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What If: Bill Bradley Had Stayed With Duke Instead Of Going To Princeton?

A lot would have been different

Bill Bradley (r.) of Princeton is guarded by Syracuse’s Jim
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 28: Bill Bradley (r.) of Princeton is guarded by Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (l.) and Frank Nicoletti (head visible in rear) in first half of game in 13th Holiday Basketball Festival at Madison Square Garden. Tigers’ win marked first time an Ivy League entry ever had survived first round of the festival. Bradley’s 36 points advanced Princeton to semi-finals with the Michigan Wolverines.
Photo by John Duprey/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Vic Bubas recruited future college All-American Art Heyman in his first recruiting class. He recruited future college All-American Jeff Mullins in his second class. He recruited future college All-American Jack Marin in his fourth class. He recruited future college All-American Bob Verga in his fifth class. He recruited future college All-American Mike Lewis in the his sixth class.

What happened to that third class, the high-school class of 1961?

Well, it’s a funny story.

Or maybe not so funny.

There were no prep rankings in 1961. But had there been there’s little doubt that Bill Bradley would have been at or near the top. Bradley was not only an excellent player but also an excellent student, from a well-to-do family in Crystal City, Missouri. His father was a bank president.

Bradley committed to Duke the summer after his graduation from high school. There was no national letter of intent at that time but Bradley completed all the necessary paperwork for an enrolling freshman and Bubas and his staff counted on him to join a class that also included Hack Tison, Denny Ferguson, Brent Kitching and Ron Herbster.

Bradley, Tison and Kitching were all named to the Parade magazine prep all-America team.

Bradley changed his mind only a few days before he was due to show up in Durham for freshman orientation.

Bradley suffered a broken foot during his baseball season, which got him thinking about life without sports and then visited Europe over the summer, which got him interested in international studies and Princeton’s famous Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, where would I go if I didn’t play basketball?’ Bradley later wrote. “The Princeton freshman class was supposed to convene on a Monday and the Duke freshman class on a Wednesday. On the previous Friday I came home from a date and I woke my parents up and told them I had changed my mind.”

Duke didn’t find out until the day when freshmen were supposed to arrive. The staff was gathered in Bubas’ office, awaiting a call that Bradley had arrived at the airport and needed a ride to campus. Instead they got a call informing them that Bradley would not be attending Duke.

It gets worse. Details are vague but Duke also was recruiting a great prep center named Fred Hetzel for that last scholarship, which Bradley took. By the time Bradley bailed, Hetzel was at Davidson, where he would become an All-American in his own right.

The 6-5 Bradley, of course went on to become one of college basketball’s greatest players, averaging 30 points and 12 rebounds in three seasons at Princeton.

There would be one time when Heyman, Mullins and Bradley were on the same court at the same time. Duke hosted Princeton early in the 1962-’63 season and defeated the Tigers 85-74. All three stars played well. Bradley had 24 points but Mullins had 28 and Heyman 27 for the Blue Devils.

There was a several-degrees-of-separation almost meeting in 1965. Duke advanced to the 1963, 1964 and 1966 final fours. The 1965 Duke team was just as good. They finished first in the ACC and entered the ACC Tournament with a mark of 18-4, ranked eighth nationally. But they were upset 91-85 in the title game by a hot-shooting NC State team. Led by Larry Worsley’s 14-for-19, the Wolfpack shot 51 percent from the field in pulling off the upset and ending Duke’s season.

A few days later State played Princeton in the NCAAs. Couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, couldn’t throw it in the ocean from the end of the pier, use whatever folksy saying you want, and they all apply to State’s woeful performance that night. State hit 17-of-66 from the field. That’s 25.8 percent.

Bradley scored 27 points and Princeton cruised to a 66-48 win.

Not to put too fine a point on it but had State shot 25.8 percent the week before, we’re having a Duke-Princeton rematch.

Now Princeton did stun Jimmy Walker and Providence 109-69 in the east regional title game, one of the biggest shockers in NCAA Tournament history. Walker scored 27 points but Bradley scored 41, hitting 14-of-20 from the field. And Providence shot 36 percent from the field.

Maybe Princeton’s defense was that good.

Bradley scored 29 points in a 15-point loss to Michigan in the national semifinals and ended his college career by scoring 58 points—no that’s not a typo—in Princeton’s 118-82 win over Wichita State in the consolation game. Bradley hit 22-of-29 from the field, 14-of-15 from the line and pulled down 17 rebounds.

This remains the most points ever scored in a Final Four game.

What if Bradley had been playing at this level for Duke?

A national title? Two? Three? Maybe the 1960s would have belonged to Duke instead of UCLA.

Bradley would have been a sophomore in 1963, when Mullins was a junior and Heyman a senior. All three were forwards. None were big enough to play center and 6-10 Jay Buckley was a double-double guy anyway.

So, one of the trio would have been a guard. Mullins would go on to play over 800 games in the NBA as a shooting guard. And Bradley, although nominally a forward, averaged 3.4 assists per game in the NBA.

I think Bubas would have figured it out.

Would egos have torpedoed this lineup?

Heyman was the senior and the alpha. But whatever other personality issues King Arthur might have had no one ever accused him of not putting his team first, at least not at Duke. Heyman was a great passer and he and Mullins got along well on the court. I see no reason to think that Heyman, Mullins and Bradley would not have done the same.

Duke lost twice early that season, 72-69 to Davidson, 71-69 to Miami, both games on the road. Duke followed by winning its next 20 games.

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to see a Duke team with Bill Bradley entering the 1963 Final Four 28-0.

Would that have been enough to get past Loyola? If you look at just the final score, 94-75, you might think not. But Duke trailed 74-71 when Heyman fouled out on a charge that easily could have gone the other way. Loyola scored the next 14 points and put it away.

Keep in mind this was in the semifinals. Loyola beat Cincinnati in overtime the next day to win the title.

Heyman graduated in the 1963 and was replaced in the 1964 starting lineup by 6-10 junior Hack Tison, combining with Buckley in a twin towers lineup.

This Duke team was so deep and talented that sophomores Jack Marin and Steve Vacendak came off the bench.

What would the 1964 lineup have looked like in our alternate universe?

Possibly Duke keeps one of Mullins/Bradley in the backcourt and goes with Buckley and Tison. But that would have kept senior sharp-shooter Buzzy Harrison on the bench and I suspect Bubas would have gone with Harrison over Tison.

Still, Mullins and Bradley would have been the focal points. Duke was a little less dominant in 1964 than the previous season.They did lose a conference game, 72-71 at Wake Forest. And one of their three non-conference losses was a blow-out. Michigan pounded Duke 83-67 in Ann Arbor.

The other two losses were to Vanderbilt in overtime and 81-79 to Kentucky on a neutral court.

None of this would have mattered in the 1964 NCAA universe, where regions were regions and nobody was seeded. Duke made it all the way to the title game, where they squared off against undefeated UCLA.

Duke led that game 30-27 when the vaunted UCLA press sparked a 15-0 run. Duke never recovered and lost 98-83.

How much of a difference would Bradley have made?

An unanswerable question. But he sure wouldn’t have hurt.

Bradley would have been a senior in 1965. In the real world Duke started Tison, Marin, Vacendak, sophomore Bob Verga and senior play-maker Denny Ferguson.

It was a weird lineup. Vacendak was 6-1 but played small forward and averaged 6.6 rebounds per game.

Tison, Marin and Bradley would have been a formidable front-court. But how would Bubas have managed the Vacendak, Verga, Ferguson backcourt?

Verga led Duke with 21.4 points per game that season. He wasn’t much of a defender, rebounder or playmaker. But it’s hard to imagine him not starting.

Vacendak was a better overall player than Ferguson. But Ferguson started ahead of Vacendak in 1964, Ferguson was a senior and an incumbent.

Maybe Vacendak would have become a super-sub.

Keep in mind that this Duke team averaged 92.4 points per game, without a shot clock or a three-point shot. That’s still a school record.

Bradley on that team? The scoreboard might have overheated.

I think it’s plausible to see that team in the Final Four. Certainly Princeton would not have been a threat.

The Final Four would have been dicey, even with Bradley, Marin and Verga. Michigan had first-team All-American Cazzie Russell and second-team All-American Bill Buntin. In our universe they beat Duke earlier that season in Durham 86-79.

If Duke could have navigated the Wolverines they would have faced Gail Goodrich and UCLA in the title game. Keep in mind the Bruins barely broke a sweat in their 108-89 win over Wichita and it’s hard to imagine Duke getting that far without a bruising game against Michigan.

Again, no guarantees. But doable.

One final question. High school players pick a school based on a number of variables. Freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity play in those days and nobody left early for the NBA. But players still knew who might be at their position at different schools.

Would Bradley’s presence have scared off any studs?

No way to know for sure. Heyman and Mullins were already there and Verga and Vacendak played different positions.

Would Marin have had second thoughts? Probably not. Remember he didn’t even start as a sophomore so he wasn’t looking for any guarantees. Maybe someone like Bob Riedy or Jim Liccardo would have thought twice.

But it’s all wishful thinking. Bill Bradley isn’t the only recruit to flip on Duke. Kris Humphries, Shaun Livingston, Carrick Felix and Boogie Ellis all signed letters of intent with Duke without ever playing for Duke, while Tyler Adams de-committed before signing.

So, it happens.

But none of these guys are in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

Duke was incredibly good during the middle 1960s. But that NCAA title eluded Duke. Put Bill Bradley on three of those teams and, well, we can only dream.