Duke and Connecticut meeting on a neutral floor may sound like a recipe for an enticing Final Four matchup, and perhaps four months down the line it will be.
Right now, though, both teams are trying to forge their identities as potential national title contenders, and Friday at Madison Square Garden either the seventh-ranked Blue Devils or the No. 13 Huskies will be crowned champions of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Duke (5-0) cruised to wins in its first four games by an average of 34.5 points, then got its first test from a major conference opponent Wednesday in the tournament semifinals against Arizona State. The Blue Devils held the Sun Devils to 38.3 percent shooting, and despite looking sluggish offensively at times, got 43 combined points from Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler in a 64-53 victory.
UConn, meanwhile, hardly looked like a powerhouse in its first three games, beating William and Mary, Colgate and Hofstra by an average of 10.7 points.
A trip to MSG, where the Huskies (4-0) have won six Big East tournaments since 1990, seemed to give them some spark. Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker scored 20 points apiece as UConn dismantled LSU 81-55 on Wednesday..
“It was a breakout game for us. It was the first time I saw ‘Connecticut’ play this year,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “We were aggressive.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said that while he hadn’t watched any of UConn’s win over LSU, he wasn’t surprised by Dyson and Walker’s dominance.
“I know their personnel,” Krzyzewski said. “And I know how good their guards are.”
The Huskies and Blue Devils haven’t met since April 3, 2004, when UConn rallied from an eight-point deficit with 3:28 remaining to beat Duke 79-78 in the national semifinals en route to winning its second NCAA championship.
The Huskies’ first national title came in 1999, when they stunned the heavily-favored Blue Devils 77-74 in the championship game in Tampa. The teams have split eight meetings - all on neutral courts - with UConn winning the last four.
Scheyer was only 11 when the 1999 title game was played, but the senior recognizes the boost a win over UConn - which would be Duke’s first since the 1991 NCAA tournament - would represent.
“A championship here would mean a lot because this is like a Final Four or a Sweet 16 because you play two games in three days against two good teams,” said Scheyer, who’s averaging 16.4 points and a team-high 5.2 assists. “We’ll be ready and so will they.”
Scheyer and the Blue Devils have their work cut out for them against Dyson, who tore a ligament in his right knee last February and deprived the Huskies of their top perimeter defender.
While that injury may have cost UConn a chance at another national championship, Dyson so far looks poised to give his team a good shot to get back to the Final Four. He’s averaged 20.0 points and 5.8 assists so far, and is getting to the free-throw line (8.3 attempts per game) at an impressive rate.
Dyson scored 17 of his 20 points Wednesday after halftime.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Calhoun said. “I thought Jerome showed incredible patience; two, three points the first half and coming back with 16, 17 points in the second half.”
While UConn has had its share of success at MSG in the past, Duke’s been tough to beat there as well. The Blue Devils have won 11 straight preseason NIT games - also sweeping their way to titles in 2000 and 2005 - and have won 11 of 12 overall at the arena.
The victory over Arizona State was the Blue Devils’ 21st straight win in November, a streak that dates to a 2006 loss to Marquette.