Not many basketball matchups are even memorable. Here’s what makes a game great.

NC State celebrates the Wolfpack's victory over Duke

Watch a timelapse of the celebration of players and fans after the NC State Wolfpack upset the Duke Blue Devils at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.
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Watch a timelapse of the celebration of players and fans after the NC State Wolfpack upset the Duke Blue Devils at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.

For all his intensity on the sidelines, Mike Krzyzewski is not given to emotional post-game comments. Win or lose, he’s more apt to savor a contest like a man who’s seen more than his share – which he has – or to dish out enthusiastic praise and clear-eyed analysis like a curator of the game – which he tries to be – than he is to engage in hyperbole.

So the tenor of the coach’s remarks on the Duke radio network immediately following a hard-fought 100-93 home victory over Florida State as the 2017 calendar year wound down were quite revealing.

“It was, to put it mildly, a great game!” Krzyzewski said, sounding too excited to stand still. “Both teams. Are you kidding me?” Clearly Krzyzewski’s reaction was partly a release of pent-up tension, mixed with satisfaction his team, laden with annuals, had not wilted against FSU’s unrelenting assault in frenzied Cameron Indoor Stadium. But there was more there: an enthusiast’s unfettered regard for the quality of play, the same buzz that animated fans as they watched at home or exited the arena and walked to their cars. “To feel it, to play in that level, wow!” said the 70-year-old. “It’s a wow.”

Few expected unsung Florida State to go toe-to-toe with mighty Duke on its home court – even after the game started.

But, then, no one can predict when a great game will occur. People do try, hyping a particular meeting only to have one or both teams fail to rise to the occasion. Or action may be absorbing but unpolished, with knucklehead cross-court passes and clanged free throws as common as exemplary plays. Stars may disappear in plain sight. Sometimes a game is suspenseful because neither squad is good enough to take control, or the clearly better team plays down to its opponent.

Great or entertaining?

Yet a gulf remains between a game that’s exciting and one that’s great, that becomes so absorbing we don’t want it to end. As observers we feel the difference, even as we struggle to put a finger on what makes it so.

The distinction was raised a few years back by TV analyst Jay Bilas, who objected when a colleague casually opined that a game had been “great.” No, said Bilas, striking a blow for accuracy in a realm of overwrought superlatives, the game was unusually entertaining or something similar. But it did not qualify as great.

Bilas estimates that, of some 200 games he watches annually in person or on video, perhaps 10 percent rise to the level of greatness. Generally, though, he agrees that certain elements need be present to generate a great contest: passionate crowd involvement; a high level of performances on both sides that Bilas says “had to be matched to win,” with minimal mistakes interspersed; point differentials that generally remain within single digits throughout; and a pinch of drama for good measure, including uncertainty about the outcome.

Seminoles and Blue Devils game goes down to the wire with Duke coming out ahead 100-93.

Speaking of the FSU-Duke game days later, Bilas too recalled greatness. “That could have been a game where, if either team had not been sharp, that could have been a 25-point loss,” he observed. With FSU seniors Phil Cofer and Braian Angola notching personal bests in scoring, and Blue Devil wunderkind Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. doing the same in rebounding, margins melted like snow on a hot tongue.

Neither Duke nor Florida State led by more than 8 points, each rising to whatever occasion presented itself. “That had surges and responses, so it had the drama of sort of a boxer having to respond to getting punched,” Bilas said. “So that was really fun.”

Duke freshman forward Marvin Bagley III talks about Duke's win and what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the team after the win over Florida State.

Quickly overlooked

Smaller dramas were interwoven. Duke’s quartet of freshmen starters all played with four fouls, an uncommon balancing act even for experienced performers. A formidable officiating crew comprised of Final Four veterans lost Brian Dorsey for the second half, leaving Jeff Clark and Mike Eades to work as a pair in what amounted to a throwback arrangement from another era. Early in the second half, FSU saw an 8-point edge converted to a 6-point deficit in barely two minutes, causing normally phlegmatic coach Leonard Hamilton to explode on the sidelines, earning a rare technical foul.

Because Bilas watches basketball action from across the country for about five months, he’s bound to see many more games he’d consider great than the ACC alone produces. Around here they’re as rare as bipartisan legislative initiatives. If we’re lucky we’ll see a handful during the 2017-18 men’s season.

That had surges and responses, so it had the drama of sort of a boxer having to respond to getting punched. So that was really fun.

TV analyst Jay Bilas on what made last month’s Duke-Florida State game great.

With no agreed-upon measures of what constitutes a great game, or even a consensus that such a category of contest exists, we don’t keep track of the great games we do see during the regular season. Since Florida State and Duke aren’t scheduled to play again this year, their late-December meeting is apt to fade from conversation, just another conference clash. (N.C. State’s win over Duke Saturday was certainly memorable, although only the Wolfpack played at a high level.). Memory of a similarly breathless meeting between Kentucky and North Carolina at Las Vegas in December 2016 did live on, but mainly thanks to a rematch in the South Regional final, won on a shot by Luke Maye en route to UNC’s 2017 NCAA title.

Usually the great games we do recall – and celebrate, down to memorizing the scores – are played for high stakes, such as N.C. State’s 103-100 overtime victory over Maryland for the 1974 ACC tournament championship, or the 104-103 overtime win by Duke over Kentucky in a 1992 NCAA regional final. Those became touchstone contests in ACC and NCAA history.

These days, with analytics all the rage, meaning the most minute athletic acts are recorded, measured and cataloged, there’s something subversively comforting in the notion a great game can happen yet still elude definition, prediction or quantification. Even if your team isn’t very good, knowing a great game can appear at any moment, like a basketball rainbow, is a gift anyone can appreciate.

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