Duke versus Navy for the NCAA East regional championship Sunday ought to be cosponsored by Currier & Ives. Anybody remember the last time a big-bucks sporting show seemed so homey? You half expect an apple pie to be warming at the scorer's table.
Duke's front line looks more like the bass section of the glee club. It's a tossup whether David Robinson will muster better numbers on the backboards in four years for Navy than the 1,320 he grabbed on his college boards.
"The only guy skinnier than I am in the country is Johnny Dawkins," said Navy's Kylor Whitaker. "Just goes to show everybody's got a place in basketball."
Nobody from either of these teams will be in jail shortly after his final jump shot as a collegian. The NCAA sends Christmas cards instead of show-cause notices to these schools.
"Couldn't have written a better script," Whitaker admitted. He might have meant both teams, but the reference was to himself.
Truth is, most everybody running up and down Brendan Byrne Arena Sunday afternoon might as well be named Kylor Whitaker. Except for Duke's Dawkins, you have to work a bit to understand why each player belongs here.
For instance, Tommy Amaker fits at Duke because he distributes the ball so well and plays jersey-tight defense. Whitaker belongs in the final eight for the simplest of reasons: he can shoot lights-out now and then.
"Gonna need my jump shot, I believe," he said.
That's so Robinson can be dominant. If Whitaker fails to bury some outside shots, the best center in college basketball might worry about getting his next breath as much as getting the ball.
They play two-man games, Whitaker and Robinson. If the defense collapses like cheap lawn chairs around Robinson, Whitaker usually has a fairly free shot. If Dawkins flashes toward Whitaker, his 6-foot-6 height allows a proper entry pass to Robinson.
"Our roles are very broad," Whitaker said of why he and the other Midshipmen blend so well. "I also can bring the ball up; Vernon Butler can also go outside here and there.
"The only thing we don't stress is one-on-one."
The major, perhaps pivotal, difference between the teams is that Duke's players dreamed of experiencing what will be reality for Sunday's winner: the Final Four. Alone, on some dimly lit playground years ago, Mark Alarie surely imagined an announcer shouting: "It's good from the right base line, and Alarie leads his team to the national championship."
The Midshipmen reached not quite so high.
"There was a progression of fine players from my hometown Lebanon, Ore. ," Whitaker recalled. "I was in about the seventh grade when the first Andy McClousky was a senior in high school."
McClousky went to Oregon State, and promptly got lost among better players. Whitaker's fantasies at Century Park were no loftier than beating UCLA sometime down the line.
"We played off each other's successes," he said.
Whitaker was third in the progression. He could not recall the name of the second, which seems a nice way to learn about how fame can be as temporary as smoke.
"There were no Pearl Washington's on that playground," he said. "Other guys in larger cities ran and gunned and dunked. We ran and gunned and shot jump shots.
"There's a little physical in us, but we developed a different style of game. We worked on the things we knew we were capable of."
Whitaker knew he was capable of playing college ball at a high level after attending a camp in San Diego that included Eldridge Hudson. That's the Eldridge Hudson before a serious injury, not the one who could scarcely get off the floor for Nevada-Las Vegas in the NCAA tournament last week.
Somebody friendly with the Naval Academy was impressed with Whitaker; a letter from Coach Paul Evans followed shortly. Whitaker's first inclination was to dunk it in a wastebasket.
"Ain't wearin' no uniform four years," he remembers saying.
Others close to him pitched the Navy's long-term advantages. He eventually chose the Academy over Brown and Harvard.
"I've got the best of both worlds right now," he said, relaxing in a posh hotel before practicing on a day Len Bias and nobody from the Big East would. "I knew I had the best of academics and future business.
"The question mark was on the basketball side."
Robinson followed Whitaker and Butler, though not necessarily because of them. He has given Navy entre'e among the mighty; they gave Navy credibility.
"We played Duke in the Rainbow Classic two years ago," Whitaker said, "and Jay Bilas and Alarie ganged up on us inside. Our teams now are similar in many ways.
"Their ranking was a little faster, because of the ACC. We're both from very rigid academic programs. They play tough, but are still sports about it. Classy."
Candidly, Whitaker says: "I doubt they'll feel any more pressure than us. They've been there before. Or at least their program has.
"We're playing for ourselves and our program. It's something new to us. To them, it's kind of old hat in a way."
With a wrist wrap and plain white T-shirt that emphasized his lack of bulk, Whitaker burned Cleveland State for 23 points in the East semifinals Friday. He also had 10 assists, including the alley-oop to Robinson for the game-winning two-footer off the glass.
If Navy knows it has a chance against the top-ranked Blue Devils, it also realizes the downside.
"We could get blown out by 40," Whitaker said. "We can't quite beat average teams with an off game. Syracuse in a regular-season game and Georgia Tech showed us we can lose badly.
"It's a cliche, I know, but we also can beat anyone in the country. Beating Syracuse the second time around proved that. At this point, I don't think anybody has a clear advantage."