Vic Bubas’ Duke Blue Devils ruled the ACC during the middle 1960s. Duke went 50-6 in ACC regular-season competition in a four-year span from 1962-’63 through 1965-’66, winning three ACC Tournaments in that span.
All four of these teams accomplished things no Duke team had previously accomplished. Duke made its first Final Four in 1963. That was Art Heyman’s year, the year he became Duke’s first consensus national player of the year, Duke’s first ACC Player of the Year, the first Duke player to lead the ACC in scoring, the first to be the top selection in the NBA draft.
That team finished third in the NCAA Tournament. Heyman graduated but Jeff Mullins followed Heyman as ACC Player of the Year and Duke advanced to the 1964 title game, the first Duke team to advance that far.
They lost to UCLA, the first of many to lose to Wooden’s juggernaut.
Bubas always said that his 1966 team was his best. That was the first Duke team to start five future pro players, the first to be ranked number one in the AP poll. That team also advanced to the Final Four but lost to Kentucky with star guard Bob Verga suffering from an illness.
That leaves 1965, the one team of these four that did not go to the Final Four. But until its final game this team was every bit as accomplished as those framing it. Only the ACC’s most unbelievable where-did-that-come-from performance kept Duke from achieving its goals.
Duke graduated three starters after 1964, All-America Mullins, All-ACC center Jay Buckley and All-ACC guard Buzzy Harrison.
But Duke was in reload-not-rebuild mode in 1965. Duke began the season ranked fifth in the AP poll and never dropped out of the top-10. Returning starters were pass-first guard Denny Ferguson and lanky 6-10 center Haskell “Hack” Tison. Both were seniors.
But the real firepower came from the three new starters. Jack Marin and Steve Vacendak were juniors, moved up from the bench. Yes, a future NBA All-Star and a future ACC Player of the Year came off the bench in 1964, partly a reflection of the talent on that team but also the reverence that generation had for experience.
Sophomore Bob Verga was the fifth starter. The 6-0 Verga was a spectacular shooter. He averaged 32 for Duke’s 1964 freshman team.
Tison and the 6-6 Marin were the only Duke starters taller than 6-1. The three-guard lineup only worked because the 6-1 Vacendak was up to the challenge of guarding bigger, stronger players as under-sized forward.
Any discussion of the toughest players in Duke history has to include Steve Vacendak. He averaged 6.6 rebounds per game that year.
Three guards and two bigger players who could run with anybody. That was a recipe for full-court presses, fast breaks, points and wins and Bubas was a master chef.
Duke actually lost its second game, an 86-79 home loss to Cazzie Russell and top-ranked Michigan. The loss ended a 27-game home winning streak. Duke fell way behind but made a late run that Bubas later said was the loudest basketball crowd he ever heard.
Duke responded with a seven-game winning streak, averaging 99 points-per-game over that span. Penn State fell 121-88, tying the school record for points scored by Duke in a single game.
Duke did have trouble with the Tar Heels. Billy Cunningham, the 1965 ACC Player of the Year, scored 22 points to lead North Carolina to a 65-62 win, Duke’s first ACC loss at home since 1962. This was North Carolina’s first game since Dean Smith was infamously hung in effigy following a loss to Wake Forest.
Duke responded with a 10-game winning streak. Duke broke the century mark five times during that run.
By the time Duke hosted Virginia on February 11 the Blue Devils were a well-oiled offensive behemoth. Verga (21.4), Marin (19.1), Vacendak (16.2) and Tison (11.7) averaged in double figures in scoring, while Marin and Tison combined for 19 rebounds per game.
Virginia wasn’t very good in 1965. They would end the season 7-18.
Duke exploded to a 64-29 halftime lead, shooting 27-of-37 from the field. This is the kind of offensive efficiency that couldn’t be maintained for the second half.
Actually, Duke improved on it. The Blue Devils scored 72 second-half points, running and pressing and shooting the hapless Cavaliers into the Duke Indoor Stadium hardwood.
The final was 136-72. Remember there was no shot clock and no three-point shot in those days. A shot clock would not have mattered but Duke had some long-range bombers in those days, Verga most noticeably.
Duke made 55 field goals that night. How many would have been three-pointers under later rules?
Did Bubas run up the score? Well, Duke did play 14 players. Walk-on Burt Fitts scored the only two points of his career in the final minute.
Marin led Duke with 25 points and 10 rebounds, with Tison adding 19 points. Verga, Ferguson, Vacendak and reserve forward Bob Riedy also scored in double figures.
Over a half-century later, despite rules changes designed to enhance scoring, despite numerous national players of the year, despite a coaching immortal, no Duke team has matched that 136-point outburst.
Duke was 11-1 in ACC play when they lost their final two conference games, 85-82 at Maryland, 71-66 at North Carolina.
That Maryland team was led by Jay McMillen’s 32 points. You might remember his younger brother Tom, an All-American at Maryland a decade later.
And that loss at UNC was the last game played at tiny Woolen Gymnasium, which was replaced by Carmichael Auditorium the following season.
Still, Duke’s 11-3 regular-season mark put them in first place ahead of NC State, Maryland and North Carolina, all at 10-4.