Sports

Duke, Kansas and the marquee matchup we’ve been waiting to see

OMAHA, Neb. — In an unforgettable NCAA tournament that has delivered unprecedented upsets (UMBC stole our hearts) and unbelievable last-shot drama (Loyola-Chicago has kept them beating), we finally have a main event.

Duke and Kansas.

Coach K and Bill Self.

Marvin Bagley III and Devonte’ Graham.

The bluest of blue bloods, both literal and figurative. A heavyweight prizefight of programs that combined have produced 30 Final Four appearances and eight national titles.

“Two Hall of Fame coaches, two great programs, two sets of great players,” said Grant Hill, who coincidentally is Turner’s TV analyst in Omaha this weekend and will call Sunday’s showdown at the CenturyLink Center.

“It could be special.”

Hill would know.

Twenty-seven years ago, he was a freshman for the Blue Devils, whose first national championship came in a game against, that’s right, Kansas.

Though they’ve played five more times over the years, not since that 1991 title bout have the Jayhawks and Blue Devils clashed against each other with more on the line than they will Sunday afternoon in Omaha, where a ticket to San Antonio and a berth in the Final Four will be at stake.

“Two great programs, two really big programs,” Duke guard Grayson Allen said. “It’s going to be an awesome game.”

With a shared history between the two sides making it all the more so.

All told, Kansas and Duke have met in the NCAA tournament five times prior, including the 1986 (Duke won in Dallas, 71-67) and 1988 (Kansas won in Kansas City, 66-59) Final Fours. But the ’91 national championship showdown in Indianapolis remains the seminal moment between the two.

Shortly after his Blue Devils survived Syracuse 69-65 late Friday night, a relieved Mike Krzyzewski was nowhere near ready to talk Kansas or what that first national championship meant for him and the Duke program after several close misses.

His former players, however, were.

Duke, Kansas and the marquee matchup we've been waiting to seeplay

1:40

Jay Williams joins SVP to break down how Kansas beat Clemson and what to expect as the Jayhawks face Duke with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

“My greatest moment as a basketball player,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, also the star point guard for that Duke team, said in a text to ESPN. “I respected Coach so much — in the moment I was just thrilled I did my part to deliver for him.”

Duke has been delivering ever since.

And it will attempt to do so again on Sunday against a Kansas team that, in ways, mirrors the one from ’91.

By that point, Danny Manning had been long gone from Lawrence. The same for coach Larry Brown, who together with Manning delivered the Jayhawks a title in ’88.

Without the same star power, a third-year coach by the name of Roy Williams leaned on grit and a senior in Mark Randall, who would become the only first-round draft pick from that blue-collar unit for Kansas.

Likewise, these Jayhawks are short on NBA talent, at least by past standards. Yet behind Graham, who has elevated himself onto the short list for national player of the year in his senior season, Kansas just keeps piling up wins.

On Friday, the Jayhawks added victory No. 30 on the season, jumping to a big lead before holding off a late Clemson rally for an 80-76 decision to advance to the Elite Eight.

“I think of all the teams that we’ve had here,” Self said, “this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game.”

On the other side, the Blue Devils are right where their talent suggested they’d be all along.

Few Duke teams come close to matching the star power of the early ’90s teams, which were headlined by Hill, Hurley and Christian Laettner, all of whom were All-Americans and to this day remain household names in college basketball. The 1990-91 team, which knocked off undefeated powerhouse UNLV before toppling Kansas 72-65 in the national title game, transformed Duke from a great program to a preeminent one. (“After we beat Vegas the game before … we just knew we were going to win,” Hill said.)

This Duke team, however, comes about as close to any as matching it. After all, the Blue Devils could have as many as five potential future first-round draft picks, most notably Bagley, who could go No. 1 overall.

“We’ve been in a lot of games,” Bagley said. “A lot of tough games. But it’s going to be a great game against a great team.”

The biggest between the two in 27 years.

And this tournament’s biggest one yet.

~Source reference~