Duke goes out of conference for the last time until the postseason this Saturday against visiting St. John's. This will be the tenth consecutive season the two teams have met. In the non-ACC universe, only Davidson has appeared on Duke's schedule more often in recent years.
St. John's is respected name in college hoops history, albeit one that is still recovering from a series of scandals that tarnished the program earlier this decade. St. John's ranks seventh on the NCAA all-time wins list and has appeared in 27 NCAA Tournaments and an equal number of NITs. That's a lot of Marches.
The Johnnies have advanced to the Final Four twice. In 1952 Frank McGuire coached them into the title game, where they lost to Kansas. St. John's reached the Final Four in 1985 under the tutelage of Lou Carnesecca. That team, which included Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, and Mark Jackson, lost to Georgetown in the semifinals.
St. John's has made more of an impact in the NIT. They've won that title six times, including 1943 and 1944 titles, when the NIT was equal in prestige and talent to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, that 1944 team beat Kentucky in the NIT semis and George Mikan and DePaul in the title game. Hall-of-Famer Joe Lapchik coached these two teams. I should note that the Helms Athletic Foundation awarded St. John's the 1911 title.
If you know your basketball history, the names Lapchik, McGuire, Carnesecca, Mullin, Berry, and Jackson should ring a bell. There have been other notables. Al McGuire captained the 1951 St. John's team to a 26-5. Al and Frank weren't related but Al's brother Dick was another St. John's All-American and a top-NBA player. Boomers like me remember names like Kevin Loughery and LeRoy Ellis, while younger readers remember Malik Sealy and Felipe Lopez.
Duke and St. John's have played 16 times. Some of these games were pretty forgettable. But a surprising number have been games of some consequence, including three meetings in the NCAA Tournament. The first meeting was in 1938. A matchup between Lapchik and Eddie Cameron looks pretty good on paper. But St. John's won easily, 44-28.
That was it, for more than four decades. The next time the two programs met was in the consolation game of the 1978 Holiday Festival. Duke came to New York undefeated and ranked number one in the country. But they blew big leads against Ohio State and St. John's and lost both games.
Bill Foster's Blue Devils had a chance at payback later that season, at Raleigh's Reynolds Coliseum, in the NCAA Tournament. But starting guard Bob Bender was out after an appendectomy, Kenny Dennard missed the game with a sprained ankle, and Mike Gminski was hampered by a stomach virus. Gminski led Duke to a 38-33 halftime lead but ran out of gas down the stretch and couldn't handle St. John's Wayne McCoy. Reggie Carter made several big shots down the stretch and St. John's pulled off the upset 80-78. Gene Banks led Duke with 24 points, while Gminski and Jim Spanarkel added 16 apiece. Carter led St. John's with 21, McCoy with 18. Pennsylvania defeated North Carolina that same day in Reynolds, an afternoon known since as "Black Sunday" in ACC lore.
Foster was long gone to South Carolina when Duke and St. John's next met. It was the semifinals of the first pre-season NIT in November 1985 and Mike Krzyzewski was showing off his first great Duke team in Madison Square Garden. A foul-line jumper by Johnny Dawkins gave Duke a 71-70 win over a St. John's team that would go on to win the Big East Tournament championship; Duke defeated Kansas two days later for the title.
Duke and St. John's played each of the first three seasons of the 1990s. They squared off in the 1990 NCAA Tournament second round in Atlanta. Duke's hard-fought win was sparked by one of the most unusual sequences in school history. St. John's led 61-53 with about nine minutes left when Duke's Robert Brickey stole the ball from Billy Singleton. Singleton tried to get it back but was called for a foul. He protested the call with such vehemence that he was hit with a technical. Brickey, not a great foul shooter, made the first two foul shots. Krzyzewski left him on the line for the technicals and he made both of these. Alaa Abdelnaby then scored for Duke, completing a six-point possession. Duke came back for a 76-72 win, led by Brickey's 22 points and Abdelnaby's 17.
The following season, Duke and St. John's met in the Midwest regional finals in Pontiac, Michigan. Fourth-seeded St. John's had advanced to the title game with a 91-74 win over top-seeded Ohio State. But Duke dominated the title game, using an 18-5 run in the middle of the second half to break open the contest. Bobby Hurley made six three-pointers in the 78-61 win and Duke went on to win its first NCAA title.
Nine months later Duke and St. John's met in Greensboro in the third and final ACC-Big East showdown. Duke has lost the first two games in that series, to Syracuse and Georgetown, but Duke blasted St. John's this time around. The 91-81 final gives no idea of Duke's dominance. Let by Christian Laettner's 26 points and Grant Hill's 15, Duke led by a many as 31 points before a furious rally against the Duke bench ate into the final margin. Sealy scored 37 points for St. John's.
It's been regular season since then but three of those went to the wire. In January 1999 second-ranked Duke met eighth-ranked St. John's in the Garden. You probably remember the 1999 Duke team with Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon and the rest. But you may have forgotten that the '99 St. John's team was pretty good. Brand's former AAU teammate Ron Artest was still known more for his basketball than the other stuff and Marvis "Bootsy" Thornton was an athletic wing, with a sweet jump shot.
Duke led 39-37 at the half and extended the lead to ten at 55-45 before St. John's fought back, tying the game with a 15-5 run. It was a see-saw game down the stretch. Duke led by three but Artest tied the game at 81 at the buzzer.
Brand and Avery fouled out for Duke and St. John's jumped to an 84-81 lead early in the extra period. But Chris Carrawell took over at point guard and made three foul shots in the final seconds to wrap up the 92-88 victory. Balance won the day for Duke, as Carrawell led six double-figure scorers with 17 points. Thornton hit seven three-pointers for St. John's on the way to a 40-point game, while Artest added 22.
The teams met a year later in Cameron. Duke was ranked second, while the visitors were unranked. When Duke jumped to a 27-15 lead, everything seemed to be going according to plan. But the Red Storm went on a 24-11 run to take a one-point lead at the half. The teams traded leads in the second half. Carrawell missed a three at the buzzer and St. John's escaped with a stunning 83-82 win. Thornton led St. John's with 22 points and 11 rebounds but was joined in double figures by four of his teammates. Duke also placed five players in double figures, led by Carlos Boozer with 21 and Nate James with 20. Freshman Jason Williams had 13 assists for Duke.
Duke handled St. John's by margins of 32 and 42 points the next two seasons. At the point where the rivalry was becoming one-sided, the Red Storm pulled off a stunner. Five years ago, again at Madison Square Garden, St. John's stunned Duke in a thoroughly dispiriting game in which a young Duke team coughed up an eleven-point lead in the final four minutes. Marcus Hatten scored 29 points, including 16 of St. John's' final 22 points. Hatten's foul shot with no time on the clock was the game-winner in the 72-71 victory and came after a controversial no-call on a Daniel Ewing turnover. St. John's came into the game at 12-12 but used the upset to build momentum for their sixth NIT title. For what it's worth, the NCAA vacated that 2003 title.
It hasn't been close since then. Duke has won the last four by 21, 11, 13, and 17 points. Last season's 67-50 win on February 25 was Duke's final victory of the season.
Duke is coming into the game on a two-team losing streak and St. John's doesn't appear to be much of a threat to make it three. But they've pulled off two upsets against the Devils this decade, so we'll have to play the game to be sure. It's not clear whether Norm Roberts is the guy to bring St. John's back to their glory days but they do have a lot of glory days and some of them weren't that long ago.