EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP)—What has already been an exciting college basketball season now gets the best matchup the rankings can provide: No. 1 Duke plays No. 2 Texas on Saturday at the Meadowlands.
Nothing that matters is at stake now as it would be in a few months. Still, playing in just the 35th 1-2 matchup since The Associated Press poll started in 1948 provides an opportunity for national attention on the first weekend in a while without major college football.
“I told our team we were given a preseason ranking of No. 2, it’s not something we’ve earned,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “If you want to be the No. 1 team in the country you have to beat the No. 1 team in the country. These are the games kids come to school for.”
Both teams are 8-0 and each has had a scare.
The Longhorns needed a putback and a blocked shot in the final seconds from LaMarcus Aldridge to beat West Virginia last month in the semifinals of the Guardians Classic in Kansas City, Mo. That was one of two wins over ranked teams. Texas also defeated Iowa in the championship game.
Duke needed a 40-footer at the buzzer from Sean Dockery to beat Virginia Tech at home last Sunday. The Blue Devils, who start two freshmen, have beaten two ranked teams, Memphis and Indiana.
“We try to play all good teams that are well-coached and have a chance to win their leagues,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “As a result, our weaknesses will be exposed, and the experience that we need to beat other good teams will be developed, and that’s what we try to do.”
Duke has returning All-America guard J.J. Redick (22.7 ppg, 44 percent 3-point) and all-Atlantic Coast Conference center Shelden Williams (18.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 63 percent field goal); Texas has sophomore point guard Daniel Gibson (13.4 ppg, 3.7 apg) and the 6-foot-11 Aldridge (17.5 ppg, 10.4 rpg), who missed the last two months of his freshman season because of a hip injury.
Both rely heavily on a third starter, Dockery at Duke and P.J. Tucker at Texas, for intangibles and defensive matchup advantages.
“I think we know how good we can be and we’re not there yet,” said Tucker, who missed the end of last season because of academic problems and is averaging 16.8 points and 8.0 rebounds this year. “We’re taking the challenge and we’ll do what we do best. I think we’re definitely ready for this game.”
Tucker stayed the course in answering if this game was any bigger because of the attention from fans and media.
“It means the same thing,” he said. “Once you get in a big arena against a great team it’s the same thing and you’re just going to play.”
None of the players have been in a 1-2 matchup, and it will be the first for Texas and Barnes.
Duke is 2-3 in these games, splitting four as a No. 1 team, the last a win over Michigan State in the 1999 Final Four. All those have been under Krzyzewski—7-3 against Barnes and 2-0 since he moved to Texas—including an 89-61 victory two years ago at Madison Square Garden. Several of the current upperclassmen played in that game.
“It’s two totally different teams,” Barnes said. “The philosophies of the coaches haven’t changed, but we’re definitely different and they are, too. Players on both teams have improved, so I think the game will be played on a very high level.”
Dockery said it would be that way regardless of the numbers in front of the schools’ names.
“I know we’re all excited about it, but we don’t look at rankings, and I’m sure Texas doesn’t look at rankings,” he said. “It’s just going to be a battle.”
Texas fans have a 1-2 matchup to focus on next month in football with the Longhorns playing top-ranked Southern California in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.
Those wearing burnt orange at Continental Airlines Arena will be easy to pick out in a building that will be dominated by Duke fans. It’s as close to a home game as the Blue Devils get away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The numbers make it even more daunting. Duke is 16-1 in the Meadowlands, 10-0 in NCAA tournament games, and the Blue Devils have won nine straight here.
“This isn’t a neutral court. We know this is Durham north,” Barnes said. “That’s OK.”
Williams expects a different Duke team against Texas than what has stayed on top of the poll since the preseason rankings.
“We’re a team that has to play on both ends of the court, and right now we’re not doing that,” he said. “I’m not quite sure what it is, but it’s something we’ve got to get control of before Saturday. We’re just kind of going through the motions.”