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Duke Basketball: The ‘70s Were A Long, Strange Trip

A very weird time for Duke hoops

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NCAA Basketball Tournament - East Regional - Washington DC Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In most respects Duke’s class of 1975 was not especially memorable. They didn’t win any championships, they didn’t win many individual honors and truth be told, they didn’t even win many games.

But they had the most interesting journey of any modern Duke class, a roller-coaster ride that resulted from the intersection of two tracks.

Bob Fleischer, Kevin Billerman, Pete Kramer, Bill Suk and Neil Chinnault played for Duke’s last freshman team, in 1972. The NCAA had decided to allow freshmen eligibility for the 1972-’73 season. Freshmen had been eligible at times in the past, usually during military conflicts when the number of college men was compressed.

But this change was permanent, as significant a rules change as the elimination of the center jump after every made basket, the shot clock and the three-point shot.

They also came to Duke at the beginning of an unusual period of coaching instability in the Duke program.

Duke had lots of coaching changes in its Trinity College days. From 1913 through 1928 Duke/Trinity had 10 coaches, none lasting more than four seasons.

That changed when Eddie Cameron took over the program for the 1928-’29 season. Over the next 41 seasons Duke only had four head coaches, Cameron, Gerry Gerard, Harold Bradley and Vic Bubas.

Fleischer was a burly and skilled 6-8 center from Ohio. Billerman was a skilled point guard from New Jersey. Kramer was a sweet-shooting 6-4 lefty from Pennsylvania. Suk was an athletic 6-6 wing from Illinois. Chinnault was a 6-5 forward from West Virginia.

They signed with a Duke team coming off a 20-win season and saw no reason for that kind of success to change. Wins and stability were part of the deal.

They had a solid freshman team, going 11-5, two of the losses to David Thompson and NC State.

They moved up to the varsity for 1973. But they were also joined by an incoming freshman class that included Willie Hodge, Terry Chili, Paul Fox and Dave O’Connell, the latter the father of current Duke player Alex O’Connell.

Of course, every other team was going through the same confusion blending two classes of incoming players.

But Duke had further complications. Bucky Waters’ program had been riddled with transfers. Seniors Gary Melchionni and Alan Shaw were top-tier ACC players but the other three players from their class had transferred out, as had two key members of the junior class. Duke had 10 recruited underclassmen, none of whom had ever played in a varsity game.

Too much youth for 1973.

The ACC was a tough neighborhood in 1973. This was the year NC State went undefeated, the year Maryland lost to Louisville in the Elite Eight, another top-10 season for North Carolina.

Duke went 1-6 against this trio.

But there were some highlights. Melchionni had a spectacular 39-point performance to key an 85-81 win over then third-ranked Maryland. Melchionni scored 19 points to lead Duke to an 86-74 win over Notre Dame.

The sophomores were key contributors. Fleischer and the 6-10 Shaw gave Duke a potent twin-towers combination. Fleischer ended the season averaging 11 points and a team-high 8.5 rebounds per game. He had an 18-point, 18-rebound game in a 90-66 win over Virginia. Billerman shared the ball-handling responsibilities with Melchionni and averaged 8.2 points per game. Kramer came off the bench and averaged 5.7 points per game.

The win over Notre Dame left Duke 12-9. Only the ACC tournament champion made the NCAAs in those days and Duke wasn’t going to be that team. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The program was on NCAA probation for recruiting violations involving David Thompson, violations that involved no one in the program.

This remains the only time Duke has ever been on probation.

But Duke hadn’t had a losing season since going 10-12 in 1939 and keeping that streak going was a point of pride.

The streak ended. Duke lost its final five games, the first three by margins of 24, 28 and 25 points.

But the final two games were heart breakers. Duke lost at home to North Carolina 72-70 to end the regular season and lost its ACC Tournament opener to Virginia 59-55.

That was Bucky Waters’ last game as a coach. After going 37-19 in his first two seasons at Duke, Waters had gone 14-12 and 12-14 over his final two seasons. Transfers were rampant and some Duke students sported “Fire Bucky” signs at home games.

It was not a pleasant environment.

Waters’ contract was up after the 1974 season and he asked AD Carl James for an extension. James declined and Waters resigned, only days before the beginning of practice.

James made some tentative contacts but no one wanted to leave their programs in October. James reached an agreement with Adolph Rupp to take over the program for a year. Rupp had been forced into retirement on a mandatory-age-requirement for Kentucky state employees and badly wanted one more shot to prove he still had it.

But Rupp had a huge agricultural business in Kentucky and his farm manager died. Rupp pulled out.

James went with about the only option he had, promoting 31-year-old assistant Neil McGeachy to the head spot.

McGeachy had been Duke’s freshman coach in 1972, so there was a comfort level.

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