Topiary to make Duke's walk in the park more scenic, that was the role most of the Redmen played, at least until the final dozen minutes or so, by which time the Christian Asts, Duke's end-of-the-bench warmers, were kneeling at the scorer's table and the Christian Laettners were looking for BarcaLoungers. Only the effort of St. John's gifted senior forward, Malik Sealy, who ended the game with 37 velvety points, made the final margin even remotely respectable.
With Duke's win and youthful Virginia's impressive 76-66 overtime defeat of Georgetown in the prelim at Greensboro, the ACC finished out this year's Challenge with victories in six of the eight games, all of which were played last week. Thus, the two conferences split the 24 games that have been played over the event's three years. But while the series has been an on-the-court wash, to the bean counters in the respective league offices it has been more of a washout. The commissioners, the Big East's Mike Tranghese and the ACC's Gene Corrigan, cosigned a politically correct open letter that appeared in programs at each of the Challenge's four sites. In the letter to the conferences' fans, the commissioners blamed the demise of the Challenge on earlier exam dates and reform-driven NCAA legislation that will delay the start of the 1992-93 season until Dec. 1, one week after this season officially began.
While that's all true, there are also a few less high-minded reasons for the demise of the series. The financial windfall anticipated when the Challenge was launched never materialized. Ticket sales were disappointing (this year, the 15,781-seat Greensboro Coliseum sold out, but Atlanta's Omni was barely half full for a doubleheader featuring Georgia Tech), and no corporate sponsor was willing to put up the dollars both leagues felt their early-season skirmishes merited. Further, while ACC officials are now exploring the possibility of launching a similar series with the Big Ten, the most powerful Big East coaches have never liked playing such high-profile games so early. As Carnesecca had said earlier in the week, "We coaches would rather play Little Sisters of the Poor." The Redmen have made that shamefully clear by going 34-0 in the 17 years of their aforementioned Lapchick Tournament, a.k.a. the Slapstick Tournament, which in the past three seasons had matched St. John's against such adversaries as Wright State, Central Connecticut State and Drexel.
At least Looie's honest about it. Perhaps Providence coach Rick Barnes can explain why playing the Ivy League's Brown at home and losing (71-69 in overtime, on Dec. 1) is somehow preferable to playing the ACC's Maryland in the Challenge and losing (76-66, on Dec. 4).
All of which raises this essential question: Is it just a coincidence that Duke likes to play these big games in December and then always seems to wind up in the Final Four? "I don't know yet how this game will help us," Krzyzewski said after knocking off St. John's, "but I do know those two losses [to Georgetown in last season's Challenge and to Syracuse two years ago] helped us. We really like playing tough games. We use December to get ready for the conference, the same way we use February to get ready for March."
Yes, the Dookies have their East Carolinas, their Canisiuses, even their Harvards on the 1991-92 schedule. But they'll also play at Michigan, LSU and UCLA, in addition to the usual ACC home-and-home gauntlet. All of which guarantees that, unlike the UNLV team of a year ago, Duke will likely enter the NCAA tournament with a number of losses.
"We're not as good individually as a lot of people think," says Krzyzewski. "But collectively we're pretty damn good and can get better. That's our attitude. If we keep it up, because of our level of competition, we will get better. And that level of competition is something UNLV didn't have last year."
The Vegas of this year has served notice that, whether defending the post or defending its title, it won't be doing anything defensively.