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Duke Goes For A Championship

Just what Duke likes best

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NCAA Basketball: Furman at Duke
Nov 20, 2017; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Wendell Carter Jr. (34) pull down a rebound during the second half against the Furman Paladins at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke won 92-63.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Krzyzewski has made it clear that he defines his program by championships won.

Not overall wins. Not rankings … championships.

Of course, NCAA championships are the ultimate achievement. K has five of those in his 37 years at Duke. He’s also won 12 NCAA regional championships. And 14 ACC championships. Add another 11 ACC regular season championships.

Those are the big jewels.

But there is also his long list of in-season titles.

By my count, Duke has won 27 in-season tournaments in its history … and Coach K has won 17 of them. He’s been particularly effective in the Maui Classic – five titles and a 16-0 overall record – and in the preseason NIT – four titles and a 25-3 record. He’s won titles as rinky dink as the 1981 Iron Duke Classic and as impressive as the 2012 Battle of Atlantis (beating eventual national champ Louisville in the title game).

On Thanksgiving Day, Coach K and his No. 1 ranked Blue Devils will begin a quest for a new title – the Phil Knight Invitational (or the PK80).

It’s a unique event in that it’s really two eight-team tournaments. What happens in the other half of the tournament – which features Michigan State and North Carolina – doesn’t really matter to Duke.

Allow me to say this – I get a little queasy celebrating Phil Knight. For all the praise he’s piling up on ESPN and the like, I can’t help see Knight as a robber baron of the 21st century. Yes, he’s a brilliant entrepreneur and a generous philanthropist (and a close friend of Coach K), but he’s also a man who built his fortune on sweatshop labor – exploiting children in Asia, who were paid pennies a day to build shoes that he then sold for hundreds of dollars to customers in America and Europe. Personally, I can do without the swoosh.

Now, back to basketball.

The Blue Devils will open Thursday afternoon against Portland State, then will play again Friday against either Butler or Texas.

The final game – hopefully the championship game – will be Sunday. I’m guess that Duke plays Florida or Gonzaga for the title, but the Sunday opponent could be Ohio State or Stanford for third place, fifth place or seventh place.

That’s a worthy lineup of opponents. True, Portland State is not much of a resume-booster, but Butler and Texas are both strong programs. And No. 7 Florida or No. 17 Gonzaga would be a very impressive opponent to go along with Duke’s earlier win over No. 2 Michigan State.

So while the Phil Knight Invitational nowhere near as impressive a championship as the NCAA title or even the ACC regular season title, it’s still worth winning.

Look back at Duke history and you will find a number of in-season tournaments that resonate to this day. Sometimes an in-season championship is even the highlight of the season. Allow me to look at five in-season titles that are worth remembering.

The 1953 Dixie Classic

It’s difficult to explain the importance of the Dixie Classic in the 1950s. It was one of basketball’s premier events – Vic Bubas once told me that it was more important that the ACC Tournament during that era.

It was an eight-team tournament, played every year in Reynolds Coliseum in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and matching the four Big Four teams against four national powers. A Big Four teams always won the championship.

But not Duke. Despite Duke’s strong showing in the 1950s under Hal Bradley, the Devils won the Dixie Classic just once – in December of 1953.

The Blue Devils were coming off a dismal pre-Christmas holiday tournament in Louisville. Duke lost close games to No. 2 Kentucky and No. 13 UCLA in the Kentucky Invitational.

The Devils opened the Dixie Classic against another highly-rated West Coast team – No. 12 Oregon State, featuring 7-foot-3 Swede Halbrook, who was touted at the time as the tallest player ever to play basketball. Halbrook scored 23, but Duke’s Rudy D’Emilio and Joe Belmont scored 19 each and Duke led all the way in a 71-61 victory.

The next day, Duke faced an even better big man. Wake Forest’s Dickie Hemric scored 26, but D’Emilio scored 23 and Rudy Lacy and Bernie Janicki added 14 each as Duke dominated, 83-66. It was so lopsided that little-used forward Charles “Lefty” Driesell got to play six minutes.

In the other semifinal game, Navy was upsetting N.C. State – the first loss ever for Everett Case in the four-year-old event. That was a break for the Blue Devils, who owned Ben Carvevale’s Midshipmen in that era. D’Emilio and Belmont both topped 20 as Duke coached to a 98-83 victory and the title.

The win vaulted Duke from unranked to No. 8 in the AP poll. It would launch the Devils to a strong season, including an unofficial ACC regular season title (that was the first year of the new ACC and the schedules weren’t close to balanced). Duke beat N.C. State twice in the regular season, but lost to the Wolfpack in the ACC Tournament, ending the season prematurely.

In hindsight the Dixie Classic title was the highlight of the season – and maybe the Hal Bradley era.

The Birmingham Classic

Just before Christmas of 1959, first-year coach Vic Bubas took his young team to Alabama for a rinky-dink tournament – and the 1959 Birmingham Classic WAS rinky-dink.

But Duke wasn’t all that much at that time. The Blue Devils were coming off a 13-12 season. Bubas had landed celebrated prep star Art Heyman that summer, but the Long Island forward was playing on the freshman team. Bubas had a junior-dominated team and, frankly, he was struggling to put it together.

Duke arrived in Birmingham with a 2-1 record. The young coach had three starters firmly fixed – center Doug Kistler, forward Carroll Youngkin and swingman Howard Hurt. But should he play Hurt at guard or forward? And who else should start?

Bubas started his threesome with guard Johnny Frye, who was small even for that era, and Jack Mullen, a Navy veteran that previous coach Hal Bradley had recruited instead of All-ACC guard Billy Packer.

That group led Duke to a solid victory over host Alabama, then past Navy, 76-71, in the championship game of the four-team event.

Kistler-Youngkin-Hurt-Frye-Mullen went all 40 minutes against the Middies.

From that point on, they called themselves the Birmingham Five.

Bubas would play around with the lineup some more as Duke completed a lackluster 12-10 regular season. But he returned to the Birmingham Five for the ACC Tournament and the results were remarkable. No. 4 seeded Duke beat No. 5 seeded South Carolina in the opener, then upset ACC co-regular season champs North Carolina and Wake Forest in the semifinals and finals, respectively.

Bubas’ unheralded team had won Duke its first ACC title (and first conference title since 1946). It would also give Duke its first two NCAA Tournament wins, reaching the Elite Eight before running out of gas against NYU.

That rinky-dink tournament in Alabama would prove to be an important stepping stone for that breakthrough Duke team.

The 1985 Preseason NIT

This was the inaugural Preseason NIT and it was perhaps the biggest in-season tournament ever held – involving a 16-team field.

Modern tournaments sometimes mimic a big field. For instance, did you know that Monday night’s Duke-Furman game was technically part of the Phil Knight Invitational? I say “technically” because in reality it’s not. Not only was the game played at Duke, but even if Furman had pulled the upset in Cameron, Duke would have still gone to Portland for the real Knight Tournament.

The 1985 Preseason NIT was different. Duke had to travel to Houston and win two very tough games to earn its trip to New York City for the final four-team showdown.

The Blue Devils were just returning to national consciousness under young coach Mike Krzyzewski after several years of mediocrity – and worse. But the 1985 team had finished 10th nationally and with four starters returning and a top recruit, were expected to do well – No. 6 nationally in preseason (but third in the ACC behind No. 1 Georgia Tech and No. 2 UNC).

The first game of the NIT event pitted Duke against a tough, veteran team from Lamar. Duke was without starting center Jay Bilas, but freshman Danny Ferry started in his place and gave the team 26 strong minutes. Senior David Henderson was the star as Duke gritted out a 66-62 victory.

One night later, Ferry contributed a double-double as Duke overcame at two-point halftime deficit to beat No. 16 Alabama-Birmingham.

That earned the Devils a trip to New York, where four superpowers gathered. The field was fantastic – No. 5 Kansas, No. 6 Duke, No. 9 Louisville and No. 18 St. John’s.

That was their rank in the last weekend of November. In the final AP poll, it would be No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Kansas, No. 4 St. John’s and No. 7 Louisville. Three of the four would reach the real Final Four in Dallas the next March, while St. John’s would be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

In the semifinals, the Blue Devils struggled to a 71-70 victory over St. John’s – a team that featured national player of the year Walter Berry and future NBA standout Mark Jackson. Johnny Dawkins scored 20 to lead Duke’s scoring, hitting the 15-foot game-winner with under 20 seconds left.

That earned Duke a matchup with Kansas in the title game. The Jayhawks were led by sophomore Danny Manning, who scored 24 against the Devils. But Henderson scored 30 for Duke, Mark Alarie added 21 and Dawkins chipped in 20 as Krzyzewski’s veteran team won 92-86 to claim the first Preseason NIT title.

It’s possibly the most impressive in-season tournament title that anybody has ever won. And it certainly launched one of the great seasons in Duke history – the first truly great season under Krzyzewski.

The 1995 Great Alaskan Shootout

It’s hard to recapture how horrible the 1995 basketball season was at Duke.

After seven Final Four in nine years, Duke lost Coach K with a back problem at midseason and the team collapsed, finishing 13-18 (2-14 ACC).

On paper, the prospects for 1995-96 were worse. Center Cherokee Parks, a first-round NBA draft pick was gone. So was post starter Erik Meek, an early second round pick. Worse, sophomore guard Trajan Langdon, the best of the previous year’s freshmen, suffered a pre-season knee injury and would miss the entire season.

Ironically, the team scheduled the trip to Alaska as a homecoming game for Langdon, who was a hero in the 49th state. But he would be unable to play.

However, Duke did have Krzyzewski back and he guided the team past a solid Old Dominion team in the first round in Anchorage.

It was the next night that everybody took notice of – with junior guard Jeff Capel leading the way, Duke shocked No. 23 Indiana and Bobby Knight to earn a trip to the finals. In the championship game against No. 10 Iowa, senior Chris Collins poured in 30 points and junior Ricky Price added 25 as Duke pulled out the 88-81 victory and the championship.

The triumph in Alaska did not presage a great season but the Devils did reverse the 1995 disaster (going from 13-18 to 18-13) and returning to the NCAA Tournament.

The 2012 Battle for Atlantis

The tournament in the Bahamas actually started in Cameron, where Duke was matched against unheralded Florida Gulf Coast. Little notice was taken when the Devils rolled to a 52-30 halftime lead, then coasted to an 88-67 victory.

Yet, it’s funny – Duke was coming off an easy victory over No. 3 Kentucky in Atlanta. That win got a lot of attention – over a Kentucky team that would lose in the first round of the NIT. Meanwhile, unappreciated Florida Golf Coast would find fame in March, storming to the NCAA Sweet 16.

After the FGCU win, Duke flew to the Bahamas for the meat the tournament. The Blue Devils knocked off Minnesota and VCU – two NCAA teams that year – to get to the finals. There, Duke faced No. 2 Louisville.

All five Blue Devil starters scored between 14-16 points as Duke held on to beat the eventual national champs, 76-71. Quinn Cook earned MVP honors

It didn’t hurt that Duke flew home and beat No. 4 Ohio State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

That two-week run – victories over teams ranked No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4, plus three other NCAA-bound teams – is perhaps the strongest regular season run in school history. It vaulted Duke from preseason No. 8 to No. 1 in the polls and set Duke up for what should have been a great season. Unfortunately, an injury to Ryan Kelly derailed Duke late in the season and when the Devils faced Louisville again in the Elite Eight, the season came to a disappointing end.

There are several other in-season tournaments that deserve mention:

-- Big Four Tournament wins in 1978 and 1979 (which both included victories over UNC).

-- The West Virginia Centennial in 1963, when Art Heyman led Duke past No. 7 Ohio State in the opener and homestanding West Virginia in the championship game.

-- The 2012 Maui Invitational, which ended with victories over No. 15 Michigan and No. 14 Kansas.

-- The 1997 Maui Invitational that ended with a victory over No. 1 Arizona – a game that probably earned Steve Wojciechowski the national defensive player of the year award for shutting down Mike Bibby.

-- The 1979 Tipoff Classic was not really a tournament, but a one-game exhibition to tip off the 1979-80 season. Still, this was the first Tipoff Classic and it matched Duke and Kentucky. Mike Gminski and freshman Sam Bowie staged an epic battle that Duke won in overtime. A little over three weeks later, Duke beat Kentucky again – this time in Rupp Arena – to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Now, I don’t think that the Phil Knight Invitational will be a triumph to compare with any of the tourneys I mentioned above. The field isn’t that strong and I expect this Duke team to accomplish far more important things.

But it IS a championship – and K coached teams always want to add another title banner.

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