It may not be pretty at times, but Duke is here to stay
NEW YORK -- Like it or not, when Duke chooses your school to be its New York game -- the game that it bills as a home-away-from-home offering for its legions of alums in the metro area -- it's letting the country know that your school has arrived.
Gonzaga had already earned that right nationally with its glorious run over the past eight seasons, its wins over notable programs through the years, and its darling status on the ESPN family of networks.
Still, Duke hadn't shown the willingness to play Gonzaga until this season. And, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Duke-Gonzaga game was a sellout at Madison Square Garden, with a few thousand 'Zag fans in the building to match wits and noise levels with possibly upwards of 16,000 Blue Devil fans (and one famous neutral observer in the Lakers' Kobe Bryant).
This year there was a sense of unknown with both programs: Duke building its identity on freshmen and defense, while the Zags were dealing with the post-Morrison hangover.
Well, with the cusp of conference play a few weeks away, the two winningest programs this decade -- and the only two programs the past eight seasons that haven't had 10 losses in a season -- found out quite a bit about each other Thursday night.
Duke's defense may be its finest in years under Mike Krzyzewski. Greg Paulus' toughness (five stitches in his chin after diving into the scorer's table for a second time) isn't a question and neither is his ability to be a scorer from the point (see: 20 points, 4 of 6 3s, four assists and only one turnover).
The Zags discovered that Jeremy Pargo can get to the hole and finish without being bothered by a hack (21 points, four assists and four turnovers); Josh Heytfelt is still erratic (solid game in a win over North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough in this building last month), scoring 10 points and disappearing in long stretches; and JC transfer Abdullahi Kuso is terrific finishing on the break but isn't the post guy the Zags want setting up shop down low as he missed badly a few times but he can block shots (six).
Meanwhile, Derek Raivio can be locked down and made non-existent as he went 1 of 4 for four points when he came in averaging a team high 20.3 points.
Understand that for the players who are in this game, Gonzaga is as much of a national power as Kentucky. Eight years ago these players were in grade school so all they know is that Gonzaga is a consistent winner. As Krzyzewski said these are two programs, not just two teams.
Duke wants to play a game every season in the New York area (outside of an ongoing home-and-home with St. John's). Texas drew the card in 2003 at the Garden and last season at the Meadowlands. Oklahoma got the call here in 2004.
"One of the things we do with this game is to pick a team that we think has a chance to be a Final Four team," Duke assistant Chris Collins said. "We feel that way about their program. We wanted a Final Four team to see where we're at."
Said Paulus, "We knew that both teams would be highly ranked coming in here and since we're so young and don't play many games on the road, we knew this would be a big one to win at a neutral site."
Duke got beat quite a bit off the dribble against Marquette in a loss in Kansas City last month. Outside of playing Air Force the previous day, the Blue Devils have been home all season. Duke's defense has been a constant outside of the Marquette game but the Blue Devils had been offensively challenged for the most part, despite scoring 79 on Kent State two nights earlier -- the first time they were over 70 points in five games.
"They hadn't found their offensive niche yet," said former Duke guard Chris Duhon of the Bulls, who like former Blue Devil teammate Luol Deng was in the postgame locker room since the Bulls play the Knicks Friday night. "The reason they're 11-1 [is their defense]."
DeMarcus Nelson had Raivio locked up for most of the game before fouling out with just over four minutes left. Nelson said because Raivio is such a good catch-and-shoot player he wanted to make him put the ball on the floor. It worked. Raivio couldn't get free.
Nelson's defense and Paulus' offense were enough to keep Duke slightly above the Zags. All you need to know is that the Blue Devils shot 22 percent in the first half and were still only down one.
"[Coach K] has a firm conviction on defense and that emanates to all of his players," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "They play so darn hard. You have guys like Paulus diving into the scorer's table and flying around. That is what great coaches do, their teams reflect their beliefs."
The toughness that Duke showed will be fodder for Few as the Zags continue their brutal non-conference schedule with games against Nevada (in Seattle), at Virginia and then two marquee games at Stanford and at home against Memphis sprinkled in the WCC schedule.
"We are trying to play in big games and big environments that mimic the NCAA Tournament," Few said. "That game had an NCAA Tournament feel to it with somewhat of a neutral floor and teams away from home."
Memo to Washington, who thought Gonzaga wasn't a national game and is suspending the rivalry: Duke and MSG haven't called yet to schedule the Huskies in New York. Ohio State (with Greg Oden) was the first choice for this matchup but the Buckeyes didn't have a free date in the schedule. Gonzaga was next and may get the call again next season. That should say quite a bit about where the Zags stand nationally.
And if it weren't for the Zags, Duke may not have known as much about its squad, especially Paulus, for quite a bit. The Zags now seem to get the best out of their opponents, just like Duke has done for decades.
"Coach loves to schedule programs similar to ours, to our winning tradition," Nelson said. "I was surprised how many fans they brought. That shows how prideful their program is and the atmosphere was tremendous."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.