Krash Kentucky, Bucky? Think Duke-UNLV ’91

1 Apr

March Madness is crazy for upsets.

More than any other sport festival, college b-ball’s pink carnation affairs (men’s & women’s NCAA Division I Basketball Championships) seem predicated on the high probability that powerhouse schools will get unplugged by some small-college upstart on their way to being fitted for Cinderello’s glass sneaker.

Bookies & business-types lose sleep thinking about it but fans can’t get enough.

Shockers aren’t the only defining trait of Madness. Writer Frank Deford ( / “What Makes March..” / 3-9-11) believes “single-elimination” is what makes the tourney a winner.

My own diagnosis: it’s the tournament’s inclusiveness which gives it a lovable lunacy.

The NCAA holds a big dance and (nearly) everyone’s invited.

Unlike the hoity-toity cotillion which is college football’s CFP championship, the men’s and women’s parties are where new stars are found and dreams can become reality. It’s not exactly a “Delta Tau Chi” bash (Animal House) but more like that dorm party the first week of classes: come one, come all.

Apart from a national crisis, no event does more to unify the 50 than Selection Sunday. Excitement-wise, it’s up there with the Triple Crowns, final five in the Super Bowl, last lap at Indy.500 and atlas stones lift in World‘s Strongest Man.

It’s why President Obama’s so keen to publicize his tourney picks. Savvy man.

If you can’t find a team to root for you’re not trying.

The Selection gets our attention, the upsets keep us talking.

And talk we do, as there’s usually no shortage of top seeds (#s 1-4) who handle their votes-of-confidence as if they were hot potatoes. The shockers include Texas Western (El Paso) (v UK ‘66), NC State (v HOU ‘83), Villanova (v GTwn ‘85), Princeton (v UCLA ’96) and Mercer (v Duke ‘14). Doozies.

But this year the Pepto-Bismol® stayed in the medicine cabinet as the queasy catastrophes proved relatively rare with most #2 seeds playing fairly deep into the tourney and three #1s making it to the Showcase (Final Four).

That makes Saturday’s Wisconsin (35-3) v Kentucky (38-0) NCAA semi-final (Indianapolis @ 8:49pm EST (TBS) all the more intriguing.


For the Badgers (4-1 odds), pulling off the upset of the undefeated and favored Wildcats (2-3) will require an effort of gargantuan proportions and near flawless execution.

Wooden Award aspirant Frank Kaminsky (6-11) will need to emulate Christian Laettner (play to exhaustion) in hopes of leading his UW men to the Final on Monday where either Michigan St. (27-11) or Duke (33-4) await (@ 6:09)).

Kaminsky must score upwards of 25 (29 v UA) and dominate on the boards by exhibiting a rebounding prowess not displayed in the win over Arizona (6).

For the team’s part, a continued adherence to coach Bo Ryan’s smart play (few fouls) and cleavage away from what’s become an over-reliance on 3-pointers are keys to victory.

But most important to Wisconsin’s forward progress in NCAA 2015 is a willingness to bang inside with the Bluegrass big men. If not control of the tempo, having an equal say. A sustained presence in the paint will also open up the shooting lanes, mid-range and long (3s), not unlike establishing the run game in pro football to set up the pass.

And carving out a presence under the basket is exactly what Laettner and his Duke teammates did to stay in it against their own unblemished and defending champion opponent UNLV in the historic 1991 semi-final.


It was the Blue Devil’s masterful performance in toppling the Runnin’ Rebels in what could be called NCAA’s all time greatest game that is now template for any team who’s presented with what appears an insurmountable obstacle, i.e., an unbeatable foe.

Not part of that template is the fact the Blue Devils, unlike the Badgers, were quite familiar with their Vegas opponent, having suffered the worst shellacking in Final history the year prior, 103-73. That embarrassing loss fostered a summer of soul searching and a sense of revenge that found an outlet in next year’s Final as the two squared off again. It was mission time for Mike Krzyzewski & Co. and we all became converts.

An advantage Wisconsin holds that Duke did not is that they face an undefeated Kentucky team that needed a bit o’ luck of the Irish to get by a hasty Notre Dame squad last Sunday (68-66) who let a win slip from their tenuous grasp.

There are chinks in UK’s armor and it’s why UW should prevail Saturday.

There’s no revenge-factor in play for the Madisonians but not having won the NCAA since Ann Sothern and Mickey Rooney were top box office (‘41), while keeper coach Bo Ryan (.742) still looks for his first title, all might serve as sufficient motivation for the guys in red & white.


But what may serve Badgers best in prepping for the balanced Kentucky attack might be a video session of Duke’s incredible 1991 win over UNLV (See; pointers).

March 30th marked the 24th anniversary of the Duke’s highly improbable victory and remains in this writer‘s memory the most exciting, sublime game in college basketball history. It is the gold standard by which all other NCAA contests must be measured.

Why such high praise for a college b-ball semifinal game? Simply put, this David and Goliath match-up had everything.

For starters, it was an upset of the first order. UNLV was undefeated, showcased Player of the Year Larry Johnson, were riding a 45-game win streak and faced the same school they’d easily brushed aside in the 1990 Final to win their first NCAA basketball title.

While Duke was no stranger to the Final Four (their fifth under Mike Krzyzewski, ninth overall), each appearance had ended with a loss. In losing to UNLV in the 1990 Final by a lopsided 103-73 margin, the Blue Devils’ game appeared out of step with the times.


Before tip-off it had all the signs of another massacre.

While the contrasting racial make-ups of the Texas Western / Kentucky squads gave that game serious social overtone, Duke / UNLV was not without its own psycho-drama.

It was ivy-covered halls vs. desert developers; old money vs. Sin City. More weighty was the appearance of favoritism when UNLV was given a pass by the NCAA Rules Committee and allowed into the tourney to defend their title.

Two years earlier Kansas had been denied defense of its own title by rule infractions. The normally no-nonsense NCAA and their new open-door policy for a similarly-situated UNLV smacked of some serious hypocrisy. But then, new money’s as green as the old.

On the surface the Blue Devils conveyed the student-athlete ideal. In reality & interview, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner appeared no more studious or articulate than the Vegas bunch and emanated the same boyish arrogance as the coming Fab Five.


As for the sideline strategists, when separated from the claims of NCAA Rules police, Jerry Tarkanian was as likeable and skilled as his Dukian counterpart Coach K.

It was on the court where the real difference existed. Duke was ball-control and fundamentals, UNLV was run & gun and dominated inside with strength.

Though a fan of neither team I wasn’t exactly neutral. Like many, I pulled for the underdog Duke. Besides that, the Rebels were a regional rival to my own school, the University of Arizona who was looking for their own breakthrough moment.

In the end, it was Duke’s relentlessness and ability to impose its style on much of the game-tempo, while managing to compete with the Rebels inside that gave the Blue Devils the narrow 79-77 victory.

UNLV didn’t lose the game, Duke won it. This was no mistake-prone Colts team stumbling against a confident Jets squad in 1969 (SB3). The Rebels played with skill and with heart. A more hard fought, back & forth battle I never witnessed. Maybe Duke just wanted it…needed it more.

Like the USA’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team (USSR / Finland), Duke’s ability to summon the strength and close the deal against Final opponent Kansas (72-65) gave their Semifinal triumph a special place in history.

The Blue Devils have remained one of the nation’s premiere programs while UNLV has fallen into mediocrity. But both schools can look back with pride on that glorious night in Indianapolis when an epic battle raged and grit, not a miracle, made a champion.


Steven Keys
Straight Shooter
Photo credits: B.Ryan, 1.2.12, wc, R.Hurd; Bucky-Badger, 12.1.07, S.Cain, wc; C.Laettner, wc, Buyanksky, 3.21.14; M.Krzyzewski, wc, 4.6.06, WD.Moss; B.Ryan, 1.2.12, wc, R.Hurd; L.Johnson, wc, 10.10.09, B.Horowitz; UNLV-Rebel.Girl, 3.4.06, wc, EK.Vaughn; Straight.Shooter, produce.label.
Posted: 4.1.15 @ 2:28pm; edit 11:46 EST


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