Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Another Title for the Phil Hellmuth of College Hoops

Another Title for the Phil Hellmuth of College HoopsOnce the NCAA tournament reached the Elite Eight, Thomas “GnightMoon” Fuller -- who made the final table of that NAPT Venetian event I helped cover back in February (and which will be airing on ESPN later this month -- wrote a post on his blog, Bad Moon Rising, in which he compared the remaining teams to various poker players.

Kentucky was Phil Ivey, he said. “The best, as long as they try.” Upstart Butler was Jason Somerville. “Lurking, dangerous, ready to break through.” A couple of teams new to the Elite Eight he identified as examples of (relatively unknown) “internet player X.”

And Duke? I asked Vera Valmore, who hadn’t read the post, whom she thought Fuller might have picked to represent Duke. She guessed it immediately.

“Duke is Phil Hellmuth,” wrote Fuller. “Nobody wants to see them win.”

I know I didn’t want to see Duke win last night, although for me -- a UNC-Chapel Hill grad -- the aversion to seeing Duke succeed is instinctive. Like breathing, basically.

I’ve always rooted against Duke. A few years ago Carolina grad Will Blythe wrote a terrific book called To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry. Title is awkward -- and probably didn’t help sales -- but I’m one of those people who entirely understand what it conveys.

Even so, I’ll admit even I was a little surprised this year at just how much people who don’t necessarily have ties to North Carolina or the Atlantic Coast Conference seem to dislike Duke. I would say they are the Yankees of college basketball, but the Yankees have as many fans as haters. Not really the case with Duke, I don’t think.

The Indianapolis Star pulled the original doctored photo of Coach KSome might have heard about that story that appeared in The Indianapolis Star prior to the Final Four -- “Despising Duke” -- that featured a photo of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski that had been doodled on, giving him devil’s horns, a mustache, and so forth. The newspaper ended up pulling the photo and apologizing over the matter. They even changed the headline. (Read about all that here, if you’re curious.)

Was not at all surprised to have heard that story, really. I mean the despising of Duke goes on all over. Like I say, as a UNC guy I have difficulty speaking at all objectively about the subject, but I know many who aren’t Carolina fans truly hate Duke. And last night, when tiny Butler, playing in their backyard in Indy, was David to Duke’s Goliath, well, everybody (it seemed) was pulling for the Bulldogs.

An incredible game it was, and if Gordon Hayward had sunk that three-pointer from half-court to win the sucker at the buzzer, we probably would have had to take a national holiday today to recover from it.

But it was not to be. The team nobody wanted to see win prevailed.

The comparison to Hellmuth is inspired, although there are a couple of important differences between Duke and the Poker Brat. While Duke has had a few poor sportsmen on its rosters over the years (one ironically named “Christian” springs to mind), Coach K and his players tend to conduct themselves especially well. Like I say, there have been exceptions, but nothing as consistently egregious as the figure cut by Hellmuth.

Another difference occurs to me this morning. Duke winning or losing the title doesn’t mean a heckuva lot to the rest those who complete in the sport. Actually, the only teams who can be said to benefit in significantly tangible way are those in Duke’s conference. A chunk of the revenue generated by the televising of the NCAA tourney is given to the participating conferences, with those conferences who have teams do well receiving more of the moneys.

I suppose one could argue that Duke’s deep run ensured higher ratings overall, thus more money overall going back to all the schools. But really the NCAA tourney -- unlike just about every other sport -- gets viewers regardless of who is there at the end.

Over on the poker side, though, everyone benefits from a deep Hellmuth run in a televised event. It draws viewers, and thus new players. We might not like the way his poor behavior might appear to invite others to act similarly, but there’s a substantial plus for all of us -- including poker media types, one has to include -- when he succeeds.

So maybe Duke isn’t quite the Phil Hellmuth of college hoops. That said, with four NCAA titles now under Coach K (1990, 1991, 2001, and 2010), Duke certainly has one thing in common with Hellmuth. It is hard to argue with the success of either.

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