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Jim Sumner on Duke Streaks!

Now that we’re finally over the Stanford game and it’s apparent that the 2000-2001 Duke team, like the 95 that preceded it, will not go undefeated, let’s put the season’s start in some historical perspective. After all, the Devils did win their first ten contests, a mark bettered by only five Duke clubs since the end of World War II. This club became the eleventh team in Duke history to go at least ten games deep into the season before suffering its first loss. What happened to the first ten? Some were among the best teams in school history, while others were unable to maintain a high level of accomplishment.

The first two teams to go at least 10-0 can be easily disposed of. The 1917 team went 12-0 on the way to a 20-4 start. However, Trinity College, as it was still known, was playing in the minors. These twelve wins included two wins each over the Durham YMCA, the Charlotte YMCA, and the Asheville YMCA, along with victories over such notables as the Church Hill Athletic Club. Seven years later Duke started off 10-0, en route to a 19-6 season. Victims included Fort Bragg, a Norfolk youth team, and the Durham Elks.

In 1928-29 Eddie Cameron became head basketball coach and Duke joined the Southern Conference. These two events marked the beginning of big-time basketball at Duke. Cameron’s best start came in 1936, when Duke started 13-0. The Durham YMCA and Chatham Mills were among the victims but the beefed-up schedule also included Yale, Princeton, and Army, in addition to conference opponents. The first loss was 36-33 to North Carolina State. However, Duke faded down the stretch, losing its last four games, including a Southern Conference Tournament opening-game-loss to Maryland, 47-35. Duke finished 20-6.

Surprisingly, it would be a half-century before any Duke team surpassed this 1936 start. The best opening streak ever posted by a Vic Bubas team was the 9-0 mark put on the board by the 1961 team, which finished 22-6. The 1980 Duke team started 12-0, including a Tip Off Classic win over Kentucky and a Big Four win over UNC. This Duke team, the last coached by Bill Foster, featured All-America center Mike Gminski, Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard, and Vince Taylor. Duke was ranked number one before losing at Clemson 87-82 in overtime. This Clemson team, which was led by Billy Williams and Larry Nance, would advance to the NCAA Final Eight. Mid-season injuries, most notably a leg injury to Dennard, hurt the thin Devils and the club finished a disappointing 7-7 in conference play. Duke rallied to win the ACC Tournament and advance to the Midwest Regional Final, before losing to Purdue 68-60 to finish 24-9.

Mike Krzyzewski had a similar season in 1985. Duke again won its first dozen contests, including capturing the Trojan-Bud Light Classic in Los Angeles and avenging their 1984 NCAA Tournament loss to Washington, by defeating Detlef Schrempf and the Huskies 73-59. Duke rose to number two in the polls, behind Georgetown. Duke then lost a pair of overtime contests, on the road to Maryland and at home to Wake Forest. Several other close losses led to an 8-6 ACC mark. Injuries to Mark Alarie and David Henderson helped put Duke out of the NCAA in the second round, ending the season at 23-8.

The following season Alarie and Henderson joined Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Jay Bilas, Danny Ferry, and Billy King to put together one of the special teams in Duke history. Duke won the inaugural Big Apple NIT, defeating St. John’s and fifth-ranked Kansas in New York. By mid-January Duke was 16-0 and third in the polls. ACC rivals UNC and Georgia Tech were 1 and 4, respectively, a remarkable accomplishment for the league. The streak ended on January 18, in the first game played at the Smith Center, when the Heels nipped the Devils 95-92. Duke lost to Tech the following game and then didn’t lose again until the national finals, when Duke fell to Louisville.

In 1989, Danny Ferry’s senior year, Duke started the season 13-0, with early victories over Kentucky, Miami, and Washington. None of these teams were nationally ranked, however. The top-ranked Devils were upset at home by UNC 91-71, beginning a streak where Duke lost four of five. Duke righted itself for a 9-5 ACC mark and an appearance in the Final Four. Duke ended the season 28-8.

Duke finally broke through with its first national championship in 1991, led by Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill. The next three seasons saw Duke start off the season with long winning streaks. The 1992 team won its first 17 contests, the best such mark in school history. Five victims were nationally ranked, including St. John’s and Michigan. Carolina again ended the streak, 75-73 in Chapel Hill. This was the game when Hurley broke his foot. Duke lost again, this time to Wake Forest, before Hurley recovered. Duke ran the table after that, winning its second national title.

Despite being two-time defending national champions, Duke started the 1992-93 season ranked fourth. A 79-68 win over top-ranked Michigan in the second game propelled Duke to the top spot. They held that position until the season’s 11th game, when they lost at Georgia Tech 80-79. Grant Hill’s toe injury later that season ended any realistic chance at a three-peat and Duke ended the season at 24-8.

Hill was fully recovered the following year and led Duke to a 10-0 start, which included road victories over Michigan and Georgia Tech, among others. Duke climbed to number two in the polls in mid-January, before losing its first game to Randolph Childress and Wake Forest 69-68. Duke won the ACC regular-season in 1994 and lost in the national final to Arkansas, finishing 28-6.

That was the last time Duke ran off a double-digit season-opening winning streak before this year. What have we learned? Like last month’s nail biter against Stanford, Duke usually goes down with a fight. First loses of the season have included an overtime loss at Clemson in 1980, an overtime loss at Maryland in 1985, a three-point loss at Carolina in 1986, a one-point loss at Georgia Tech in 1993, and a one-point loss at home to Wake Forest in 1994. Secondly, some very good Duke teams have started fast. The 1986, 1989, 1992, and 1994 teams all advanced to the Final Four. However, good starts are no guarantees of good finishes. The 1936, 1980, and 1985 teams are indicators of that. Finally, some very good teams are conspicuous by their absence. Duke made the Final Four three times under Vic Bubas, in 1963, 1964, and 1966. The 1963 team lost back-to- back contest in December of 1962, to Davidson and Miami. The next season Duke lost its fourth game at Vanderbilt and its eighth game at Michigan. The 1966 team lost its third game to South Carolina. The 1978 team, which Bill Foster coached to the national finals, lost to UNC in the Big Four, Duke’s third game. The 1988 team lost at Arizona in its seventh game. The 1990 team lost its fourth and fifth games respectively to Syracuse 78-76 and to Michigan in overtime. And we all remember the 1999 team losing early to Cincinnati. These clubs all advanced to the Final Four, suggesting that an early-season loss hardly marks the end of the season.

The one constant in successful Duke seasons, whether they included an early loss or not, is the fact that the school has almost always included early-season, non-conference matches against national powers. This trend goes back at least to the establishment of the Dixie Classic in 1949. As disappointing as the loss to Stanford may have been, that game, along with contests won against Temple, Illinois, and the Big Apple NIT opponents, should help Duke prepare for the rigors of the ACC season and beyond.

Jim Sumner is curator of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and historian at the North Carolina Museum of History. He is a 1972 graduate of Duke University. His email address is