Have a seat in the college basketball time machine. We’re setting the date for Feb. 26, 2000
Look around. Trying to find people on their iPhones tweeting? You won’t. Nobody has ever heard of iPhone, or Twitter, or Facebook. The Super Bowl was played last month, and the Rams won. The St. Louis Rams. You’re asking about the New England Patriots? Why? They finished tied for last in the AFC East, but word is, they’re planning moves to get better. Something about a Michigan quarterback they might take with a late draft pick. Kid named Tom Brady.
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But never mind that. We’re in Durham, where St. John’s has come to town to play Duke. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 2, and all seems well in the Mike Krzyzewski empire. He just turned 53 this month, and there are no signs of slowing. You wonder if he'll try the NBA soon.
St. John’s has had a demanding stretch, just playing Syracuse and Connecticut. And now Duke – the third ranked opponent in eight days. One magazine has called it hell week. The Red Storm are 19-6 and have won the first two games of the trilogy, but this is asking a lot. Duke has lost only two non-conference home games in 17 years.
They’re getting ready to tip it off in Cameron Indoor Stadium. See that guy wearing No. 14 for St. John’s? That’s Bootsy Thornton. He scored 40 against Duke last year. You can bet the Blue Devils are going to put the handcuffs on him. So here they go and . . .
Welcome back to the present, and reviewing what happened that day: It was a lively back-and-forth tussle with all 10 starters scoring in double figures. Someone finally had to decide it, and with 13 seconds left, Bootsy Thornton did, with an 18-foot jumper that made it 83-82. The Blue Devils tried for a winning shot at the end, but missed, and Thornton called it “the longest five seconds of my life.” He had officially become a Duke nemesis.
That made wins over three ranked teams in eight days for St. John’s, so no wonder coach Mike Jarvis said afterward, “It’s too bad the season doesn’t end now.”
St. John’s would go on from that day to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament – but get knocked out in the second round by that infernal new underdog, 10th-seeded Gonzaga. Duke would lose in the Sweet 16 to Florida.
And why is this the week to remember such a moment nearly two decades ago?
Duke has not lost a non-conference game since. That’s 146 victories in a row, stretching back 19 years and four U.S. presidents. The Blue Devils have been perfect at home against non-conference opposition since the moment those Red Storm left Durham.
Guess who’s back in town Saturday?
It’s St. John’s, all right. Not with Thornton this time, but Shamorie Ponds, the only player in Division I in the top 40 in points, assists and steals. Not with Jarvis as coach, but Chris Mullin, who was coming off the bench for the Indiana Pacers in 2000. On Feb. 26, while St. John’s was upsetting Duke, he was scoring five points against Golden State.
Same old Duke, though, ranked No. 2 now, just like 2000. Some things never change. The coach, for instance. Krzyzewski never left, and will soon turn 72.
The Red Storm are 16-5 but not exactly on a roll, though they did win at Creighton Wednesday, after losing four of their previous five games. “I don’t go backwards or forwards, I just don’t,” Mullin said about such trends, preferring to think about today. So a streak from 2000 probably isn’t much on his radar screen, either.
But since a St. John's visit to Duke naturally stirs a little history, now is the moment to recognize how remarkable this streak has become.
It has involved 88 different schools, nine of them ranked. Spread among the Elons and Yales and Presbyterians are a Michigan State here, or a Georgetown there. Six of the 146 wins – four percent – are against St. John’s.
The average winning margin for the 146 games is 27.8. This season, it is – egads – 37.
The last really close call was 2013, when Duke needed a free throw with five seconds left to beat Vermont 91-90. There was also 77-76 over Belmont in 2011, 82-79 over Rhode Island in 2008 when the Blue Devils had to score on their final seven possessions to win, and 54-51 in 2006 over Indiana, who had two shots at the end to tie.
The next longest non-conference winning streak in the nation is Butler, at 50 games. If Duke should lose Saturday, and Butler averages eight non-conference home games a year, the Bulldogs can catch the Blue Devils one of these days.
In about the year 2031.
How long ago was Feb. 26, 2000? As St. John’s beat Duke that day, not far away in South Carolina, Sharonda Williamson was pregnant. In July, she would give birth to a son. His name was Zion.