By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Decide, if you will, where this fits on the so-called “rewards” scale.
The Western Washington University men’s basketball team won the program’s first NCAA Division II national title last season, and the trophy presentation was soon followed by an invitation to fly across the country, suit up in the most unfriendly environment college basketball has to offer and get humbled by the greatest mind the game has ever seen.
You’re welcome, Vikings.
And yet when WWU enters Cameron Indoor Arena this afternoon to take on mighty Duke in an exhibition game, the Vikings will be both honored and ready to give the eighth-ranked Blue Devils their best shot.
“Just to be able to play there, in Cameron Indoor, is one of the highlights of my life, for sure.” WWU senior forward Chris Mitchell said.
The game is especially meaningful to WWU’s interim head coach, Tony Dominguez. The Cascade High School graduate grew up supporting the North Carolina side of the Tobacco Road rivalry — he was a fan of the Tar Heels and coached at UNC’s basketball camps for more than a decade — and is excited about the opportunity to match wits with legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the owner of 927 career victories.
“Coach K is an incredible coach,” said Dominguez, who took over on an interim basis when longtime Vikings coach Brad Jackson left for an assistant job at the University of Washington late this summer. “You can’t say more than he’s the all-time winning coach in college basketball. He’s got (nine)-hundred-and-something wins, I’ve got zero. So I’m honored that we’re able to go there and give it our best.”
In four of the past five seasons, Krzyzewski has rewarded the Division II national champion with an invitation to play at Cameron Indoor. The previous four D-II champs have suffered the expected manhandling — Bellarmine lost by 25 last year, Cal Poly Pomona by 21 in 2010, Findlay by 36 points in 2009, and Barton College by 61 points, 105-44, in 2007.
Add in a crazy fan base that will be seeing the 2012-13 Blue Devils for the first time, and the Vikings have every reason to feel like the Washington Generals right about now.
But WWU isn’t planning on playing the part of raw meat in a tiger’s cage, and the Vikings proved as much during an 88-78 loss to Washington at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Wednesday night — a game that was tied at 69 with under seven minutes remaining.
As WWU’s Mitchell said after that game: “We’re not lacking for confidence.”
Dominguez doesn’t know quite what to expect from his team’s first trip to Cameron, but he knows all about the so-called “Cameron Crazies” in the stands and their ability to rattle the opposition.
“I think they’ll be pretty motivated,” he said. “Losing to Lehigh (in the first round of the NCAA tournament) last year, I would imagine they’re going to be ready for anybody. With us being their first game, it could be deadly. But I’m confident in our guys. I like our team.”
Senior guard John Allen, a Mountlake Terrace High School graduate, said the game against UW on Wednesday night gave the Vikings a taste of big-time basketball, which might come in handy this afternoon.
“After (the game against UW), I don’t think there will be as many nerves,” he said. “I thought we handled their pressure well. It’ll be a little different, but just knowing that we can compete with a program at this level is making us confident. So I’m actually not too worried about it. I think it’s just going to be a lot of fun.”
Dominguez was quick to point out that this could be a whole different atmosphere.
“We’re all friendly here,” he said after Wednesday’s exhibition at Hec Ed. “We know (UW coach Lorenzo) Romar, and we’ve got a lot of fans here. But when we go to Duke, there’s 150 Western fans (who were scheduled to travel to the game) and a whole lot of Dukies.”
Romar isn’t the only Division I coach Dominguez knows. He met Dean Smith and former North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge during his 12 years working basketball camps at the University of North Carolina, so he doesn’t plan on being weak-kneed at the sight of Coach K.
“Not that I’m going to be wowed, but I’m really going to be honored just to be coaching against him,” said Dominguez, an admitted fan of Duke rival UNC.
The previous three Division II champions to play at Cameron certainly have been humbled, and all indications are that Western Washington could be added to that list today — even though the Blue Devils will be playing without injured starters Seth Curry and Marshall Plumlee.
Whatever happens in Durham, N.C., today the Vikings believe they’ll be better for the experience.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Mitchell said, “so we’ve got to do our best.”