Not everyone is in love with Blue Devils

March 31, 1992|By Tom Sorensen | Tom Sorensen,Knight-Ridder

Last season, the Duke Blue Devils were everybody's All-Americans. Players came across as interesting, articulate guys who were good enough to get to the Final Four, but not quite good enough to win it. So despite their success, they were underdogs.

Then they beat Nevada-Las Vegas -- a seemingly unbeatable team favored mainly by deeply tanned men with jewelry -- and, in the NCAA championship, Kansas.

Basketball fans rejoiced.

They aren't rejoicing now. We are in Year 1 of the great Duke backlash.

Fans tire of teams that win all the time, and Duke wins almost all the time. Ranked No. 1 since November, Duke will play this week in its fifth straight Final Four.

To get there, the Blue Devils had to beat Kentucky, a lovable underdog despite its tradition, on a last-second overtime shot by Christian Laettner.

The game was sensational, and in Lexington, Ky., Sunday night and again yesterday, fans replayed the final seconds, hoping this time the ball would not go in.

"Why does Duke have to win everything?" one woman asked.

A victory by the Wildcats, a program left for dead four years ago, was as unlikely as Duke's Final Four victory last season against ++ UNLV. Fans of underdogs everywhere were saddened by Duke's win.

The Blue Devils, however, can wear even on fans who don't care about underdogs. And they have.

They were refreshing when they first emerged as a good team in the mid-1980s. Players were accessible and candid, and not once did they answer reporters' questions as if they were reading from a script.

Duke was what happened when academics and athletics came together.

The Blue Devils won with players who went to class -- but not in shiny new booster-provided cars. Players did not sell their tickets or basketball shoes, and they won anyway.

Success, however, can breed arrogance. At Duke, there was a mantra: We are Duke. We do it the Duke way. You are not Duke. You do it wrong.

What the Blue Devils use to do with a snicker, they now do with a sneer.

A sneer describes Laettner, the best player in college basketball this season. The foot with which he stomped on the stomach of Kentucky freshman Aminu Timberlake Saturday was certainly less than Christian.

If a Runnin' Rebel did this a year ago, he would have been portrayed in the newspapers as a cheap hood who should be banned from college basketball.

Laettner is portrayed as a competitor who got a little carried away.

Laettner gets a little carried away a lot. The Christian Stomp is not an isolated dance.

Watch him.

He screams at teammates who don't meet his exacting standards, claps in the face of opponents when he's called for a foul, claps in the face of opponents when they're called for a foul.

He seemed to laugh at talented but awkward Iowa center Acie Earl of Iowa 10 days ago in a second-round tournament game. When asked, Laettner said he wasn't laughing at Earl. With Duke up by 24, perhaps Laettner was laughing with him.

So the Blue Devils aren't everybody's All-Americans in the Final Four this week. But if they aren't your favorite, who is?

Young Michigan -- that's the name of the school now -- is interesting, but the Wolverines' cockiness will wear out in a week like a hit song played again and again.

The Hoosiers of Indiana are coached by Bobby Knight, who would be fascinating if he weren't obnoxious and cheered by fans who let him get away with it.

And what about Cincinnati, which will be making its first Final Four appearance since 1963? Year after year, decade after decade, the Bearcats quietly rebuilt their basketball program. And when that didn't work, they filled their roster with junior college transfers.

There is an alternative. You can hop in a tanning booth, borrow some jewelry and cheer for UNLV.

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