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Duke Basketball - Past And Future

Saturday was an interesting intersection of past and future for the Blue Devils.

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Pittsburgh v Duke
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 04: Pitt radio analyst and former Duke basketball player Dick Groat poses for a photo prior to the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 4, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Duke’s basketball past and basketball future collided Saturday in two brief ceremonies held three hours and 215 miles apart.

First was the celebration of Duke’s past – as the school honored Dick Groat, its first great basketball player, at halftime of the Duke-Pitt game in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

A few hours later, make way for the future – Zion Williamson, the number one, two or three prospect in the prep class of 2018 (the exact rank depends on the recruiting service), committed to Duke at a ceremony at his Spartanburg, S.C., high school – shocking all the recruiting gurus who had him going to Clemson, Kentucky or maybe North Carolina.

It was an interesting day, which also saw Duke’s current team demolish a bad Pitt team without breaking a sweat.

Allow me to look at both events a bit more closely.


Groat was not Duke’s first basketball All-American (that would be Bill Werber in 1930, who like Groat, became a star major league infielder after his Blue Devil days).

But Groat was the first true national star at Duke. He won the Helms Foundation national player of the year award after his junior season (1951), then swept every major player of the year award except the Helms, in 1952.

How good was Groat?

I thought about that Saturday as I watched ESPN’s coverage of the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game. The network made a big deal about the fact that Oklahoma freshman Trae Young was on pace to become the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring and assists.

They didn’t mention that he’s also on pace to lead the nation in turnovers.

To be fair, ESPN’s factoid is technically correct.

But it needs to be seen in context – and that context leads us to Groat.

No player has led the nation in scoring and assists … but that ignores the fact that assists only became an official NCAA stat in 1983-84. Assists were often counted before that, but the effort was erratic and plagued by huge debates over what an assist is.

It’s possible that several pre-1984 stars accomplished the scoring/assist double. For instance, Oscar Robertson led the NBA in scoring and assists in 1968. He actually led the league in assists six times – ’68 was the one time he outscored Wilt during that era.

But the Big O led the NCAA in scoring three times. Do you think it’s possible that he led the NCAA in assists a couple of those years? I think it very likely.

With Groat, we have a bit more information because of Bill Brill. The late sports columnist (and DBR contributor) was a student at Duke when Groat starred in the early ‘50s. He kept assists for his classmate.

In 1951, Groat scored 831 points in 33 games – an average of 25.2. And remember there was no three point shot then either.

Now, that’s the most points anybody in NCAA basketball scored that season, although officially Groat was not the NCAA scoring champ because Temple’s Bill Mlkvy (the Owl without a Vowel) scored 736 points in 25 games. Less points, but a better average (29.4).

Although assists weren’t officially measured, some sources cite Toledo’s Bill Walker as the assist leader with 210 assists in 29 games.

I actually don’t know Groat’s exact assist total, except that it was much higher than that. I know that based on Brill’s word.

How good a source is Brill?

I know that in 1952 Duke played No. 13 NYU in Madison Square Garden. Groat scored 22 points to lead the unranked Blue Devils to a 74-72 victory. After the game, the AP’s lead college basketball writer confronted Brill. He told the Duke student that he didn’t believe the assist totals that Brill has been reporting for Groat. As a test, he had kept assists for the Duke-NYU game and wanted to compare his numbers with Brill’s.

Brill had Groat with eight assists for the game … the AP sports writer had Groat with 10.

Anyway, while Groat didn’t technically lead the NCAA in scoring or assists in 1951, he almost certainly had more points and more assists than anyone in the game that year.

As a senior, Groat was outscored (barely) by Kansas big man Clyde Lovellette. But his 229 assists are more than the 213 that were record by Tom O’Toole of Boston College, who is often cited as the unofficial assist leader that season.

I guess my point is that while Young is pursuing a great accomplishment, it’s not quite as unique as ESPN is trying to make it sound. Almost two thirds of a century ago, Duke’s Dick Groat did something similar.

That is how good Groat was – without adding that he was a two time BASEBALL All-American too.


I’ve followed recruiting for a long time (more than 50 years) and I can’t ever recall a shock to match the moment when Zion Williamson pulled a Duke hat out of the bag and announced that he was going to join “the Brotherhood”.

Had you polled the nation’s best recruiting gurus before the announcement and recorded their guesses (as 247’s Crystal Ball did), I think the rank of the contending schools would have been: 1. Clemson, 2. Kentucky, 3. North Carolina, 4. South Carolina, 5. Duke and 6. Kansas.

There is usually a little buzz before the announcement to give the choice away. Back when The Black Falcon (aka Harrison Barnes) fooled us all and picked UNC over Duke, I started to hear bad hints in the 24 hours leading up to his announcement.

Nothing like that this time.

In hindsight, we shouldn’t be shocked that Duke beat out Clemson for a great basketball player, any more than we should be shocked when Clemson beats out Duke for a top football prospect. A majority of great players – in any sport – want to play at a place where their sport is appreciated.

Now, that doesn’t explain why Duke over Kentucky and North Carolina, but we should have expected Clemson to struggle to land a top prospect. Sure, he was a local kid for the Tigers, but how many local football stars have left for more football-centric schools (Bryce Love and Dexter Lawrence to name two).

The surprising decision is significant because it gives Duke the three best prospects in the Class of 2018 – R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson. And don’t forget Tre Jones, currently No. 7 on the RSCI and the top-rated point guard in the class.

On paper, it’s the greatest class in modern recruiting history. It does remind me a little of Duke’s 1997 haul. That was before RSCI or ESPN starting ranking recruits, but various services had three Duke signees (Elton Brand, Chris Burgess and Shane Battier) as the No. 1 player in the class with guard Will Avery highly regarded too.

ESPN’s Paul Biancardi was recently surveying the 2018 class and he acknowledged that there was some debate as to the order of the top three guys. But, he emphasized, there is no debate as to the top three – after them, there is a significant dropoff.

Can they play together?

That was a question many Kentucky fans were asking Saturday night as they wallowed in their misery (the meltdown on Rupp’s Rafters was even more entertaining that the Inside Carolina meltdown). How can three small-forwards co-exist?

Well, to begin with, that question suggests that the person asking it has not followed Coach K’s career. Has there ever been a more position-less coach in basketball history? He’s played three swing-men together on a multitude of occasions.

Indeed, his first two national titles were teams that played three swingmen (Grant Hill, Greg Koubek/Brian Davis, Thomas Hill).

But the question also suggests that the person asking it has not seen Zion Williamson play. He may be a mere 6-6, but at 275 pounds, he’s a powerful player. Yes, he may end up as a small forward in the NBA, but he’s bigger (and stronger) than some of Coach K’s best “power” forwards – including Lance Thomas and Justise Winslow, the four-men on K’s last two national championship teams.

There are still more than eight months before the 2018-19 Blue Devils take the court in public for the first time and a lot can change between now and then.

But at this moment, it’s safe to project that the four 2018 recruits will be four of the five starters going into next year.

The fifth starter remains to be determined. It could be junior Marques Bolden, junior Javin DeLaurier, sophomore Grant Trent or K could pull another recruiting rabbit out of his hat. I really don’t expect that option, but we’ll have to wait and see on the three upperclassmen I mentioned. Which will come back? Which will elevate their games? Which will fit together best with the four freshmen?

Anyway, it’s fun to speculate.

Living in the Golden Age of Duke basketball is almost always fun.

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