There was a time when the greater New York City area was the epicenter of college basketball.
St. John’s, Long Island University, New York University, City College of New York and Manhattan College were national powerhouses. The Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association established the National Invitational Tournament in 1938, one year before the NCAA established its tournament. The two tournaments were roughly equal in stature until the NCAA expanded in 1951.
Basketball players dreamed of playing in Madison Square Garden the way concert pianists dreamed of Carnegie Hall.
Practice, practice, practice.
In 1950 CCNY won both the NCAA and NIT tournaments. They were held in different weeks and were only eight-teams deep. But still. Pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, NYC also was the epicenter of sports gambling and too many of those young college players were ripe for the picking.
The first great college-basket-point-shaving scandal unfurled in 1951 and destroyed city hoops. CCNY, LIU and Manhattan all either dropped or de-emphasized their basketball programs.
Non-city schools were implicated, even Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats. But many of the tainted games took place in NYC and the fallout was so severe that the newly-formed ACC didn’t allow its teams to play in the NIT until 1967.
NYU held on a little longer. In fact, they played Vic Bubas and Duke in the NCAA Tournament twice in the 1960s, NYU winning in 1960, Duke in 1963.
But by this time NYC sports was so pro-centric that NYU dropped basketball in 1971. They now play as a D-3 school.
That left St. John’s to carry the flag of bigtime college basketball in New York. And St. John’s has done quite well, some downs to be sure but more ups.
Duke and St. John’s have played 23 times, with Duke winning 16. Since St. John’s won the first three, this means Duke is on a 16-4 run. That includes a 71-70 win over the Johnnies in the inaugural Big Apple NIT (November 29, 1985) and a 78-61 win over St. John’s in the 1991 Midwest finals, a win that led to Duke’s first NCAA title.
The teams played two classics at the turn of the century. The legendary 1999 Duke team was forced into overtime at MSG but prevailed 92-88.
The following season, St. John’s returned the favor, upsetting Duke in Cameron, 83-82.
Many people remember Bootsy Thornton’s 40-point game in that Cameron win.
They remember it incorrectly. Thornton actually scored 40 in the MSG loss, 22 in the Cameron win. But he was sufficiently impressive in the two games to become an object lesson in a good player becoming a great player for one game.
Thornton, a 6-4 wing, averaged around 15 points per game in both 1999 and 2000.
So, 40 was a bit of a reach.
That 2000 game has become increasingly iconic over a generation because no one else has been able to duplicate it, at least not anyone else outside the ACC. Since February 26, 2000 Duke has won 146 consecutive home games against non-conference teams.
The St. John’s game is the last non-conference game in Cameron this season.
Jack White says Duke is aware of St. John’s and the winning streak.
But that’s ancient history for these guys.
Last year is more immediate. ““We have a lot of the guys from last year still on the team and we feel like we owe them one. . . so, it is a game that we are really hungry for and we really want to do well in and win.”
About last year. St. John’s edged Duke 81-77, a game in which Duke can charitably be said to have contributed to its demise with a lack of focus, poor foul-shooting and careless ball-handling.
Then there was Shamorie Ponds, a 6-1 guard who lit up Duke for 33 points.
It was the most points anyone scored against Duke last season.
He’s averaging 21 points per game this season and his NBA stock is high.
What makes him so good?
““He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of freedom,” White says. “He can go both ways and shoot but I think we need to bring the game to him and be the aggressor and we can’t be on our back foot and let him attack us. I think we need to take our defense to him especially with Tre who defends the ball as good as anyone else in the country. We are more than confident in his ability to start us off and whoever ends up on him to do their job.”
Tre, of course, is Tre Jones, who says his once ailing shoulder is fine.
What does he think of Ponds?
“He can score the ball a lot of different ways. Just trying to force him to take tough shots. He is a really good scorer and a volume shooter so forcing him into tough shots and hoping he is not making them.”
Only White, Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden from this team played against St. John’s last year and then only for a combined 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Jones is one of four Duke starters who was still in high school when Duke lost to St. John’s last year.
But he says the freshmen are equally invested in payback.
““Absolutely, we are a part of the team now and we all were committed last year when they did take the loss to St. John’s. We were cheering for Duke last year and so anybody they lose to we obviously want to get them back.”
Duke had its best three-point performance of the season against Notre Dame last Monday, 10-for-19. Jones says this is no accident. Duke has been working on balancing its interior offense and perimeter offense and that will include more Tre-Jones-jumpers if the opportunity presents itself.
“I just have to be ready and pick my spots.”
The game tips at noon. Duke came out flat last week against Georgia Tech at noon and White says it can’t happen again.
“It’s up to us to be ready. We can’t be playing from behind. We’re playing for Duke University. That should be all the wake-up call we need.”
The 16-5 Johnnies will bring enough talent into Cameron to make Duke pay for another slow start. Number 147 should be a doozie.