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Duke’s All-Time Best #3 Pick In The NBA Draft

And his brilliant senior campaign

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Grant Hill
Grant Hill during his legendary Duke career.

The New York Knicks selected R.J. Barrett third in the 2019 NBA draft.

No surprise here. This selection was widely predicted for days, weeks even.

If Barrett was disappointed, he certainly did a good job of hiding it. New York is a big stage and R.J. Barrett is built for a big stage.

Barrett is the seventh Duke player picked third in the draft. He joins a pretty auspicious club: four conference players of the year, six All-Americans, three retired jerseys.

Dick Groat was the third pick of the 1952 draft. Groat went on to a distinguished major-league baseball career.

Then we fast forward to 1992, when Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner were the top three picks. Laettner’s brilliance at Duke is well-documented and he was an NBA all-star before an Achilles injury slowed him down.

Mike Dunleavy went third in 2002 and went on to a 15- year NBA career. Jahlil Okafor (2015) seems to have revived his moribund career last season, while Jayson Tatum (2017) looks like a burgeoning star.

That’s six.

The seventh was Grant Hill, Duke’s most successful NBA player. Hill was the third pick in 1994 Purdue’s Glenn Robinson was first, Cal’s Jason Kidd second.

Robinson was a defensible pick. A 6-8, 225-pound forward, Robinson had won all the national player of the year awards, while leading the NCAA with 30 points per game. And Robinson did go on to average over 20 points per game for his NBA career.

But the one-time Glenn Robinson and Grant Hill squared off on a college-basketball court, it was Grant Hill who came out on top.

Duke lost to Kidd and California in the 1993 NCAA Tournament’s second round, ending a streak of five-consecutive Final Four appearances. Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill graduated from that team.

That left senior Grant Hill as Duke’s only remaining star. Duke wasn’t devoid of talent in 1994. Hill’s classmate and roommate Tony Lang was the other starting forward, with junior Cherokee Parks at center. Sophomore Chris Collins and freshman Jeff Capel started at guard. Senior wing Marty Clark and junior post Eric Meek were the key reserves.

Duke didn’t exactly sneak up on people. They began the season ranked fourth in the AP poll and never dropped lower than sixth, topping the poll for two weeks in February.

It was a front-court centric team. Parks averaged 14.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game, making second-team All-ACC. Lang averaged 12.5 ppg and was third-team all-conference.

But it was Hill who had a season for the ages. Capel was the nominal point guard but point forward Hill led Duke with 5.2 assists per game, the highest mark in school history for a front-court player. He led the team with 17.4 points per game, while pulling down seven boards per contest. And don’t forget, he was one of the nation’s top defensive players. He led Duke with 64 steals.

It was not a high-scoring Duke team. The Blue Devils averaged a modest 77.6 points per game. But they held opponents to 67.3 points per game and a 41.5 shooting percentage.

Duke lost twice to defending national champion North Carolina and twice to Wake Forest and Duke slayer Randolph Childress.

But that was it for the regular season, as Duke captured the regular-season title at 12-4.

The top seed in the tournament didn’t help much. Virginia upset Duke in the semifinals, dropping Duke to sixth in the AP poll and likely costing Duke a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Hill called a players-only team meeting and told his teammates to buckle down and get back to work.

Duke was seeded second in the Southeast Regional. Purdue was the top seed, Kentucky the third seed, setting up another potential Duke-Kentucky match only two years after Laettner’s buzzer beater.

That didn’t happen. Marquette stunned Kentucky 75-63 in the second round.

But Duke wasn’t looking like a world-beater early. They opened with a desultory 82-70 win over Texas Southern, followed by an 85-74 win over Michigan State.

Duke fell behind Marquette 9-0 in the Sweet Sixteen but held Marquette to 23 points in the second half, winning 59-49.

Hill led Duke with 22 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

Purdue was waiting in the finals. The Boilermakers were the Big 10 champions, they were 29-4 and were coming off an 83-78 win over Kansas.

Robinson torched the Jayhawks with a 44-point performance, aided by Cuonzo Martin’s 29 points, 8-for-13 on 3s.

This was the first meeting between the two programs since the 1980 Elite Eight, when Purdue defeated Duke 68-60 in Bill Foster’s last game on the Duke sideline and 1981 when Purdue defeated Mike Krzyzewski’s first Duke team in the NIT.

Most experts expected this one to end the same way. What chance did Duke have against the Big Dog?

A pretty decent one, it turned out. Krzyzewski came up with a game plan that largely ignored Purdue’s other front-court players, using Lang or Hill to harass Robinson, with Parks available for the double team when and if Robinson got the ball down low.

Parks blocked Robinson’s first shot. Message sent and received. No 44-point performance today.

But Duke struggled on offense, hitting only 11-for-31 in the first half. Purdue led by as many as 10 points before Duke clawed back to tie the game at 32 at intermission.

Capel did a good job on Martin during the first half. Krzyzewski decided to go to the freshman more on offense. Krzyzewski told Capel that he could take his man and Capel responded. He hit a three-pointer than a short jumper sparking a 14-7 Duke run.

But Hill picked up his fourth foul with 9:54 left and took a seat on the bench.

It was 46-41 at that point and Robinson quickly hit a short jumper to cut the lead to three.

Panic time?

Lang wouldn’t let it happen. He took over the responsibility of holding down Robinson. The Big Dog went nine minutes down the stretch without scoring a point.

Duke sustained its lead and then built on it. Parks scored twice inside, then Lang scored twice inside and Duke was up 54-46. Hill came back in with 3:52 left.

The game’s signature play came with a little more than three minutes left. Purdue double-teamed Capel and he hit Lang on the baseline with a behind-the-back pass. Lang’s layup gave Duke a 65-55 lead.

The final was 69-60. Robinson was held to 13 points, hitting 6-of-22 from the field. Martin scored 12. Purdue hit 26 percent from the field in the second half.

Capel and Lang led Duke with 19 points apiece. Parks had 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Hill had 11 points.

Krzyzewski summed up the victory.

“I think the key of the game was shutting down Robinson. We were the perfect team defensively to go up against Robinson. Our matchup was really good against him, even though he was a great player.”

Duke defeated Florida in the Final Four before falling to Arkansas in the title game.

This was the fourth time in seven years that a second-seeded Duke team beat a top seed in a regional final. The others were 1988 against Temple, 1989 against Georgetown and 1990 against Connecticut.

It’s also the most recent time Duke was an upset winner according to seed in the NCAA Tournament. That’s largely a function of the fact the fact that Duke frequently is seeded number one it its regional but it’s still an interesting statistic.

But that was in the future. Duke’s impressive win over Robinson and Purdue clinched Duke’s seventh Final Four in nine years, a run bettered only by John Wooden and UCLA. It wasn’t as stunning as that 1991 win over UNLV but it certainly ranks as one of the great NCAA-Tournament wins in Duke history.

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