
This is likable?
Yeah, and let me tell you why. In the ugly world that is college sports, Duke players not only speak in complete sentences, they all graduate. Actually, one didn't. Phil Henderson didn't. And because Henderson, who should have graduated in 1990, didn't, Mike Krzyzewski won't hang up a Final Four banner from that season in Cameron Indoor.
"For us to hang a banner when one of our guys didn't graduate," VTC Krzyzewski told the Orange County Register, "it would be a disgrace."
Too goody-goody for you? Let's put it another way: How about too principled for you? As Krzyzewski says, Duke is different from most colleges. Students who come to Duke are supposed to graduate -- and 90 percent do.
But these players are not the Cosby Kids. Don't title this: "In Which Theo Goes to College." Let's start with the star player/cover boy -- Christian "Nasty As He Wants To Be" Laettner. He's like a rock star with an attitude who loves to talk trash on the floor. "I'd rather be considered nasty," he said, "than docile." He actually said docile.
Bobby Hurley is a gym rat out of Jersey City. Grant Hill is a `D suburban kid who aced his college boards. Duke is many things.
Here's the deal. You've got a great team where the coach seems to know something about the word perspective -- he gives his shoe money to the Duke general fund -- and where the players actually seem to have something like fun. It's a dream world, sure. But isn't that what college is supposed to be?
Not that it hasn't gotten weird.
There was a woman at the Spectrum the other day wearing a "Laettner Lover" T-shirt. Laettner has two student secretaries to help him answer his fan mail.
I read a story were a teen-aged girl at a Duke-Clemson game came up to Grant Hill and asked if she could touch his ears. When he said she could, she kissed his ears. I don't make this stuff up.
"This whole year has been strange," Krzyzewski says. "We've seen how hard teams can play against you when they think they have nothing to lose. We've seen how hard fans can root against you when they think they have nothing to lose.
"Mostly, we've had fun with it. You'd be surprised some of the things said to us, some of the cheers made up for us. Sometimes, it smacks of world federation wrestling. I can't conceive that little old ladies carrying umbrellas would say things like that."
The trick for Duke is to go with the flow. The players love the attention, and they play with the same abandon they always did. There doesn't seem to be any fear on this team. Just watch them play.
"We think we're a very, very good team," Brian Davis says. "We could say we're not as good as people say we are, but what would be the point of that?"
How good is this Duke team? Here's the scary part: Duke's about as good as it is every year.