Steve Vacendak was the kind of player coaches loved and opponents respected. He is from Scranton, Pa. and epitomized the kind of toughness for which Scranton is known, bring your lunch pail, roll up your sleeves and get the job done.
Bucky Waters told me how Duke recruited Vacendak when Waters was Vic Bubas’ top assistant. Bubas and his staff would have recruiting meetings, discussing recruits, strengths, weaknesses, fit, competition, that sort of thing.
Bubas asked Waters a series of questions concerning Vacendak. Is he a good shooter? Is he exceptionally quick? Is he a great ball-handler?
Waters answered all the questions in the negative. An exasperated Bubas wanted to know why Duke was recruiting him,
“Because he wins,” Waters answered.
That kind of player.
After the obligatory season on the freshman team, Vacendak joined the varsity for 1963-’64. Experience was highly valued in those days and Bubas started a lineup of seniors Jeff Mullins, Jay Buckley and Buzzy Harrison and juniors Denny Ferguson and Hack Tison. Vacendak and classmate Jack Marin were probably better players than a starter or two.
Then again, Duke went 26-5 and advanced to the NCAA title game, where they lost to UCLA. So, perhaps Bubas knew what he was doing after all.
Vacendak still averaged 5.5 points per game.
Ferguson returned as the starting point guard for 1965 and shooting sensation Bob Verga moved up from the freshman team to take over Harrison’s spot at shooting guard.
That left the 6-1 Vacendak to play forward in a three-guard lineup. Vacendak embraced the challenge, averaging 6.6 rebounds per game, while successfully defending larger opponents. He also averaged 16.2 points per game and was selected second-team All-ACC; teammates Verga and Marin were voted to the first team.
Vacendak moved to the starting point-guard spot in 1966. This was the team that Bubas always called his best, Duke’s first team to be ranked at the top of the AP poll. Duke went 12-2 in the ACC. The losses were 73-71 at South Carolina and 99-98 in overtime at Wake Forest.
Vacendak was the facilitator, the driver of a potent machine. He averaged 13.2 points per game and was voted second-team All-ACC.
The all-conference team was voted on at the end of the regular season and announced just before the ACC Tournament. But the player and coach of the year voting took place after the tournament.
North Carolina’s Bob Lewis got the most votes for All-ACC, 191 points, two points for a first-team vote, one for second team.
Marin and Verga were next with 187 and 161 respectively. NC State’s Eddie Biedenbach and Wake Forest’s Bob Leonard rounded out the first team.
Vacendak was on the second team, ninth in the voting, with 98 points.
There were no unanimous first-team votes, which again strains credulity. Lewis averaged 27.4 points per game which not only led the league but is the best single-season mark in Dean Smith’s tenure at UNC. Marin and Verga were averaging around 19 ppg for the second-ranked team in the nation.
Like I said, credulity strained.
Duke had to win the ACC Tournament to get the league’s sole bid to the NCAA Tournament.
It was not easy. Duke pounded Wake Forest 103-73 in the opener but had to withstand Dean Smith’s first significant slowdown in the semifinals, edging North Carolina 21-20. Duke defeated NC State 71-66 in the title game, avenging its 1965 upset loss at the hands of the Wolfpack.
Vacendak won the Case Award as the tournament’s outstanding player. He scored 30 points in the three games--one a slowdown--including 19 points in the title game. His jumper put Duke ahead for good at 64-63.
It was a praiseworthy performance and Vacendak reaped plenty. Clemson head coach Bobby Roberts called Vacendak the “heart and soul” of the Duke team and wondered how he could have been left off the All-ACC first team.
The media must have listened. Vacendak received 51 votes for ACC Player of the Year. Marin was second with 29, Lewis 19.
How could Vacendak both be the ninth-best player in the league and the best player in the league in the span of a week?
No ACC team had ever had three first-team all-conference players in the same season. In fact, it’s only happened twice since then, 2002 with Duke’s Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy and 2012, UNC’s Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes.
So, I’m sure that had something to do with it. But recall that Vacendak wasn’t especially close to making first-team All-ACC. So, a lot of minds were changed in a big way in a very short period of time.
I was in the 10th grade in 1966. But had I a vote, it would have gone to Marin.
The ACC changed its rules after this, voting on and announcing All-ACC and ACC Player of the Year before the ACC Tournament.
So, if you want to wow your ACC friends with your knowledge of conference trivia, this one should do the trick.