Thursday night, the Duke Blue Devils will face the Oregon Ducks in a Sweet Sixteen matchup. This game will take place at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. Many Duke fans will walk in to that building, hoping to see their team survive and advance.
I would imagine that at least a few of those Blue Devil fans will have a familiar feeling as they enter the arena. After all, they've been here before. This is actually Duke's first game in Anaheim in five years.
Five years to the day, in fact.
If these fans feel a chill down their spine, or even a tinge of sadness as they find their seats, nobody could really blame them. In a sense, they're returning to the scene of a tragedy. A dream died for these people five years ago, in a brutal and horrific manner.
That's right, it's been five years since the then-defending National Champion Duke Blue Devils got absolutely obliterated by the Arizona Wildcats.
Any non-Arizona fan may say, "So what? It's the five-year anniversary of a Sweet Sixteen victory. Arizona has two more Sweet Sixteen victories since then." This is true.
Duke fans may be especially defensive. "We've won a national championship since then." True. Congratulations and thank you for beating Frank Kaminsky. "We're still in this year's NCAA Tournament." Also true. "We've experienced first-round tournament losses to a 15-seed and a 14-seed since then so excuse us for not being hung up on losing to Arizona." A very good point. "Remember 2001?" Alright, that's enough out of you.
But let's go back to March 24, 2011. Rebecca Black's "Friday" started to take over the universe. Everybody was planking on things, for some reason. People were quoting Charlie Sheen, of all people, saying things like "winning." It was a dark time.
To make matters even darker, the Duke Blue Devils were the defending National Champions of the college basketball world, spent most of the season ranked number one and had entered the 2011 NCAA Tournament as a 1-seed and a Final Four favorite. Arizona, on the other hand, was in their first NCAA Tournament under head coach Sean Miller. After 25 consecutive tournament appearances, Arizona missed the field in 2010. Their return to the tournament was largely due to the emergence of sophomore forward, Derrick Williams, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds on his way to being named Pac-10 player of the year.
Arizona, a 5-seed, defeated the Memphis Tigers and Texas Longhorns by a combined total of three points in the first two rounds of the tournament. Arizona had made the Sweet Sixteen by the skin of their teeth.
Duke was led by seniors, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, both coming off 1st-team All-ACC seasons. They also had an injury-prone freshman who returned just in time for the NCAA Tournament. In 10 games, Kyrie Irving had made his mark, averaging 16 points and four assists. Even better than that, Duke entered their Sweet Sixteen matchup at 32-4, but they were a perfect 10-0 when Kyrie suited up.
Everything appeared to be in Duke's favor. They're the standard for greatness in college basketball. They had the tournament experience, the senior leadership, the freshman phenom was back for the tournament. And the coach with the championship pedigree. Mike Krzyzewski was fresh off his fourth national championship and primed to grab a fifth. It could have also been his second back-to-back in his career.
The oddsmakers agreed that everything was pointing to a Duke victory as the Blue Devils entered the game as a nine-point favorite over the fifth-seeded Wildcats.
Arizona wasn't just being overlooked, they were being completely ignored. The only thing in the Wildcats' favor was the location. Arizona fans have always traveled well, but with Anaheim just a seven hour drive from Tucson, the Honda Center was expected to be packed with Arizona red.
The stage was set. It was, in fact, a pro-Arizona crowd. But, in the first half, that didn't appear to matter.
The game was playing out the way most anticipated. Kyle Singler was showing what he's made of, scoring 14 first half points. Kyrie Irving was having a field day, darting all over the floor, finishing the half off with a perfectly placed, fast break, alley-oop lob to Mason Plumlee to put Duke ahead by nine.
Arizona's final play of the half was a symbol of what their game had been, and really what their season was, up to that point. Derrick Williams threw up a wild, last-second 30-foot jumper just over the stretched out arms of a Duke defender. It went in, just like everything else Williams tried in that first half.
The shot cut Duke's lead to six heading into the break, 44-38. The shot also capped off, perhaps, the greatest one-man show in Arizona basketball history.
Williams scored 25 points in that first half, including a ferocious put-back dunk and a perfect 5/5 from three point land.
Derrick Williams was single-handedly keeping the Wildcats alive.
But Duke's lead proved one thing -- Williams truly couldn't do it on his own. He needed his teammates to show up. The message was clear, Derrick Williams can drop 50 on Duke on this warm Anaheim evening. But could Arizona win? That's something the rest of the Wildcats needed to answer.
Momo Jones, Solomon Hill, Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry, Jamelle Horne and Kevin Parrom all had an answer to that question. The answer was yes but it was a yes in the most definitive, earth-shattering, statement-making form.
In the opening minutes of the second half, the Wildcats and Blue Devils traded baskets. The lead still stood at six after a pair of Kyrie Irving free throws with just under three minutes gone in the half.
But then, something changed. The crowd got louder. Duke's shots were suddenly clanging off the rim. The Wildcats would grab a defensive rebound and sprint down the floor, making it appear as if all the Blue Devils were moving in slow motion. Momo Jones was pounding his chest after every made basket. The Wildcats had a stranglehold on Duke on one end and a virtual layup line at the other and Duke couldn't do a single thing about it. The Blue Devils were being whisked away by a hurricane of slam dunks and three pointers.
The Wildcats had thrown a haymaker so hard that Duke couldn't recover. The finishing touches were a pair of dunks so vicious, you could practically feel the ground shaking in Tucson. First, Derrick Williams threw the ball down with authority, while nearly jumping out of the gym. Shortly thereafter, Jamelle Horne collected an offensive rebound, turned around and threw down a dunk in Kyle Singler's face with such malicious intent you almost felt bad for him. Almost. On the next possession, Duke turned the ball over on an errant pass out of bounds. But you could barely hear the whistle blowing over the uproarious chants of "Arizona" coming from the crowd.
Arizona had gone on a 30-10 run in the span of just over ten minutes. The game wasn't officially over but the rest of the game was a mere formality. The Wildcats had broken Duke. Over the final minutes of the game, the "U of A" chants didn't stop and Arizona never let their foot off the gas. Arizona won 93-77 and advanced to the Elite Eight. Derrick Williams finished with a career-high 32 points and 13 rebounds, one of the best performances in program history.
A lot of the post-game analysis was about the destruction of Duke. "I've never seen Duke get beat like this," Kenny Smith said.
"I've never seen a Duke team this rattled. That Arizona team mentally and physically abused them," said Greg Anthony.
And yes, Duke losing in that fashion was unprecedented. But the fact of the matter was, that game was a statement by Arizona. After several years of uncertainty and questions about how the program could move forward without Lute Olson and, quite frankly, falling from the elite of college basketball, March 24, 2011 was a statement by Sean Miller and everyone wearing an Arizona uniform.
And the message was clear -- Arizona basketball was back like they left something.
Duke just happened to learn this the hard way. They also learned that if there's one thing Arizona fans enjoy, it's beating up Devils.
Two days later, Arizona fell short in their quest for a Final Four against the Connecticut Huskies, 65-63. I was in the Honda Center that day. As I walked out of the arena, there was a feeling of sadness, almost despondency, by everyone wearing red. The team had come so close to clinching their first Final Four in ten years.
I sat in a car with my sister and two of my best friends, waiting to get out of the parking lot. No words were being spoken, all of us just trying to process what happened. It was then that I realized, even though Arizona wasn't going to the Final Four and they weren't going to win a national championship, they had what could be considered the greatest consolation prize any NCAA Tournament team could wish for. It was then that the silence in the car could be broken.
"Well, at least they beat Duke."