The No. 2 University of Texas football team will have to wait 25 more days to get its chance against No. 1 Southern California in the Jan. 4 Rose Bowl. But the Longhorns' basketball team, also ranked No. 2 in the country, will get its crack at No. 1 Duke today in a rare matchup of college basketball's top-ranked teams.
The Blue Devils, with all-American guard J.J. Redick and all-ACC forward Shelden Williams both returning to school, are a popular choice to win Coach Mike Krzyzewski's fourth national championship at the Final Four in Indianapolis in April. But with a handful of highly regarded freshmen playing with the two Duke stars, the Blue Devils have struggled at times in winning their first eight games.
Meantime, the Longhorns, who have never beaten a top-ranked team, are playing like the team they were early last season, before forward P.J. Tucker was ruled academically ineligible and forward LaMarcus Aldridge was lost to a season-ending hip injury.
"Both teams are trying to establish themselves as a top team in the country," Williams said.
Since the Associated Press started its men's basketball top 25 poll on Jan. 20, 1949, the top two teams have met during the regular season 18 times. Today's meeting at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., is only the fifth such regular season meeting in the last 15 years and the first since No. 2 North Carolina beat No. 1 Duke, 97-73, in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Feb. 5, 1998.
"Whenever you can be a part of something where the number one team and number two team are playing each other on national television, it is special," Duke forward Lee Melchionni said. "How many people get that opportunity?"
Duke, which has won more games than any other Division I program since the 1997-98 season and has been ranked No. 1 for 70 weeks since 1990, gets that opportunity more than most teams. The Blue Devils have been involved in Nos. 1-2 matchups five times, beating Kansas in 1986 and Michigan State in 1999 in the NCAA tournament national semifinals, and losing to Kentucky in the 1996 Final Four and twice to North Carolina during the regular season, in 1994 and '98.
"We don't even care that we are number one right now," Duke guard Sean Dockery said. "It is a nice honor, but that was something that was given to us; we haven't earned that yet. We are just going out there to play another good team."
Duke has had its share of close calls this season. Against Memphis in the National Invitational Tournament Preseason Tip-Off, the Blue Devils trailed by seven points late and needed Williams's winning tip-in with 32 seconds left in a 70-67 victory. At Indiana on Nov. 30, Duke trailed with less than eight minutes to play and needed five foul shots in the final minute to beat the Hoosiers, 75-67.
Then, against Virginia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday, the Hokies went ahead 75-74 on Coleman Collins's put-back with 1.6 seconds to go. But Dockery caught a pass from freshman Josh McRoberts near mid-court and fired a winning, 40-foot shot at the buzzer to give the Blue Devils a stunning 77-75 victory. Duke beat Pennsylvania, 72-59, on Wednesday night, but had 17 turnovers and was outrebounded by the Quakers.
"We're playing really hard," Krzyzewski said. "We're trying to do it; we're just not playing as well offensively. We know we have to play better offensively, but we're playing hard. They have great attitudes and they're trying. I'm proud of them. They've been winners."
With ultra-quick point guard Daniel Gibson improving his jump shot and ball-handling, the Longhorns are off to their best start since the 1981-82 season, have defeated No. 13 West Virginia and No. 17 Iowa and won six of their first eight games by 27 points or more. Texas has been buoyed by the return of Aldridge and Tucker, who was the team's leading scorer and rebounder last season before he was declared ineligible after 17 games.
Aldridge, whom Krzyzewski calls "one of the most unique players in America because he can play inside and outside," has had seven double-doubles in eight games.
"If this matchup were going on in February or March it could determine a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, but it is too early in the season for it to mean a whole lot," Redick said. "The winner is going to gain a lot of confidence and gain some momentum from winning a big game like this."