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Jim Sumner On A Critical But Overlooked Duke Team

1987 was the year Duke proved it had staying power under Mike Krzyzewski

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Mike Krzyzewski Duke
The 1987 team showed that Duke wasn’t going anywhere after the great class of 1986 graduated.

Most of us have a favorite Duke team. Perhaps one of the five title teams. Not a bold choice but certainly a defensible one. Or that 1978 team, the one dubbed Forever’s Team, the one that came from last place in the ACC to the NCAA title game. Or the senior-laden 1986 or 1994 teams that came one stop from cutting down the nets.

But let me throw another name into the mix. Not Duke’s greatest team but certainly one of its most underrated and one of the most important teams of Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure at Duke.

Context is crucial here, so let’s go back to March 2, 1986 when top-ranked Duke hosted third-ranked ranked North Carolina in the regular-season finale for both teams.

It was an important game. A Duke win insured the first non-shared ACC regular-season title since 1966, while a Carolina win would have resulted in a three-way tie, with Georgia Tech as the third team.

Duke won 82-74, a victory that presaged a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

But there was a sobering subtext. The game also marked the final home game for a quartet of Duke starters, All-America guard Johnny Dawkins, All-America forward Mark Alarie, tough-as-nails forward David Henderson and four-year starter Jay Bilas.

By final home game, I mean they were seniors.

Al McGuire was broadcasting the game nationally and he advised Duke fans to enjoy the ride, because next year it was back to the NIT.

The pundits agreed. The ACC media picked Duke sixth going into the 1986-87 season, while Duke was nowhere to be seen in the AP poll, just months after completing a 37-win season that ended in the national title game.

There’s a difference in building a great team and building a great program. No one doubted that Mike Krzyzewski had built a great 1986 team. But clearly there were skeptics about whether he had built a great program.

In retrospect, the doubts seem strange. After all that 1987 Duke roster contained seven players who had been either a McDonald’s and/or Parade All-American in high school.

But this was an era that prioritized experience and Duke didn’t have a lot. The leading returning scorer was senior point guard Tommy Amaker, who had averaged a modest 6.4 points per game in 1986, while concentrating on defense and play-making.

Krzyzewski bristled at preseason projections that 1987 would be a rebuilding season, saying no team with Tommy Amaker would ever be rebuilding.

But Duke lost almost 60 points per game and Krzyzewski needed Amaker to become more of a scorer, less of a facilitator.

In order for that to work, someone had to help Amaker with the play-making.

Duke had a unique answer for that critical question.

Danny Ferry was a 6-10 sophomore, one of the most versatile players in the history of a program that has thrived on versatile players.

Ferry was the consensus top player in the high-school-class of 1985. Nowadays that means a one-year-track-to-the-NBA lottery. In those days, it meant a year of blocking out and setting screens for the senior stars.

Ferry averaged 5.9 points and 5.5 rebounds as a freshman. But Krzyzewski thought that if Duke put the ball in Ferry’s hands, good thing would happen.

The experiment worked. Amaker had a career-low 3.9 assists per game but a career-high 12.3 points per game. He also showed a heretofore unseen knack for long-distance shooting. The three-point shot was introduced for good in 1987 and Amaker led the Blue Devils, hitting 44-for-103 (42.7 percent).

Ferry did his part, leading Duke with 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.

He remains the only player to lead Duke in scoring, rebounding and assists for a season.

But Duke still had three roster spots to fill alongside Amaker and Ferry. Oft-injured Senior Marty Nessley was given first crack at the center position but it did not go well. Like the 7-2 Nessley, freshman Alaa Abdelnaby was a McDonald’s All-American. But he wasn’t ready for prime time in 1987 and played sparingly.

As a result, Duke turned to sophomore John Smith and got one of the great where-did-that-come-from seasons in Duke hoops history.

Smith was 6-8, 215, on the small side for a center. He missed most of his senior season in high school due to academics and only played 91 minutes as a freshman.

Smith wasn’t much of a rebounder. But he was quick and active, a solid defender and a creative scorer inside. He gave Duke a dozen points a game.

Juniors Billy King and Kevin Strickland took over the wing positions. Promising freshman Phil Henderson became academically ineligible after eight games, leaving Duke thin at guard. Sophomore Quin Snyder filled the void, backing up Amaker and Strickland. Freshman Robert Brickey filled in for King when the latter broke a wrist in a close loss at Notre Dame.

None of King, Strickland, Smith or Snyder averaged more than four points per game in 1986 but all seized their chance the following season.

Strickland deserves special mention. Only 6-5, he was second on the team with 4.6 rebounds per game, while tying Nessley for the team lead in blocks, with 24.

After splitting two games in Laie, Hawaii to open the season, Duke went on a nine-game winning streak, including victories over Alabama and Virginia, both nationally-ranked at the time. Duke got back in the national polls by the end of December, never leaving. Duke peaked at 12th in the AP poll, in mid-January.

Duke never lost consecutive games that season.

The highlight was a 105-103 overtime win at 10th-ranked Clemson.

Clemson? This was one of the best teams in Clemson history. They finished second in the ACC regular season, led by 1987 ACC Player of the Year, Horace Grant, still the only Tiger to win that honor.

Smith had 28 in that game, as Duke overcame an eight-point halftime deficit.

Duke couldn’t handles the Tar Heels but no one else could, in the regular season, at least. UNC was undefeated in ACC regular-season play.

But no one else swept Duke and they finished 9-5 in the ACC, good enough for third place.

How did that “rebuilding” team accomplish this?

Recall that Ferry led Duke with 14 ppg, the lowest average to lead Duke since 1960. But Amaker, Smith and Strickland joined him in double figures. So, there was some balance.

And Duke embraced the 3-point shot, ironic since Krzyzewski was a bit of an early skeptic. But Duke hit just over 40 percent from beyond the arc, albeit at a lower-usage rate (11 attempts per game), which was typical for 1987.

But it was the defense that stood out. Long before one-and-dones and 3-point bombers, Duke was known as a team that challenged every pass, every dribble and won a lot of those challenges. Amaker won the first national defensive-player-of-the-year award that year. King followed him the next year. Strickland was an under-rated defender. Duke forced 20 turnovers per game in 1987, holding opponents to 45 percent shooting and 67.3 points per game.

After wins over Texas A&M and Xavier, Duke’s season ended in the Sweet Sixteen, an 88-82 loss to Indiana. The Hoosiers were a one-seed, Duke a five and Indiana went on the win the 1987 national title. And Duke played them down to the wire.

Amaker ended his playing career with a 23-point effort.

Duke lost Amaker and Nessley but began a five-year streak of Final-Four appearances in 1988. That 1987 team was far from Mike Krzyzewski’s best but it was the bridge from one great team to lots of future greatness. After 1987 no one ever again questioned Mike Krzyzewski’s ability to build and sustain a program.

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