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The Very Best Blue Devils And What They Did To The Opposition

Duke has had Players Of The Year in every decade since the 1950s except for one.

Shane Battier
Shane Battier in action as a Blue Devil

Lately we’ve been looking at what great players accomplished against Duke. In my final installment, we’re going to flip the switch and see what great Duke players have done to the opposition.

First we have to establish some terms. Duke lists 11 players in 12 different seasons as national players of the year. It could be more, it could be less.

Let me explain. No one questions NPOY designations won by Art Heyman, Johnny Dawkins, Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, J.J. Redick or Zion Williamson. There are four other candidates, two of whom land on the right side of the divide, two on the other.

Duke counts Dick Groat’s 1951 Helms award. Helms might raise some eyebrows. But by 1951 Helms was long past the ex post facto catching-up stage. And Helms was the only NPOY game in town. Both AP (media) and UPI (coaches) had all-America teams in 1951 but for some reason they didn’t start giving out NPOY awards until 1961 and 1955 respectively. The United States Basketball Writers Association started giving an NPOY award in 1959; that’s now called the Robertson award.

Curiously, Groat was named second-team All-America by both AP and UPI in 1951.

Duke also counts Marvin Bagley, who was named NPOY in 2018 by Basketball Times magazine. But Duke does not count the Fox Sports, Yahoo and NBC Sports NPOY awards won by Nolan Smith in 2011. Duke also does not count the NPOY award given to R.J. Barrett by USA Today in 2019.

I’ll stick with the official list.

Which leaves us with 1951, 1963, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2018 and 2019 as years when Duke had a recognized national player of the year.

Not surprisingly all of these were pretty good seasons, some much better than pretty good. You’d be hard-pressed to find a NPOY candidate from a bad or even mediocre team. Just doesn’t work that way.

But Duke hasn’t had a NPOY/NCAA title combination since 2001. Two national champions since then have not had a NPOY winner. Jahlil Okafor came close in 2015. But Duke’s 2010 team didn’t even have a first-team All-American.

Let’s deal with one non-NCAA team first. The 1951 NCAA Tournament was the first one with 16 teams and the first one with automatic qualifiers. The Southern Conference held a post-season tournament to select its winner. NC State was the top seed after going 13-1 in the regular season. Duke was the fifth seed.

Duke and State met in the title game and Groat kept Duke close, with 31 points. But State simply was a better team and held off Duke 67-63.

But Groat outscored State All-America Sammy Ranzino three times that season and also outscored Bradley All-America Gene Melchiorre.

Maybe Helms knew what they were doing.

Groat had a better season in 1952 and Duke had a better season, 24-6. But again Duke couldn’t get past the Wolfpack, losing 77-68 in the Southern Conference Tournament title game.

But Kansas center Clyde Lovellette won the Helms Award.

Art Heyman won all the NPOY awards in 1963, leading Duke to the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, its first Final Four and a school record 27 wins.

Then we have to wait 23 years until Johnny Dawkins captured the Naismith Award, leading Duke to the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, Mike Krzyzewski’s first Final Four and a school record 37 wins, losing a heart-breaker to Louisville in the finals.

Sound familiar?

Not exactly.

The Naismith was the only NPOY award won by Dawkins. St. John’s forward Walter Berry won the rest.

And Dawkins wasn’t ACC Player of the Year. Maryland’s Len Bias was.

An aside about that 1986 team. Duke played six other All-Americans that season, going 9-2, 1-0 against Berry, 1-1 against UNC’s Brad Daugherty, 2-0 against Bias, 2-0 against Kansas’ Danny Manning, 2-1 against Georgia Tech’s Mark Price and 1-0 against Navy’s David Robinson.

Danny Ferry was a complementary freshman player on that 1986 NCAA runner-up. By 1989 he and Arizona’s Sean Elliott were considered the nation’s top two players. Ferry won the UPI, Naismith, and USBWA NPOY awards, Elliott the AP, Wooden, Rupp and National Association of Basketball Coaches. The Sporting News tabbed Oklahoma’s Stacey King.

Duke won neither the 1989 ACC regular-season nor tournament title but advanced to the Final Four, where they lost to Seton Hall.

Christian Laettner was a second-team All-American in 1991, when Duke captured its first NCAA title. Duke followed in 1992 with a 34-2 mark, finishing first in the ACC regular season and demolishing North Carolina 94-74 in the ACC tournament title game. Laettner had that game-for-the-ages-against Kentucky in the Elite Eight and Duke handled Big Ten powers Indiana and Michigan in the Final Four for the school’s second national title.

There are a couple of curious sidebars about that season, however. Laettner did not capture every NPOY award. UPI went with Ohio State’s Jimmy Jackson. And Laettner didn’t win the Final Four Most Outstanding Player Award. That went to Duke’s Bobby Hurley, whose spectacular shooting led Duke back from a double-digit deficit against the Hoosiers.

Elton Brand had an equally dominant season in 1999 and this time there wasn’t even a UPI outlier. He won every award for which he was eligible for a Duke team that was one minute away from being considered alongside a few of those UCLA teams and the 1976 Indiana team as best college team ever.

But that final minute. Alas and alack and all that.

One of Brand’s classmates was forward Shane Battier. Battier stuck around and did things in 2001 that no other Duke player has ever done. He was ACC Player of the Year, sharing that award with UNC’s Joseph Forte. He won all but one of the NPOY awards. And he was Final Four MOP, as Duke won its third national title.

He remains the only Duke player to be named ACC Player of the Year, consensus national player of the year and Final Four MOP for a national title team.

Did I mention that he also won his third straight national defensive player of the year in 2001?

Not a bad season.

Brand and Battier remain the only players from the same recruiting class at the same school to be consensus NPOY.

And about that one other award. The NABC went with Duke’s Jason Williams. This is the only time one school has had different NPOYs in the same season.

But Duke hasn’t had a NPOY take the school back to the Final Four since 2001.

Williams ran the national 2002 table, sharing the NABC award with Kansas’ Drew Gooden. Like Dawkins in 1986, Williams lost the ACC Player of the Year award to a Terp, Juan Dixon. Dixon edged Williams 41-38.

And yes, I still want to know the identity of those four voters who opted for Duke’s Mike Dunleavy.

J.J. Redick was one of three players to win a NPOY award in 2005. Illinois guard Dee Brown was selected by The Sporting News, Redick won the now-defunct Rupp award and Utah center Andrew Bogut won the rest.

Redick had a magical 2006 season, breaking Duke, ACC and NCAA records seemingly every week or so. And he was rewarded by winning every NPOY award, sharing the Robertson award with Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison. Redick also joined Ferry as the only Duke player to be voted ACC Player of the Year twice.

But Redick couldn’t get Duke past the Sweet Sixteen in either 2005 or 2006, even with All-America Shelden Williams by his side.

Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Mason Plumlee all made consensus All-America teams at Duke. Smith won the minor NPOY awards in 2011 but BYU’s Jimmer Fredette won the ones that counted. Jabari Parker finished runner-up to Creighton’s Doug McDermott in the major awards in 2014 and Jahlil Okafor finished just behind Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky the following season.

Villanova’s Jalen Brunson captured most of the 2018 awards, Bagley’s Basketball Times award the exception. Bagley did become the first freshman to lead the ACC in scoring and rebounding and helped Duke to the Elite Eight and a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Kansas.

Bagley is the only Duke NPOY to lead the ACC in rebounding.

Which brings us to Zion. Zion Williamson may not have been the best freshman ever. But he would be on the short list and certainly no other freshman has ever captured the imagination of the public-both hard-core and casual fans-as did Williamson. The only question was whether those six games he missed with a knee injury would rule him out and that was the rationale USA Today used in selecting Barrett.

But nobody else. What a season.

But again, like Jason Williams in 2002, Redick in 2005 and 2006 and Bagley in 2018, that final weekend eluded Williamson.

Duke ended those 12 NPOY seasons with a combined record of 369-63. That includes Duke’s 3-3 record without Williamson in 2019; I’m counting the first UNC game as a missed game. Bagley missed four games in 2018. They are the only Duke NPOYs to miss more than one game in their NPOY seasons.

If we take out that 1951 Southern Conference team, then Duke’s NPOY teams are 349-50, with six ACC regular-season titles, nine ACC Tournament titles, six Final Fours and three NCAA titles.

Not too shabby.

Now for another one of those best-player in the country, best team in the country combos.