Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — Lance Thomas knows that one Big East team crushed an ACC team last Friday at Madison Square Garden.
Syracuse, unranked at the time, routed defending NCAA champion North Carolina, 87-71, in the finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer event last Friday.
So, when No. 7 Duke takes the floor today at MSG against No. 13 UConn (5, ESPN), will the Blue Devils be seeking revenge on behalf of the ACC?
“We’re not worried about that, we’re trying to win a championship,” said the the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Thomas, a former Newark (N.J.) St. Benedict’s Prep star who starts in the frontcourt for Duke. “We worked hard to get where we’re at and we’re trying to take care of business.”
Duke advanced Wednesday with a 64-53 win over Arizona State, while UConn hammered LSU, 81-55.
Now fans get a showdown of two powerhouse programs that have combined to win five NCAA titles since 1991.
UConn has won the last four meetings with Duke, including a 79-78 victory in the 2004 Final Four at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
The list of players who competed in that game reads like a Who’s Who of NBA rosters. For UConn, Josh Boone, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueava and Hilton ARmstrong. For Duke, Luol Deng, Shelden Williams, J.J. Redick and Chris Duhon.
“It’s going to be a real big game,” Thomas said of the latest encounter. “Two really good teams playing for a championship this early in the season. Both teams are going to be hungry, both teams have great coaches.”
UConn’s Jim Calhoun (809) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (837) have combined to win 1,646 games. This is the first matchup ever between coaches with 800 career wins.
“Jim has won a lot of games doing it the way he’s doing it,” Coach K said. “I would be shocked if we didn’t see a three-quarter press, a 2-2-1, and letting their guards with some ball screens and then hammering the boards. I think rebounding will be a big thing on Friday afternoon.”
Duke is riding a 21-game winning streak in November, while UConn has won 22 straight non-conference games.
Both teams have players who could be drafted next June. UConn features seniors Jerome Dyson, who had 20 points against LSU, and Stanley Robinson (14 pts, 11 rebs), as well as sophomore Kemba Walker (20 pts), whom Calhoun says won’t go after this season.
Coach K says junior forward Kyle Singler may leave after this season, and also thinks there’s a spot for Thomas in the NBA.
“All of a sudden someone’s going to really like Lance, whether they draft him or bring him to camp and keep him because he’s almost 6-9, he’s got great energy. He’s really improved offensively. He’s a glue guy and he can play defense and he can defend multiple positions,” he said
Coach K said Thomas has shortcomings as a player, but has developed into a tremendous defender.
“I think he’s our most versatile defender,” he said. “We have him guarding from centers to point guards.”
For his part, Thomas says he’s not thinking that far ahead yet.
“Not right now,” he said. “I’m just here for my team before I even think about that. I’ll have a lot of time to think about that after the season. For now I’m focused on getting as many wins a possible for this season.”
NOTES: UConn will be back at MSG to face No. 5 Kentucky Dec. 9 in the marquee matchup of the SEC/Big East Challenge.
(Photo courtesy Duke Athletics)Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.