If you’ve stuck with me this long you’re probably wondering if Duke ever had any sustained success against great players.
The answer is an emphatic yes.
Let’s start with some split decisions.
I’ve always thought that Michigan’s Cazzie Russell was the best college player between Jerry Lucas and Alcindor/Jabbar. Yes, I think Cazzie Russell was a better college player than either Art Heyman or Bill Bradley. The 6-5, 220-pound wing averaged 27.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game at Michigan, while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 82.8 from the line at a time when the Big Ten was the nation’s best conference top to bottom.
Russell matched up with Duke four times. Michigan defeated Duke 83-67 in Ann Arbor early in the 1963-’64 season. This was the most one-sided loss suffered by any of Vic Bubas’ three Final Four teams. A beat down, one lead by Russell’s 21 points and 15 rebounds.
The following season Russell and his top-ranked Wolverines traveled south and defeated Duke 86-79, a game made famous by the volume of noise generated by the Duke fan base as a late rally just fell short.
Russell had 21 points and 13 rebounds in this one.
Duke returned the favor in Russell’s senior season, 1966. That game was played in Detroit. Russell’s 30 points weren’t enough as Duke defeated Michigan 100-93 in overtime.
Jack Marin matched Russell with 30 points, with Bob Verga adding 27.
Three All-Americans playing at an All-America level.
Duke was ranked number one in the AP poll, Michigan number three. The kind of game that would have been a classic in a more TV-friendly era.
All of these games were played early in the regular season. There was a fourth matchup and that one took place in the 1964 Final Four. Duke was stoked for the rematch after the Ann Arbor blow-out, especially senior center Jay Buckley, who struggled mightily against Michigan’s star center Bill Buntin.
Buckley keyed Duke’s 91-80 payback win with 25 points and 14 rebounds, while helping hold Buntin to a modest 19 points and nine rebounds.
But Duke still didn’t do much to stop Russell. He scored 31 points, hitting 13-of-19 from the field.
Cazzie Russell averaged 25.8 ppg in four games against some of Vic Bubas’ best teams.
Give Duke a split decision in the series.
Danny Manning split the 1988 NPOY awards with Bradley’s Hersey Hawkins. Duke defeated Manning and Kansas twice in the 1986 season, once in the Big Apple NIT title game in Madison Square Garden and again in the Final Four.
But Manning was at his best two years later. Duke beat Kansas 74-70 in overtime in Lawrence.
Duke was ranked sixth nationally, while Kansas was unranked, so it probably can’t be considered an upset. Manning had 31 points and 12 rebounds, outplaying Duke’s Danny Ferry, who had 20 points.
But Duke’s Danny had more help than Kansas’ Danny, especially Quin Snyder who had 21 points and five assists.
Duke and Kansas met six weeks later in Kemper Arena in Kansas City and this time Manning had more support. Duke was ranked fifth, Kansas still unranked. But Duke fell into a 16-2 hole and never dug all the way out, losing 66-59.
Manning had 25 points and 10 rebounds, Ferry 19 points and 12 rebounds. But Milt Newton aided Manning with 20 points, while no other Blue Devil scored more than 10.
Two nights later Kansas defeated Oklahoma to complete one of the most unlikely NCAA title runs ever.
Does that one Manning win erase three Duke wins?
Well, it was the only one that led to an NCAA title.
LaSalle’s Lionel Simmons won most of the 1990 NPOY awards. But The Sporting News went with Georgia Tech’s Dennis Scott.
Duke defeated Georgia Tech twice that regular season, 96-91 on Atlanta, 88-86 in a truly great game in Cameron.
Scott scored 30 points in the first game, 36 in the second.
This was the year Scott averaged 27.7 points per game, shooting 41.4 from beyond the arc.
Scott could shoot.
The teams met for a third time in the 1990 ACC Tournament semifinals and this time the Yellow Jackets came out on top, 83-72. Scott and Brian Oliver each had 31 points to lead the win. Christian Laettner led Duke with 29.
So, Dennis Scott averaged 32.3 points per game in three games against a Duke team that finished second in the NCAA Tournament.
This was the game where Phil Henderson could be heard in the post-game locker room angrily calling his teammates “crybabies.”
Duke regrouped and made it to the title game, where they lost to UNLV. Tech had lost to Vegas two days earlier. Technically Duke advanced further than Tech but the Jackets pushed Vegas to the very end, an accomplishment Duke didn’t come close to matching.
Most of the rest of Duke’s wins against NCPOYs came in the NCAA Tournament.
But there are two exceptions not previously discussed.
Walt Hazzard wasn’t the only player to win a NPOY award in 1964. Ohio State center Gary Bradds was the AP winner. Bradds was a 6-8 senior when averaged 30.6 points and 13.4 points for the 16-8 1964 Buckeyes.
He certainly had his way when Duke visited Columbus early that season. He had 28 points and 10 rebounds against Duke’s twin-towers lineup of Jay Buckley and Hack Tison.
But Duke had a star of its own. Jeff Mullins scored 32 points as Duke edged the Buckeyes 76-75.
As mentioned, Duke defeated Kansas in the inaugural Big Apple NIT title game at the beginning of the 1985-’86 season.
But two days earlier Duke had to defeat St. John’s in the semifinals. In Madison Square Garden.
No easy task.
Johnny Dawkins put Duke up 71-70 with a jumper in the final minute and Duke got a stop to secure the victory.
Dawkins would go on to win the Naismith Award, becoming the first Blue Devil to win a NPOY award since Art Heyman in 1963.
But St. John’s’ Walter Berry won all the rest. And Berry did outscore Dawkins 35 to 20 that night.
UNLV’s Larry Johnson won most of the 1991 NPOY awards. But AP went with LSU sophomore Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal was a great talent without question, a better talent than all but a handful of other players mentioned in this survey. But it was his misfortune to go against two of the best Duke teams ever and arguably the best Duke player ever.
And there’s no question that Christian Laettner simply outplayed O’Neal in 1991, in Cameron. Laettner’s outside game was clicking early, which forced Shaq to come out and play him, which enabled Laettner to drive by him. Laettner ended that contest with 24 points and 11 rebounds, while O’Neal was held to 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Duke won 88-70.
Duke was the defending NCAA champion and the top-ranked team in the polls when they made the follow-up visit to Baton Rogue the following season. But all was not fine in Blue Devil country. Duke had just lost its previous game to North Carolina and more importantly lost Bobby Hurley with a broken right foot. Sophomore power forward Grant Hill replaced Hurley at point guard, with Tony Lang taking over Hill’s spot.
Duke seemed to be ripe for the picking. And Shaq certainly acquitted himself well against Laettner. O’Neal muscled inside for 25 points and 12 rebounds.
Laettner had 22 points and 10 rebounds.
But Grant Hill responded to his new role with 16 points and six assists, while Lang had a dozen points. O’Neal missed four-of-five from the line in the final minutes, while Duke nailed its foul shots and pulled away for a 77-67 win.
Five times Duke has played a NPOY winner in the NCAAs the year before they won that award. Duke won four of those.
The loss was to Larry Johnson and UNLV in the 1990 title game. More about the payback later.
Duke took down David Robinson in the 1986 East Region title game 71-50. Robinson had 21 points and 10 rebounds but Navy was hopelessly outclassed.
Duke and Indiana were much more closely matched when they met in the 1992 Final Four. Laettner struggled the entire game and the Hoosiers built a 12-point first-half lead. Bobby Hurley led Duke back with six 3-pointers and Duke won 81-78.
Hurley led everyone with 26 points. Greg Graham led the Hoosiers with 18 points. But Duke held Calbert Cheaney to 11 points, seven under his season average.
Cheaney would win every 1993 NPOY award.
Duke defeated Respert and Michigan State 85-74 in the 1994 second round. Grant Hill and Cherokee Parks led Duke with 25 and 24 points respectively.
This was Mike Krzyzewski’s first game against Michigan State. In fact it was Duke’s first game against the Spartans since the 1958 Dixie Classic. Judd Heathcote was still the MSU coach.
Duke went to the 2013 Elite Eight, defeating Creighton 66-50 in the round of 32. Doug McDermott, the 2014 NPOY, hit 12-of-12 from the line but only 4-of-16 from the field in leading Creighton with 21 points.
Rasheed Sulaimon led Duke with 21 points, four more than Seth Curry.
I’ve saved the best for last.
I’ve already talked about Danny Manning and 1988. But three other times Duke squared off in the NCAA Tournament against the NPOY and won. Two of those wins lead to national titles for the Blue Devils.
Three years after losing to Kansas Duke took on UNLV in the Final Four. We’ve already discussed this game in some detail in the 1991 title series.
So, I’ll summarize.
The Rebels had battered Duke in the 1990 title game and came into the 1991 rematch undefeated, in large part due to the dominance of Larry Johnson, their 6-7, 250-pound senior forward. Johnson came into the game averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds. But Duke smothered him and held him to 13 points. Trailing 79-77 with seconds left Johnson passed on an open jumper and Duke won.
Duke defeated Kansas two days later for their first national title.
Three years later Duke went into the Southeast regional as the second seed. Grant Hill was a senior, the ACC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American.
Purdue was the top seed. They were ranked third in the polls, while Duke was ranked sixth. The Boilermakers were led by 6-8 forward Glenn Robinson, who was leading the nation at more than 30 points per game. As good as Hill was it’s really hard to argue against Robinson’s selection as NPOY across the board.
But Duke absolutely shut down Robinson, forcing him way out of his comfort zone. Sometimes it was Hill, sometimes it was Tony Lang. Robinson hit 6-of-22 from the field and turned it over six times. Duke also kept him off the line. He made only one-of-three foul shots, ending with 13 points.
Hill only scored 11 points. But it was a trade-off Duke was willing to make, especially with Lang and freshman Jeff Capel each scoring 19 points.
Duke won 69-60. The Blue Devils defeated Florida in the Final Four before losing a heart-breaker to Arkansas in the title game.
Fast forward to 2015. Duke’s Final Four run was led by imposing freshman center Jahlil Okafor, the first freshman to be named ACC Player of the Year. He also made all of the All-America teams.
But national player of the year eluded him. Wisconsin senior center Frank Kaminsky led the Wooden Award voting with 3,385 points. Okafor was second, with 3,060.
Kaminsky and Okafor also were 1-2 for the Naismith.
Duke and Wisconsin had met earlier that season, at Wisconsin, in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
The Blue Devils were ranked fourth, the Badgers second.
Duke shot 65 percent from the field and won 80-70. Neither big man was at his best. Kaminsky had 17 points and nine rebounds, Okafor 13 points and six rebounds.
Tyus Jones led Duke with 22 points. Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson led everyone with 25 points.
More than a few observers said this early December match had the feel of a Final Four game and that’s what happened. Duke and Wisconsin advanced all the way to the title game.
Duke was ranked fourth, Wisconsin third.
This was the first time Duke had played a NPOY in the NCAA finals since Walt Hazzard in 1964.
Kaminsky clearly had the better of Okafor in the title game. Wisconsin led Duke by nine in the second half before Duke came storming back.
Kaminsky led Wisconsin with 21 points and led everyone with 12 rebounds. And he kept Okafor on the bench with foul trouble much of the game. Okafor played only 22 minutes, leaving Amile Jefferson to battle Kaminsky.
But Okafor came off the bench to score two big baskets in the final minutes as Duke pulled off the 79-73 comeback.
He finished with 10 points and three rebounds but ended up cutting down the nets with his victorious teammates.
I’ll finish up in a few days with a look from the other side of the equation, Duke’s national players of the year.