MINNEAPOLIS -- When they first met Dec. 14, they were as different as two teams could be. Duke was the established force in college basketball -- a top-ranked, undefeated, widely feared Goliath. Michigan was starting only three-fifths of the Fab Five freshmen lineup that has carried the Wolverines into tonight's national title showdown against the Blue Devils.
It was only Game 5 of the season for Michigan, a paper tiger of a team whose success was discussed in terms of somedays, not today.
"If anything, we resented the Fab Five attention a little bit because we said, 'Then what happens if we come out and play bad?' " Michigan freshman forward Chris Webber said yesterday. "Duke was our first tough game of the season and our first game on national TV. We were playing like we had a lot to prove. We were playing for respect."
Duke blew a 17-point lead, then hung on in overtime for an 88-85 victory.
But the significance of the effort wasn't lost on Michigan freshman Jimmy King, even then. "We went into that game thinking we could play on this level," King said. "But after that game, we knew."
In many ways, though, the gulf between the two teams hasn't changed.
Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski sighs and says the first Michigan game now seems like it was eons ago, and casts it as just another stop for the defending national champions in a season of being "hunted" every step of the way.
"We always get everyone's best shot," the coach said.
But the young Wolverines still seem to regard the Duke loss as an open wound that pains them today. They use fighting words like "revenge" when they could say they want to "avenge" the loss. They speak with disgust about going on to play like "immature little freshmen" (Webber's phrase for it) later in the year, even after they seemed to prove themselves worthy of big things against Duke.
And while the Blue Devils confessed to being vague on many of the particulars, the Wolverines can remember plenty of plays that still gall them today -- and no one more than Webber, who spent at least four minutes yesterday recounting a personal string of plays he made against Duke in the last minutes of regulation and overtime: an errant pass off someone's knee that Duke turned into a basket; a missed shot; the foul he committed as Hurley shot a three-pointer in overtime.
Webber fouled out on the play and Hurley went to the line and sank all three free throws to decide the game.
"The thing I remember is we could've won," Webber said.
"You could say back then, we cracked under the pressure a little in overtime," said fellow freshman Ray Jackson. "That was one of the few times it happened to us all year."
And the Blue Devils? They say they've just started reacquainting themselves with the Wolverines. They say the way Michigan came roaring back in that December game indicates what everyone already knows: The Wolverines are vastly talented.
The Blue Devils vaguely remember "getting out of character," in center Christian Laettner's words, then woofing back at the Wolverines as Michigan ripped off a 14-0 run that sling-shotted Michigan into a second-half lead.
"But that won't happen again [tonight]," Laettner said sternly.
"If we do any talking," Hurley agreed, "it will only be to each other."
But Duke was struck, too, by the across-the-board height the Wolverines' lineup has when 6-6 Jackson and 6-8 Jalen Rose were at guard along with the 6-6 King and Webber and Juwan Howard (both 6-9). But Krzyzewski also mentioned something yesterday, almost as a throwaway line, that's an oft-overlooked facet of tonight's game: So much attention is paid to Rose's height advantage over smaller point guards, it's often overlooked that Hurley's quickness creates problems, too. As a look at the box score from the first game shows, Hurley got to the free-throw line against Michigan 14 times -- or eight more times than Webber did while working inside.
That indicates Hurley was shaking loose or blowing by somebody that day on the way to his team-high 26 points.
You can be sure the Wolverines will try to do something to disrupt Hurley, just as Duke will try something to prevent Webber from matching his performance in Game 1. Both teams seem to agree on this: When the ball goes up tonight, the first game won't mean a thing.
As Michigan assistant Perry Watson says, the Wolverines knew back in December they could do some real damage this year in the tournament. "The question after that became how long would they take to mature, and how fast would they get more of those experiences to learn from -- having to come from behind to win a game, having to handle it when someone makes a run at them."
It's been a cram course all the way. A win tonight, they'll have their answer: three months and 23 days.