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For all those fans chagrined at not being able to watch UNLV on television this season, the spectacle gracing TV screens last Thursday night must have been a welcome sight. No, it wasn't Vegas, which is serving a season-long banishment from the cathode-ray tube for NCAA violations various and sundry. Rather it was this year's model of last year's Runnin' Rebels: the No. 1-ranked defending NCAA champs, highfliers, man-to-man workers and trash talkers—young men unified in a zone just this side of arrogance, just that side of cockiness, and capable of bringing profound discomfort to anyone coming near them. It was the Duke Blue Devils.
On this occasion, it was seventh-ranked St. John's that had the misfortune of encountering Duke, in Greensboro, N.C., in the swan song of the three-year-old ACC- Big East Challenge. The final margin of the game, 91-81, didn't record the frightening split times the Runnin' Debils turned in—20-6 after seven minutes; 48-30 at the half; 68-37 with 14:45 left in the game. "It all happened," said the Redmen's coach, Lou Carnesecca, afterward, "so fast."
The deed was done by essentially the same Duke crew that had pinned UNLV with its only loss last season. Grant Hill and Thomas Hill and what seemed like every Hill east of Anita slashed in from the wings. A fierce Blue Devil man-to-man defense enabled what is essentially a half-court, motion-offense team to become an opportunistic band of fast-breaking brigands. (Is it the shoes, black Adidases that are new this season?) Center Christian Laettner led a parade to the free throw line from which the Dookies dropped in 38 of 44 shots. He was 13 for 13 from the stripe. When Duke went on to throttle overmatched Canisius 96-60 in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium last Saturday night, with 16,279 people on hand (the largest college basketball crowd in that city's history) to celebrate the homecoming of Erie County's own—Laettner attended private school in Buffalo and grew up in the suburb of Angola—the Blue Devils not only pushed their record to 4-0, but they also chased away any notion that the off-season losses of Greg Koubek (graduation), Crawford Palmer (transfer) and Billy McCaffrey (transfer) would cause them even the slightest hardship in 1991-92. "We want people to fear us," says forward Brian Davis. "And if someone expects to lose to us, we're going to kill 'cm."
Not that expecting to win is much help to the Blue Devils' opponents, either. "Their game is not complicated; it's simple," says Carnesecca. "But greatness is simple."
You could mark the Blue Devils' progress on Thursday by turning an car to those loathsome yuppies-to-be who populate Duke's student section. Not five minutes into the game, with St. John's more than halfway to the seven-foul limit, Laettner sank a layup to put Duke up 14-2. Thus came the chant: "Two points, four fouls! Two points, four fouls!" Then, early in the second half, the Devils stitched together a frightening 20-3 run that involved, in order, three layups (G. Hill, Davis, point guard Bobby Hurley), a charge taken (G. Hill), a dunk (G. Hill), another layup (T. Hill), two free throws (T. Hill), a spectacular blocked shot (Laettner), two more free throws ( Hurley), a steal ( Hurley) leading to a layup (G. Hill), another charge taken ( Hurley), a layup (Laettner) on a smart pass ( Davis), and the play that is rapidly becoming Duke's signature, a Hurley-to-G. Hill alley-oop slam. "Start the bus! Start the bus!" Moments later Laettner converted another Hurley lob pass, and the Devil rout was on, 70-41. "O-ver-ra-ted! O-ver-ra-ted!"
St. John's? Overrated? The Duke students must have forgotten momentarily that the Redmen were the recently crowned champions of the prestigious Joe Lapchick Memorial Tournament. But more about that later.
Although a calf bruise kept him from doing much against St. John's, 6'11" freshman center Cherokee Parks is the most significant addition to Duke's championship cast. Parks—could he be anything but Chief to his teammates?—is to Laettner what Laettner was to All-America Danny Ferry three seasons ago: a freshman post-stud-in-waiting. Parks is the first shot blocker that coach Mike Krzyzewski has had in his 12 seasons at Duke. He's also a quick-jumping re-bounder with a knack under the offensive glass and a close-in shooter with a touch so soft that he didn't get around to missing the first shot of his college career until the Blue Devils' third game. In practice and games alike, Laettner directs a stream of instructional patter in Parks's direction. "I'm all for it," says Parks. "He's a lottery pick. He knows what he's talking about."
Because Parks is a classic back-to-the-basket post player, Krzyzewski can play him alongside Laettner, who's facile enough afoot and with the ball to entice lumbering defenders away from the paint. There Laettner can either drop a three-pointer, as he did on Redmen center Robert Werdann, or dribble-drive to the hoop, an embarrassing fate met by Werdann's understudy, Mitchell Foster. You may recall that when Laettner outplayed Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning in the 1989 NCAA tournament and LSU's Shaquille O'Neal last season, he did so by inviting each less agile player to step outside with him. Thus, don't be at all astonished if, by February, Parks joins Laettner as a starter, and Davis, who's only 6'6", becomes a lethal off-the-bench provocateur. "Parks played against better competition in high school than Laettner did, so he's better tested," says Portland Trail Blazer scout Keith Drum, who attended the doubleheader in Greensboro. "The question is whether he'll have, for the lack of a better word, the arrogance to develop."
Did someone say arrogance? The student section may get all the pub, but the Blue Devils themselves dispense verbal disrespect well enough. Consider this: St. John's reserve guard Lee Green—he of the coif that looks like some prehistoric cave art, what with all the numerals, initials and even the school's name carved ornately therein—found himself Abounding the ball late in the first half.
"Nice 'do, man," said T. Hill, the man guarding Green for much of the night. "You'd better not move."