As I write this, it is Sunday morning, the night after the semifinals of the men’s NCAA tournament. The reason I’m writing this column now instead of after Monday’s night championship game is simple: I’m off work this week, so I needed to get my column done on Sunday.
By now, either upstart Butler or the hated Duke Blue Devils will be national champs. I say hated because, well, quite frankly, Kentucky fans have a deep, rooted hatred for Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils.
And I don’t understand why. Why do Kentucky fans dislike Duke, on the same par as Tennessee or Louisville?
Tennessee I can understand. Border state, conference rival. That makes sense. Ditto for Louisville. In-state rival less than 100 miles west of Lexington, former UK coach Rick Pitino now at the helm of the Cardinals. That makes sense.
But Duke? Mention that name to a Kentucky fan, and you get the same response: “I hate Duke.”
I asked a friend of mine, a Kentucky grad and Big Blue fan, why this disdain for the Blue Devils. He had a simple two word response: Christian Laettner.
Ah yes, the man who puts the Devil in Blue Devils, in the eyes of Kentucky fans. Who can forget 1992, the East Regional final on March 28, in Philadelphia’s Spectrum, in what many refer to as “the greatest college basketball game ever played.”
Laettner did have an impressive game before the final shot. He made 10 of 10 shots from the field, and 10 of 10 from the free-throw line for a game-high 31 points. But it’s “the shot” that everyone remembers.
The final seconds of the overtime may go down as one of the most viewed and most talked-about sports moments in college basketball history. After a time-out, Sean Woods took the ball and drove down the key. Seeing no option for a kick-out to the wing (for a perimeter shot), he took a high-arching runner which floated just over Laettner’s outstretched arms. The ball banked sharply into the net, and it looked like Kentucky would deny Duke’s hopes for a repeat national title.
But unfortunately for Kentucky fans, the story doesn’t end there. After a time-out and with 2.1 seconds remaining, Duke still had a last chance. Grant Hill threw a perfect three-quarter length pass to Laettner who faked, dribbled once, turned and then shot the perfect game winner over Deron Feldhaus with no time left on the clock, giving Duke a 104-103 win, a trip to the national title, where the Blue Devils won their second straight.
In that respect, I could understand if Kentucky fans said they hated Christian Laettner.
If you look at the overall series record, Kentucky leads Duke, 11-8. The Wildcats and the Blue Devils have met once in the NCAA final, in 1978, won, of course, by Kentucky. The also beat Duke in the 1996 semifinals and the 1998 Southeast Region finals en route to a national championship. The Wildcats have more national titles and more overall victories. Duke has only knocked Kentucky out of the NCAA twice: 1980 and 1992.
So if anything, Duke fans should hate Kentucky. But they have bigger foes to worry about, such as ACC rivals North Carolina and Maryland. Those are the teams Duke fans hate the most.
Sure, Duke beat Kentucky in the semifinals of the 1992 tourney, thus denying the Wildcats a trip to the national title game. But there are several other teams that Kentucky fans should hate more than Duke.
What about Arizona? That set of Wildcats beat Kentucky in the national championship game in 1997 in overtime, and that loss denied Kentucky the chance for back-to-back titles. The Wildcats won it all in 1996, then again in 1998. Had Arizona not beaten them, Kentucky would have had a three-peat, putting them in the same rare air as UCLA, the only team in history to win three straight titles, during the Bruins run of seven straight between 1967 and 1973.
But I don’t hear any UK fans saying they hate Arizona.
What about CCNY? Another school that denied Kentucky three straight titles. UK won it all in 1948 and 1949, then CCNY beat the Cats in the 1950 finals before Kentucky came back to win it in 1951.
And then there’s Ohio State, who knocked Kentucky out of the tournament on four different occasions. No one says they hate the Buckeyes.
In all, 28 different teams have eliminated Kentucky from the NCAA tournament, from the small (Jacksonville, Western Kentucky, Loyola of Chicago, UAB and Middle Tennessee State) to the traditional powers (Louisville, Indiana, UCLA, Georgetown, Kansas and Maryland). Rarely are any of those teams (with the exception of Louisville and Indiana) disliked by UK fans.
But if you want to go by who has eliminated the Wildcats the most from the national tournament, and thus should incur the wraith of Kentucky fans, that would be Marquette, a team that has sent the Wildcats home on five different occasions.
How come no one says they hate Marquette?
Denis House can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.