I laugh when I hear people spouting off about the possibility that college football and basketball are overexposed, in large part due to the commercial efforts of ESPN and the major over-the-air networks. No. Such. Thing. If you can watch games dispassionately while deriving useful nuggets of information for future use against the linesmaker, it's all good. But thoughtful adults have to filter verbal cronyism pitched by certain major media in order to unearth the relevant truths which can point dedicated analysts in the right directions.
There's no college basketball program which enjoys greater support from the media fog machine than the Pride of Durham, the Duke Blue Devils. One of Mike Krzyzewski's decidedly non-vintage editions got bounced from the ACC tournament by North Carolina State Thursday night. It was Duke's first loss under Coach K in that clambake since the 1997 rendition when they also lost to the Wolfpack.
Under Krzyzewski, Duke has a sterling recent history in conferences tourneys (not to mention overall!), and it's not always a bad thing to get blown out early in one of these things, so long as you're certain to Dance. A quick loss gives a squad a chance to freshen up, and gives their respective coaches more time to prepare - a vital plus, when thorough scouting knowledge translates into power and advantage. Assured of Big Dance placement, UCLA and Maryland are unlikely to be heartbroken that they're facing a week of refreshment and refocusing . . . though I relish the Bruins' and Terps' chances in the weeks to come, much more than I favor Duke's.
In their case, Duke also figures to benefit from a sustained cooling-off period on the "heels" of the brouhaha inspired by last weekend's regular-season finale against North Carolina, televised by CBS.
You know the story. In Sunday's Blue Devil/Tar Heel rematch, with Duke getting thrashed and the game wholly out of reach in the closing moments, Gerald Henderson launched himself under the boards and managed a direct hit on Tyler Hansbrough's face, breaking Hansbrough's nose. Were Henderson's arms extended, in legitimate shot-blocking mode? Uh, no. He delivered the prototypical physically-aggressive blow, apparently out of frustration, in the heat of battle. In no way did this parallel the precious, grinning Christian Laettner stepping on a Kentucky foe, but it was uncalled-for. The move earned Henderson a one-game suspension in Friday's conference quarterfinals. Whoop-de-damn-doo.
It's not a state secret that there is a pervasive pro-Duke spin throughout most major basketball media outlets. Dick Vitale's nickname isn't "Dookie V", for nothing. During the Florida State/Carolina telecast Friday afternoon, Vitale solemnly affirmed the party line, asserting that while Henderson's foul was "flagrant", it wasn't "intentional". Huh? This reasoning closely resembled colorman Jimmy Dykes' apologetica that was rolled out during Thursday evening's Duke loss to N. C. State. Prettily spun, but largely comprised of buffalo chips, as anyone who saw the foul with unbiased eyes will tell you. At least Dykes acknowledged that Henderson's hard foul was likely motivated from the accumulated frustrations of the afternoon. We are compelled to point out that most players under parallel circumstances don't go out of their way to physically respond in the manner Henderson did. But the kid took a shot - and garnered but a mere one-game suspension (the loss to the Pack).
Courtside at Sunday's mismatch, veteran CBS analyst Billy Packer, an ACC booster for decades and an ex-Wake Forest Star, essentially gave Henderson a pass, in the grand "boys will be boys" tradition.
Mike Krzyzewski has a superb recruiting record over the years, but this year's class comes up short in terms of observing sound b-ball fundamentals. This year's Durham personnel requires pointed coaching to be competitive against the bigger kids, and Coach K has struggled with this particular crew. Look at the latest "K" disciples coaching at the major-college level. Impressed? Aside from giving props to Mike Bray, who's doing a decent job at South Bend's football school, you're left cold. Tommy Amaker's next trip to the Big Dance as Michigan's coach will be his first. Jeff Capel's made nobody forget any of the greats during his maiden voyage at Oklahoma, especially off Friday's dismemberment at the hands of the Jayhawks.
Of those who have come and gone, the most recent questionable advertisement was Quin Snyder and his brief reign at Missouri. Hired on the heels of Norm Stewart's lengthy stint in Columbia, Snyder made the NCAAs his first four years out of the box, but was buffeted by NCAA inquiries a couple of years in, and the program was placed on three years probation in 2004. Things drifted south, thereafter, and Snyder departed Mizzou in February of '06 off a half-dozen consecutive double-digit losses, leaving a program in disarray, on the court - and off.
This Duke edition doesn't do a great job of respecting possession of the basketball. Duke's Greg Paulus was rated by many scouting organizations as the premier point-guard prospect coming out of high school. He may eventually evolve into something special - but he's not close yet. Playing against older, more muscular competition, he has yet to evolve into the assist machine a player in his position should be at this level . . . and there are doubters aplenty.
Duke rooters are discomforted, with the loss to the Wolfpack sinking the Blue Devils below .500 in conference confrontations this season. They've played a brutal schedule, no question - ACC affiliation will do that to ya - but they didn't play a road game before a hostile crowd until January 10! Coach K acknowledges the pre-conference schedule was in large part a coddle job. You figure that he knew this bunch needed maximum confidence-reinforcement. If so, he was right.
These days, any edge to be had going with Duke roundball is infrequent -- not to mention scant. The hype strips your value, the talent pool is down - and Coach K's in-game methodology is predictable, not to mention hackneyed. Try to run an inferior opponent off the floor early, by going uptempo . . . take the air out of the ball and play not to lose when nursing a lead on a hostile court against a competitive opponent . . . we've all seen these movies involving the Dukies, countless times. Go to the well with these overpublicized kids at bad numbers, in bad spots, and your bankroll will diminish more quickly than J. J. Redick's shooting percentage in the Round of Sixteen.
Release the hounds.