Let’s hear it for the blue bloods. Duke and Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.
No, no. Not in that sport. The four schools might have a combined 23 basketball national championships, but this ain’t March. The ball is neither orange nor round, but the Fab Four are 16-0 so far this football season, and three of them are ranked. Hoops can wait.
Especially given the moment-of-truth weekend to come.
Is No. 17 Duke for real? Let’s see what happens Saturday, because look who’s coming to Durham. Yeah, yeah, Notre Dame. But also ESPN's College GameDay. “Not something that happens around here all the time,” coach Mike Elko said. Try never. Will Lee Corso grab a pitchfork and pick the Blue Devils to win? The last time the Duke beat the Irish in Durham was 1961, the early months of the Kennedy administration.
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Is No. 24 Kansas serious about being a Big 12 contender? Texas is waiting in Austin Saturday. The Jayhawks used to make a fine and cushy opponent for Homecoming, but not anymore. Too dangerous. Like two years ago when they barged into Austin and won 57-56 in overtime. “Old news,” coach Lance Leipold said of that win this week, but the victory was pretty much the blastoff for the stunning Kansas rebirth he has directed. The Jayhawks are 11-9 since that day. In the 20 games prior to it, they were 1-19. “I am so proud of our team, our staff and the players about how we have put ourselves in a position to be respected and reckoned with,” Leipold said.
Is Kentucky as potent as it’s looked? Here comes Florida to find out. A victory would give the unranked Wildcats three wins in a row over the Gators, and that hasn’t happened in 72 years.
Only No. 15 North Carolina can relax this week, going against the Open Date Byes, after getting through South Carolina, Appalachian State, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. “Probably the hardest four games that I’ve ever played to start a season,” coach Mack Brown called it. And just down the road on the schedule are Syracuse and Miami, and they’re a combined 8-0.
̶B̶a̶s̶k̶e̶t̶b̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶S̶c̶h̶o̶o̶l̶— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) September 19, 2023
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So there are arduous tests ahead. Never mind the famous aura of Cameron Indoor Stadium, Allen Fieldhouse, Rupp Arena, the Dean Dome. Right now the noise from breaking down barriers is coming from Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium, David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, Kroger Field at Kentucky, Kenan Stadium at North Carolina.
Duke’s No. 17 ranking is its highest in 29 years. The Blue Devils have won their first four games by at least 20 points for the first time in school history, and that includes drubbing Clemson by 21. Also Connecticut 41-7. (No, not every basketball school is having a big autumn). Kansas has had consecutive 4-0 starts for the first time since 1915. No one has held the Jayhawks under 30 points yet.
Kentucky is 4-0 for the third season in a row. The last time that happened was 1911. Across town in Rupp Arena, John Calipari hasn’t started 4-0 in seven years.
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North Carolina hasn’t been 4-0 in 25 seasons, and this is only the second time since 1983. Wins over South Carolina and Minnesota means the Tar Heels have beaten opponents from both the SEC and the Big Ten for the first time in 47 years.
Matter of fact, just look at Tobacco Road. Duke and North Carolina haven’t both been 4-0 since 1971. That was 30 Final Four appearances ago for the two schools’ men’s basketball programs.
Credit the coaching, by men who have never bought into the notion that football can’t grow tall and strong in basketball soil. Mike Elko at Duke, for instance. An Ivy League history major from Penn, he paid his dues as an assistant for decades, but finally got the chance to be a head coach last season. Now he’s 13-4 for the Blue Devils.
“We had a ton of confidence in what football could be here. That’s why I took the job,” he said. “I did not take the job with the hope and expectation that we could be a middle-of-the-road program. That’s not why I came here . . . That’s not who I am. It’s really not how I’m wired.
“Did I anticipate in game five of year two that we would be on this stage? No, of course not. This is a credit to our kids. That’s really all it is.”
Or Mack Brown, grandfather of six. He’s pushing 280 career wins and had a national champion at Texas. Now he’s gotten North Carolina flying in two different Chapel Hill stints, Mack I and Mack II. Mark Stoops is Kentucky’s all-time winner in his 11th season, and has moved into eighth in the nation in FBS tenure at his current school. Leipold was six-time national champion in Division III at Wisconsin-Whitewater, made a MAC power out of Buffalo and now has lit a fire in Lawrence. He lost so rarely at Wisconsin-Whitewater, he reached 100 career coaching wins in his 106th game. These guys do not understand the concept of low bars.
Credit the transfer portal and pandemic bonus years of eligibility, so teams can collect seasoned talent to kick down doors.
Duke has 24 graduate students on the roster. The Kansas locker room has players who have made a combined 464 career starts in college football. Kentucky’s quarterback Devin Leary was at North Carolina State last season, top rusher Ray Davis was at Vanderbilt and kicker Alex Raynor — who has not missed an extra point or field goal yet — was at Georgia Southern. Nate McCollum caught 15 passes for North Carolina against Minnesota. He played for Georgia Tech in 2022.
Credit the ability to do the things that win football games.
Defense. Duke has allowed only 35 points in four games. Kentucky is giving up only 77.5 yards rushing a game and shares the national lead with three defensive touchdowns. Maxwell Hairston became the first Wildcat ever with two pick-sixes in the same game, against Vanderbilt. Kansas just held BYU to nine yards rushing.
Execution. Kansas, with veteran quarterback Jalon Daniels directing the music, leads the nation by converting 60.5 percent of its third downs. North Carolina is sixth. The Tar Heels haven’t fumbled the ball yet. Their quarterback Drake Maye couldn’t get a pass off with his right arm last week against Pitt so he threw a touchdown lefthanded. “That may be the coolest play I’ve ever seen in college football,” Brown said. “And I’ve seen a lot of plays.” Duke quarterback Riley Leonard hasn’t thrown an interception in 99 passes and been sacked only twice. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils already have 15 rushing touchdowns, while allowing two.
Consistency. Kentucky has won 19 consecutive non-conference regular season games. Only Georgia has won more. North Carolina has passed seven consecutive road tests. Only Georgia has passed more. Kansas is the only Big 12 team to be ranked in the top 25 nationally in both total offense and total defense. Duke has won four bowl games in a row, and under Elko is 12-0 when leading after three quarters.
But now they start swimming with the big fish.
This was Elko, with Duke eyeball-to-eyeball with No. 11 Notre Dame. The Blue Devils haven’t seen gone into a regular season game where they and their opponent were ranked in 29 years. “We talked about that validation word, right? That validation of all of the things that we’re capable of, all of the things that we’re doing internally, all of the things that we believe in inside our building. That doesn’t mean a whole lot to the general public or to the national landscape if we don’t deliver the way we have been able to deliver on the field.”
This was Stoops, with Kentucky getting ready for Florida. Then Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee all in a row in October and Alabama not long after that. Ah, life in the SEC. “We know there’s more out there. We know we can play better. That ought to be our motivation. We’re still hungry. Nobody is content with what we’re doing.”
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This was Leipold, as Kansas prepared for the perilous trip to No. 3 Texas. Should the Jayhawks win, it would be their first road conquest of a top-five opponent since 1995. “For us to get through the first third of the season and be in this position . . . things are stacking for our program in a positive direction. But this next third of the season is where we find out if this program takes another step.”
This was Brown, warning that the 4-0 start and top 25 ranking can’t dent the Tar Heels’ wariness for what is ahead: “You’re best when you’re uncomfortable. If you get comfortable in this business, you’d better look out.”
The four have all been amazingly similar on the scoreboard. Kentucky has put up 152 points this season, Kansas 151, Duke 149, North Carolina 143. Four unbeatens authoring compelling stories in places where another sport is king.
By the way, college basketball practice started this week.