I’ve always thought that Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best college basketball player ever.
So, it follows that he would be the best individual opponent Duke has ever faced.
And since UCLA was 88-2 in his three seasons—all of which ended with UCLA winning the NCAA title—it’s no surprise that Duke didn’t do too well against him. Duke played UCLA twice early in the 1966-’67 season, both games in Los Angeles, both games UCLA routs, 88-54 and 107-87.
The big guy had 57 points and 38 rebounds in the two games.
This got me thinking about other Duke games against truly great players.
For the purpose of this series I’m defining great players as anyone who won a recognized national player of the year award. It’s an inexact science to be sure but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere and this seems as good a place as any.
How well did Duke do against this level of talent?
Not as well as we might think.
Let’s start with the neighborhood competition.
David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan would make any short list of greatest ACC players. All four were consensus national player of the year at least once and collectively boast nine ACC POY awards.
Duke went 2-29 against this quartet.
Some of this can be explained by the fact that some of the worst teams in Duke history squared off against some of the best individual opponents in Duke history.
Look at Thompson, widely regarded as the best player in ACC history. Thompson played three varsity seasons at State and the Wolfpack went a combined 79-7, winning the 1974 NCAA title. Duke went 35-43 during that span. State beat Duke by margins of 7, 24, 14, 26, 24 and 14 points.
Thompson averaged 26.5 points per game in those six contests.
By the time Ralph Sampson arrived in Charlottesville Bill Foster had gotten the Duke program turned around. In fact Duke was ranked third in the AP poll when they first met Sampson, January 23, 1980.
Didn’t matter. Freshman Sampson-23 points, 10 rebounds-more than matched Duke senior All-American Mike Gminski’s 20 points and 10 rebounds. Jeff Lamp led everyone with 27 points and the Cavs left Cameron with a 90-84 win.
The outcome was the same when they met a few weeks later at Virginia. Lamp had 21 points, Sampson 20 points and 10 rebounds. Gminski actually had the better of the head-to-head, with 24 points and 13 rebounds and Gene Banks (18 points) had a signature dunk over Sampson.
But Virginia prevailed, 73-69.
If Duke couldn’t beat Sampson with Gminski they certainly weren’t going to beat him with Mike Tissaw or Todd Anderson. Virginia won the next seven by margins of 12, 21, 9, 12, 13, 21 and 43 points, that last score a 109-66 mauling in the 1983 ACC Tournament.
That’s right. Zero for nine against Sampson.
Ironically that 1983 Virginia team spent much of that season ranked number one but failed to make the Final Four, falling to NC State in the Elite Eight. Absent Sampson they squeaked into the 1984 NCAA Tournament but made the Final Four. Duke beat that Virginia team twice, the first two wins of what would become a 16-game Duke winning streak against the Cavaliers.
Sampson was ACC and consensus national player of the year in 1981, 1982 and 1983. North Carolina’s Michael Jordan succeeded him in 1984. Jordan’s Tar Heels easily defeated Duke twice in 1982 and 1983 but Duke took them to the wire twice in 1984, Mike Krzyzewski’s first NCAA Duke team.
Duke lost to Carolina 78-73 in Cameron. That was the famous game where Dean Smith pounded the scorer’s table after he couldn’t get in a substitution and Krzyzewski criticized the ACC for a “double standard” when Smith failed to receive a technical foul.
Jordan had 18 points in that game.
The Tar Heels had to go into double overtime to beat Duke in the regular-season finale in Chapel Hill, a game Duke would have won had Dan Meagher not missed the first end of a one-and-one at the end of regulation. Jordan had 27 points.
But a week later Duke ended their six-game losing streak to Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Jordan led everyone with 22 points but Duke countered with Mark Alarie’s 20 points and Johnny Dawkins’ 16. A year after being humiliated by Sampson in the ACC Tournament, Duke center Jay Bilas outplayed Sam Perkins, with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Jordan averaged 23 points in his seven games against Duke.
Duncan also played against some really good Duke teams and some not-so-good Duke teams.
Duncan was a freshman in 1994. Duke went to the NCAA title game that season but lost twice to the Deacs, more a result of Randolph Childress than anything Duncan did. Childress scored 52 points in the two wins, including a game-winning 3-pointer in Cameron.
Duke wasn’t very good in 1995, so it’s no surprise that the Deacs went 3-0 against the Devils. But Childress did have to hit a buzzer-beater to give Wake a 62-61 win in Cameron.
Childress was gone by 1996 but by then Duncan had become one of the nation’s best players. The 1996 ACC Player of the Year had 24 points and 14 rebounds in a 57-54 Wake win in Cameron and 20 points and 10 rebounds in a 79-65 Wake win at Wake Forest.
You may recall this was around the time Duke center Greg Newton was boasting about his ability to control Duncan.
Don’t poke the bear.
Duke went to Winston-Salem February 5, 1997 with a nine-game losing streak to Wake Forest, including an 81-69 loss at Wake earlier that season. Duncan had 26 points and 14 rebounds in that Wake win.
Newton was pretty much persona non grata by that time so Duke tried Chris Carrawell on Duncan. Despite what many people seem to remember Duke didn’t exactly shut down Duncan. The 1997 national player of the year hit 11-of-13 from the field and scored 26 points. But he didn’t get much help, Jeff Capel and Roshown McLeod combined for 34 points and Duke upset second-ranked Wake Forest 73-68.
This would be Duke’s only win over Duncan, one win in nine starts.
Duncan graduated after that 1997 season and Duke went on a 13-game winning streak against Wake Forest, starting with that 1997 win.
I suspect those two events were related.
Thompson, Sampson, Jordan and Duncan are just the tip of a dark iceberg.
Much of that iceberg wore Tar Heel light blue. Lennie Rosenbluth (1957), Kenny Smith (1987) and Jerry Stackhouse (1995) won at least one NPOY award. Antawn Jamison won them all in 1998.
Duke was a collective 1-8 in those four NPOY years against Carolina, the only win that great comeback win in 1998. But North Carolina beat Duke a week later in the ACC Tournament title game.
This 1998 Senior Day game was the only time Duke beat Jamison and Vince Carter in seven tries.
Phil Ford and Marquette’s Butch Lee split the major NPOY awards in 1978 and Duke and Carolina split two memorable games that season.
Duke ended an eight-game losing streak to North Carolina on January 14 with a 92-84 win in Cameron. In fact it was Duke’s first win over their rivals at home since 1972. Ford scored 29 points but Mike Gminski matched that for Duke and Jim Spanarkel added 23.
The teams were tied for first place in the ACC when they met in Chapel Hill for Ford’s Senior Day. Ford had a career-high 34 points and Carolina escaped with an 87-83 win.
Sixty-three points in two games? Duke didn’t exactly shut down Ford, who left with a 9-2 career record against Duke.
Tyler Hansbrough won all the 2008 NPOY awards. Duke also split with Carolina that season, beating the Tar Heels 89-78 in the Smith Center but losing 76-68 at home. In fact Duke went 2-2 against Hansbrough on the road but lost all four games at home.
Enough with that other shade of blue.
Other national players of the year beat Duke. Walt Hazzard-later Mahdi Abdul-Rahman-led UCLA over Duke in the 1964 national title game with eight assists and 11 points.
Danny Ferry and Arizona’s Sean Elliott split the NPOY awards in 1989. The teams met late that season in Arizona and the Wildcats prevailed 77-75. That game was played in the Meadowlands and is remembered today largely because Christian Laettner missed a huge foul shot late, pretty much the last time he missed a clutch shot at Duke.
Ferry outplayed Elliott. Ferry had 29 points and 12 rebounds, while Elliott shot only 6-for-21 from the field on the way to a 24-point game. But Elliott did hit 11-of-12 from the line.
Then we have 1995, a year in which Stackhouse, Maryland’s Joe Smith, UCLA’s ED O’Bannon and Michigan State’s Shawn Respert all won NPOY awards. Duke played all but Respert and went win-less in five cracks at the other three.
UCLA ended up winning the national title that season, so it’s no surprise that they easily handled Duke at home, 100-77. O’Bannon had 37 points and 13 rebounds.
Stackhouse had 49 points in two games against Duke, an easy Carolina win in Chapel Hill and a famous 102-100 double OT win in Cameron.
But Smith was the real story. Duke was highly competitive in both games against Maryland. Maryland won at home 74-72 and Smith was nothing special.
But later in that dismal season Duke took the sixth-ranked Terps down to the wire. Smith converted an offensive rebound at the end of the second overtime to give Maryland a 94-92 win.
Smith ended that game with 40 points and 18 rebounds. He hit 15-of-25 from the field, 10-of-11 from the line.
A strong case can be made this is the best game a visiting player has ever had at Cameron.
Duke got back into the NCAA-Tournament mix after that 1995 season and had some great teams. But a couple of big men ended some seasons. Kansas big man Nick Collison won the National Association of Basketball Coaches NPOY award in 2003. Collison dominated Casey Sanders and freshman Shelden Williams inside, scoring 33 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in Kansas’ 69-65 win in the Sweet Sixteen.
Duke made it all the way to the Final Four the following season. St. Joseph’s Jameer Nelson won most of the NPOY awards that season but he shared the NABC award with Connecticut center Emeka Okafor. Okafor had 18 points and seven rebounds and helped foul out three Duke big men in a 79-78 UConn win.
Frank Mason is the final entrant in this woeful litany. The 2017 NPOY lead Kansas to a 77-75 win with 21 points and five assists. Mason hit the game-winner with 1.8 seconds left.
By now you’re probably convinced that Duke never had much success against great players.
But there’s another side of the story and in part two we’ll look at those successes, some of which came in some Duke’s biggest wins against some of Duke’s toughest opponents.