Virginia military institute basketball coach Bart Bellairs is dribbling a ball through a shopping mall when he spots a trash can. Bellairs decides he wants to shoot the basketball into the can. Just then, Tim Duncan appears out of nowhere, dressed in his Wake Forest uniform and standing steadfastly in front of the can. Bellairs shoots the ball once, twice, a third time, and Duncan swats away each attempt with a menacing smirk. Increasingly desperate, Bellairs tries post moves, jumpers, hooks, but Duncan effortlessly rejects his shot again and again and again and again....
Bellairs awoke with a start at 3:28 a.m. on Nov. 24 in a hotel room in Winston-Salem, N.C., a coating of clammy sweat on his face. It was the morning of the day his Keydets would face Duncan's Demon Deacons in the season opener. "What a horrible nightmare," said Bellairs last week, recalling his sleepless night and VMI's subsequent 92-63 defeat. "Duncan wouldn't let me anywhere near the basket, and that night he wouldn't let my players anywhere near the basket, either."
On Sunday afternoon Missouri coach Norm Stewart became the latest victim of a Duncan nightmare, only this time it occurred during a game and in front of a national television audience. In the same gym in which the Tigers had upset top-ranked Kansas five days earlier, Duncan dismantled Missouri with 18 points, 20 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in a 73-65 Wake Forest victory. "It seems like every time you turn around he's staring you in the face," said Tigers forward Derek Grimm of his personal Grimm Reaper. "I could have sworn there were four or five Tim Duncans out there."
All season long Duncan has brought new meaning to the term Demon Deacon. After Wake Forest fell behind at Maryland by 12 points at halftime on Feb. 1, Duncan rallied the Deacons to a 74-69 win by scoring 25 points in the second half, just one point fewer than the entire Terrapins team. He clinched a 58-54 win over Virginia on Jan. 15 with two clutch baskets in the final 65 seconds. And after Duncan had 19 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals in a 74-43 victory over Mississippi State in December, befuddled Bulldogs coach Richard Williams spoke for most opposing coaches when he said, "Duncan is just, well, just put down that we had no answers for him."
Duncan, a senior center from St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is on his way to a third straight national Defensive Player of the Year award. His three rejections against Missouri pushed him past Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning into second place on the NCAA's alltime blocked-shot list, behind only Colgate's Adonal Foyle, another imposing son of the West Indies—he's from the Grenadines in the Caribbean—who has played against competition far weaker than Duncan has faced. In fact, Duncan is such an imposing presence in the lane that, through last weekend, only once all season had a team shot better than 39.7% against Wake. And don't bother waiting for him to take a rest. Six times this season he had played the full 40 minutes, and in his 10 ACC games Duncan had been on the bench for only nine minutes, total.
On the offensive end, he was taking fewer than 12 shots per game, yet only twice this season had he failed to have a double double in points and rebounds. He led the conference in scoring (20.3 points a game), rebounding (13.8) and field goal percentage (63.4%), and because he constantly had confronted double-and triple-teams, he had become a deft passer who led Wake in assists with 3.2 a game. It's important to note that Duncan had put up those gaudy figures in the ACC, by far college basketball's toughest conference this year, and in the process he had guided the Deacons to a 19-2 record, including a 4-0 mark on the road against Top 10 teams.
All of those factors—his team's record, its strength of schedule, his statistical supremacy in a very tough conference—suggest that Duncan is enjoying one of the best seasons ever for a college center. Indeed, his performance may be better than that of any pivot since UCLA's Bill Walton in 1972-73. "Timmy wins many of the statistical battles, and he's going to set some records that will be tough to break, but it's hard to judge where he ranks among the greatest college centers of all time," says Wake coach Dave Odom, who coached Ralph Sampson one season and faced Georgetown's Patrick Ewing and Houston's Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon as an assistant at Virginia in the '80s. "I'll say this, though: If you're looking for a fearless warrior who plays his A game every single night, you'd have a hard time finding anybody better than Timmy in any era."
But one question looms larger as March approaches: Can this marvelous center lead Wake to an NCAA title? The klieg lights that have been trained on Duncan for much of the last four seasons have left the other Demon Deacons obscured. It's as if we can't see Wake Forest for the tree. Except perhaps for 7'1" freshman forward-center Loren Woods, the other Deacons are most probably future State Farm agents and Hyundai salesmen. Still, without the contributions of Woods, forward Ricky Peral and guards Tony Rutland and Jerry Braswell, Wake never could have ascended to No. 2 in the polls, its highest ranking ever, and wouldn't be favored to win its third straight ACC championship, a feat last accomplished by North Carolina from 1967 to '69. Against Missouri, all five Demon Deacons starters scored in double figures, and Wake clinched the game with an 18-2 run to open the second half, a stretch during which Duncan didn't have a point. "We may play supporting roles, but that doesn't mean we aren't good actors," says Rutland.
Rutland is accustomed to life outside the limelight, having played in the same backcourt with Allen Iverson at Bethel High in Hampton, Va., yet even then he was considered the emotional leader of his team. Despite struggling at times with a knee injury that he suffered during last year's conference tournament, Rutland is shooting 42% from three-point range and is providing his customary comic relief. "We'll be struggling to win a game in the final minute, and Tony will come into the huddle saying something funny," Braswell says. "He's a constant reminder that it's just basketball."
Braswell is a streaky shooter who swears he has never been tired in a game, and he has been known to punctuate a long practice with a series of tumbling runs. Braswell's boundless enthusiasm energizes the other Deacons but also causes him to launch an occasional low-percentage shot. "Sometimes I don't agree with Jerry's taste in shots," Odom says diplomatically, "but I'll never question his effort to find them."