UK Replacing Duke as CBB’s Most Hated
By Chris Mahr
For as long as I can remember, Duke has held the title of “College Basketball’s Most Hated Team.”
How can one not hate them when they’re led by a whiny, seemingly self-righteous head coach in Mike Krzyzewski who looks like a rat whenever he sneers at referees? When they’re cheered on by an uber-dorky student section with a penchant for downright vicious antics? When the archetype of a Blue Devils player is an athletically limited white guy who shoots 3s, flops like a beached whale and is showered with adulation from the media?
Slowly but surely, that mantle is being seized from Duke by another college blue blood in Kentucky, which is finding ways to be even more insufferable.
Let’s face it: A team’s likability, in any sport, stems in large part from its fan base and how it’s perceived by the public at large. If you thought that Blue Devils fans embodied self-entitled and douchey, that’s nothing compared to what we’ve seen and heard recently from Wildcats fans.
Before the season even began, a handful of UK fans launched 40and0.com, so named for their collective goal not just to win the national title but to also go undefeated in the process - only to see the Wildcats’ quest for perfection end after just three games. More recently, a Kentucky diehard named Chester exclaimed on a radio show that the student attendance problem at home games stemmed from UK placing too much emphasis on trying to be a school.
Think of Kentucky basketball fans and Alabama football fans as being brothers and sisters in arms. They are, by far, the most zealot fan bases in their respective sports. But when that zealotry begets deluded thinking and self-righteousness, it makes the entire fan base look bad.
Then again, if you cheered for a team that was fawned over as much as Kentucky was leading up to this season, you’d likely have an inflated sense of self-worth as well.
The moment that the 2012-2013 season ended, the dominant topic of discussion across college basketball was of the Wildcats’ prized freshman class for the following year, one that many thought could challenge Michigan’s “Fab Five” of 1991-1992 as the best crop of first-years ever assembled by one team. Never mind that Kansas, Duke, Arizona and Syracuse (among others) had stellar incoming freshmen of their own; the conversation began and ended with UK.
With all that hype comes a downside: A backlash if it’s not fulfilled. After starting the season ranked No. 1, the Wildcats (8-3) are now down to No. 19, having lost to all three ranked opponents they’ve played.
And while their freshmen have been good, they haven’t been consistent. This has no doubt been a source of great joy to those who dislike John Calipari’s habit of snatching up the top recruits every year, coaching them for a season or two and sending them on their way to the NBA before going through the process all over again. Coach Cal might be even more insufferable than Coach K with his Armani suits, slicked back hair and the whole Gordon Gekko feel to him.
Meanwhile in Durham, the sea change that’s been evident in recent years for college basketball’s most polarizing program is taking hold even more.
“Where are the unathletic white guys who take charges and slap the floor?” Mark Titus wrote for Grantland in November. “Where are the punchable faces? As an American, I demand to know what happened to the Duke I grew up hating.”
Gone are Blue Devil stars along the lines of Steve Wojciechowski, J.J. Redick, Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer, i.e. those aforementioned “unathletic white guys.” They’ve been replaced by the types of players you never used to see in Duke uniforms: NBA-ready athletes.
There might not be a more enjoyable player to watch in college basketball right now than Jabari Parker, who so many quickly forgot was once anointed by Sports Illustrated as “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James” before the hysteria surrounding UK’s incoming freshmen - not to mention that of Andrew Wiggins - surpassed his. He’s joined in the Blue Devils frontcourt by a capable No. 2 in Rodney Hood, and both of them are fed by a creative distributor in PG Quinn Cook.
This team has the makings of being the most talented and entertaining Duke team to watch since their juggernaut 2000-2001 national title-winning squad, which scored a ton of points and had legitimate, NBA-caliber players in Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy.
And let’s be real: Isn’t it just easier for the general public not to hate Duke as much as they usually do when the Blue Devils don’t start a single white guy?
This isn’t to say that they’re completely immune to the usual criticism. Many a fan were likely left nodding in agreement at the recent “Is your college basketball team relevant to Dick Vitale?” flowchart that recently came out - one in which relevant teams were limited to Duke, teams that beat Duke and teams that beat teams that beat Duke.
But the chorus of critics is noticeably quieter than years past. Most likely because they’ve shifted their focus to another blue-and-white blue blood that calls Lexington, KY, home.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.