Among nerds, this is the equivalent of Coke vs. Pepsi or Edward vs. Jacob. But what's funny about science fiction (or rather fiction in general) is that the themes and plot lines of futuristic adventures in the cosmos always end up applying to real life in modern times.
Western Michigan at Duke University is one those times. The Broncos traveled to Durham, N.C. to face the vaunted four-time national champion Blue Devils on their own court. This is a big deal for Western Michigan's program, and just a big a deal for me. As a former student manager under Coach Steve Hawkins for my entire college career, the second it was announced this game was happening I texted my friend former player (and now Assistant Coach) David Kool and said three simple words: "dibs on tickets." And dibs I got! My seat was in the front row directly behind the visitor bench. Had I been three or four seats over to my left, I would have been right back in the huddle where had been just a few years prior.
(The view while standing from my seat)
The parallels of this game illustrate some of the more prominent tones of mid-major basketball when going into one of those most assured 83% type games. The Duke Blue Devils, with their four national championships, winningest coach of all time and big budget program were the evil Imperial Empire (and neither of the Plumlees are a "little short to be a storm trooper" either). And the Western Michigan Broncos were the Rebel Alliance in their X-Wing fighters trying desperately to skim along the trench at Cameron Indoor to hit a target that's only two meters wide on a planet-size space station. Not exactly your ideal scenario when it comes to trying to win a college basketball game.
The benefits of such a game are obvious: National television exposure, monetary incentive, a recruiting tool, a way to generate booster donations, etc. But one major benefit of such a game is where the characteristics of science fiction come into play.
A game like this is similar to the scenario in Star Trek called "The Kobayashi Maru." The Kobayashi Maru is a simulation that Starfleet Academy cadets take which pits them in a rescue mission that turns into a nightmare no-win scenario where they all end up facing eminent failure and certain death. Captain Kirk is famously the only cadet to succeed in the scenario by altering the simulator because he "doesn't believe in no-win situations." (Despite the fact he essentially cheated he received a commendation for his ingenuity). The Kobayashi Maru is simulation designed to be a test of character. By placing the cadets in situation where they are overmatched and in over their heads, Star Fleet would find out how they react to pressure in the face of death...
And that is exactly what the Broncos got. Playing on the road in one of the most hostile environments in college hoops, with three rotation players out with injuries (guards Brandon Pokley, David Brown, and forward Flenard Whitfield), playing the #5 team in the nation, and against some of the best talent these kids will have ever seen in their entire basketball careers; Truly a nightmare scenario.
However this game was more Star Wars than it was Star Trek. The atmosphere at Cameron Indoor was exactly what was to be expected as "you will never find a more wretched hide of scum and villainy"... I say that with love. It's clear that the Cameron Crazies wrote the book on how to be a student section at a college basketball game. And despite the fact that a lot of the students were away on winter break, they were spot on with everything that would go along with the home court advantage that has been so revered in D-I.
The Broncos did have a lead on the Blue Devils... when the score was 2-0 in the first two minutes of the game. Then the game just got out of hand. Austin Rivers put on a shooting clinic and showed why he probably won't be staying in college very long. The Blue Devils pretty much ran up the score and never called the dogs off until late in the game and kept most starters in to see significant minutes. But this kind of situation (The Kobayashi Maru), you wouldn't want to see the dogs called off. Coach Hawkins prides his program on its toughness, specifically mental toughness. It's something that everyone from top to bottom subscribes to and what it means to be a Bronco. In a game where you are completely and hopelessly overmatched and getting blown out on national television, its time to see who is really tough.
And out of this, the Bronco's Luke Skywalker may have emerged. Freshman guard Hayden Hoerdemann came off the bench midway though the 1st half and started hitting shots for a career high 12 points. All the while, Hoerdemann played un-phased by the deficit, the crowed, the TV cameras and the fact that he was playing against Mike Krzyzeweski's team. For just a few seconds, it really did feel like the Broncos could rally around to mount a comeback.
But that glimmer of hope was fleeting. Pretty soon the deficit made its way up to 40 shooting a blistering 54% from the field for the game. And there was nothing left to do but clear the benches and get our New Years Eve plans in order. After the game Coach K's press conference was broadcast on the big screen inside the area for those who stuck around. He talked exclusively about his own team as to shield WMU from the embarrassment of defeat. For Duke, this played out more like a pre-season tune up game against a rinky-dink D-II school that just happened to be mid season. That's a luxury you are afforded when you are suppose to be a national powerhouse on a yearly basis.
But why did we come in the first place? It wasn't a question of if the Broncos were going to lose, but by how much. And a mid-major playing on the road at Duke University essentially spells defeat. In situations like this, it helps to be a science fiction nerd. You have to approach this game with the same kind of bravado as a Captain James T. Kirk. Because even though this game was in the 83% when it was scheduled during the summer, I still flew down there to see it because "I don't believe in no-win scenarios."
at DUKE 110, WESTERN MICHIGAN 70 12/30/2011
WESTERN MICHIGAN 5-8 (0-0) -- A. Richie 2-9 2-2 7; M. Douglas 3-14 0-0 7; M. Stainbrook 9-19 0-0 18; D. Ward 6-12 2-2 16; H. Hoerdemann 5-8 0-0 12; S. Whittington 1-2 1-3 3; M. Conteh 1-4 1-2 3; N. Hutcheson 1-2 0-0 2; T. Brennan 0-0 0-0 0; C. Dean 0-1 2-2 2; D. Loney 0-0 0-0 0; N. Stapert 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-71 8-11 70. DUKE 11-1 (0-0) -- M. Plumlee 3-4 1-1 7; S. Curry 8-12 3-4 22; A. Rivers 6-10 6-7 20; Q. Cook 4-7 7-8 16; R. Kelly 2-6 3-4 9; J. Hairston 3-8 7-9 13; T. Thornton 4-4 0-0 12; M. Plumlee 1-2 1-2 3; M. Gbinije 2-3 0-0 6; A. Dawkins 1-6 0-0 2; T. Zafirovski 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 34-63 28-35 110.
Three-point goals: WMU 6-13 (D. Ward 2-6; M. Douglas 1-2; H. Hoerdemann 2-2; A. Richie 1-3), DUKE 14-27 (S. Curry 3-4; A. Dawkins 0-4; R. Kelly 2-4; T. Thornton 4-4; A. Rivers 2-4; Q. Cook 1-4; M. Gbinije 2-3); Rebounds: WMU 26 (M. Stainbrook 8), DUKE 44 (M. Plumlee 15); Assists: WMU 12 (M. Douglas 4), DUKE 22 (Q. Cook 8); Total Fouls -- WMU 26, DUKE 16; Fouled Out: WMU-M. Conteh; DUKE-None.