Last week, ESPN.com's Bill Simmons apologized for writing that he "hated" Duke. "I should have written 'disliked,' 'loathed' or even 'abhorred,' " Simmons explained. " 'Hate' is a strong word."
Loyal Sports Nut readers, we make you this promise: We will never apologize for hating Duke, or any other team. But especially Duke.
In 2005, Sports Nut previewed the NCAA Tournament by spewing bile at the Blue Devils, as well as Syracuse, Chattanooga, and eight more reprehensible institutions of higher learning. This year, we're bringing the hate to Florida, Eastern Kentucky, and Notre Dame. And don't worry, Dukies—we've got a little more venom saved up for you.
Duke University, Atlantic Coast Conference, No. 6 in West Region
Duke's hatefulness is a well-established theme. What makes this year special is that the Blue Devils have gone from being loathsome to being contemptible. Two weeks ago, Duke's Gerald Henderson punctuated a blowout loss by viciously elbowing North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. This wasn't just the play of a goon—it was the play of a loser.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski denied that any thuggery took place. "That's not the way he plays, and that's not the way we play," announced the celebrated motivational speaker and ethicist. Krzyzewski has yet to disavow his team's pitiful state. Maybe the coach was busy doing makeup for a Chevy commercial when the NBA blocked high-schoolers from the draft. As the talent level in college rose, the talent in Durham somehow sagged to pitiful depths. Krzyzewski's team looks less like a McDonald's All-American Team than McDonald's soft-serve ice cream: schlumpy, slow-moving, and vanilla.
Overmatched at skills like running and shooting, the Blue Devils have gone to a walk-it-up offense, backed by their usual grabby, rugby-rules defense. It's ugly to watch—Duke scored fewer than 80 points in all but three games—but it's also ineffective. The Devils lost at home to Florida State, were swept by Maryland and North Carolina, and got bounced from the play-in round of the league tournament. It's a résumé that would get some schools into the NIT. It earned Duke a healthy No. 6 seed in the NCAAs. Even in eclipse, they still know how to work the officials.—Tom Scocca
Eastern Kentucky University, Ohio Valley Conference, No. 16 in East Region At first, I thought I might love Eastern Kentucky. The little-known school eked its way into the NCAA Tournament with a buzzer-beating, one-point win in the OVC championship game. Now the prognosticators think the Colonels will get slaughtered by the big, bad North Carolina Tar Heels. Well, call me cold-hearted, but I wouldn't want it any other way. Eastern Kentucky is everything that's wrong with the NCAA Tournament.
That's a bold statement for someone who's never seen Eastern Kentucky play. But the numbers alone tell me there's nothing spunky or hard-nosed about this underdog. Like so many other would-be Cinderellas, the Colonels' secret recipe consists of chucking up 3-pointers and hoping for the best. The Eastern Kentucky guys play lousy defense, they don't hit the boards, and they almost never foul anyone. On top of that, the team takes it slow on every possession, endlessly passing the ball around the perimeter like a bunch of weenies.
On Thursday, the Colonels will do their best to slow down a talented Tar Heel team that loves to run the floor. Tune in and you'll see an unexciting team fight desperately to impose its sluggishness on one of the most entertaining teams of recent years. It's one thing to go down fighting; it's another to make things boring when you do.—Daniel Engber
Texas A&M University, Big 12 Conference, No. 3 in South Region
There is an ongoing debate in college basketball about the morality of rushing the court after a victory. It's far from a matter of settled law, but we state-school snots generally agree that court-rushing should be rare, safe, and legal. Act like you've been there, etc.
This brings me to the Texas A&M Aggies, the archrival of my alma mater, the University of Texas. A&M was playing a big game at Kansas on Feb. 3. The Jayhawks had never lost to a Big 12 South team on their home court, and a victory would cement the Aggies' ascendance from also-ran to a national power.
Back in College Station, a few dozen Aggie fans gathered at Reed Arena, A&M's empty home court, to watch the game on the Jumbotron. Sure enough, the Aggies won on a last second 3-pointer by their marvelous point guard, Acie Law IV. And then the students at Reed Arena rushed the court. That's right, they rushed the empty basketball court. You can watch the YouTube clip of the sordid display here. It looks like something we used to do at church camp when told to "make some noise." Should we hate them or just pity them?—Bryan Curtis
Oral Roberts University, Mid-Continent Conference, No. 14 in East Region
If Oral Roberts weren't Oral Roberts, the Golden Eagles would be easy to cheer for. After 22 years without a tourney bid, ORU just won its second straight title in the Mid-Continent Conference, a bizarro grab-bag whose members include such far-flung institutions as Southern Utah and Michigan's Oakland University. This turnaround, authored by second-generation coach Scott Sutton and NBA prospect Caleb Green, is a great story … until you remember that it's ORU.
Televangelist Oral Roberts, the school's founder, preaches "seed faith," a doctrine that's indistinguishable from a constant pitch for donations. What do you get for your money? Campus landmarks like a 30-ton statue of praying hands and the TV studio whence the ministry pleads, hourly, for more cash.
If you think ORU takes a hard line on donations, check out this grandiosely illiberal liberal arts college's policy on cursing. Or gambling, sex, homosexuality, and men wearing earrings. All are banned—though they may have a point on the earring thing. Like everyone else, I'm inclined to pull for double-digit seeds. But personally, I'd rather my underdogs be tougher on defense than they are on male jewelry.—David Roth
Indiana University, Big Ten Conference, No. 7 in West Region
As an Illinois fan, I find it almost too easy to hate Indiana. Mostly, I can't stomach the trite mythology of the Hoosier State as the keeper of the Naismith flame, which is fanned by legions of towheaded middle-schoolers robotically practicing free throws on barn-door backboards. They do so, apparently, because Basketball Builds Character, although you wouldn't know it from the odious coaches that IU tends to hire.
Implausible as it may seem, new Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson is more loathsome than Bobby Knight ever was. Whereas The General was just an everyday chair-throwing hothead, Sampson's more like Snidely Whiplash. He lurks in the shadows of high-school gymnasiums, tying rival coaches to the railroad tracks and absconding with their recruits.