Armstrong was joined in the backcourt by Jim Spanarkel, a 6-5 guard, who had been the ACC’s first freshman of the year the previous season. Senior forward Mark Crow was a 6-7 sharpshooter who had averaged 12 points per game in 1976.
But Duke had lost starting center Willie Hodge, leading rebounder George Moses and 6-11 Terry Chili from that team. Cameron Hall, a 6-9 Canadian missed his freshman season with a back injury that would prematurely end his career. Scott Goetsch was also 6-9 but was not an ACC-caliber starter.
Mike Gminski inherited the center spot, a precocious 6-11 freshman center, raw but oozing potential. He didn’t turn 17 until August 31.
There was no Plan B.
There were other concerns. Marco Bonnamico, a 6-7 Italian forward, signed with Duke but never showed up. “The Italian Basketball Federation really wanted to keep him at home,” Gminski recalls, adding that “I wouldn’t know him if he came up to me on the street.”
Bonnamico was good enough to play for Italy’s 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams.
Instead sophomores Harold Morrison and Hall filled in at power forward, combining for a modest 9.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Backcourt depth took a hit when rising junior Kenny Young—frustrated by lack of playing time behind Armstrong and Spanarkel—transferred. There was no experience behind them. Lots of players were going to be playing lots of minutes
Armstrong lives in Maryland-the D.C. suburbs-and is president of Konterra Realty.
He describes the first time he saw Gminski after school started.
“I hadn’t seen him play. But one day I was getting ready to go out for a run on the golf course. The coaches suggested that he come along. I thought to myself ‘how is this big guy going to be able to keep up with me?’ As it ended up I had to work to keep up with him. He was very raw. But people that size didn’t move like that. I could tell that if he could play, we had a chance.”
Gminski returns the favor. “Tate taught me how to be a college-basketball player. He taught me about hard work, discipline, focus.”
Gminski adds that Armstrong’s presence was one of the reasons he came to Duke.
“Tate was the biggest part of the whole thing. I saw things going in the right direction.”
Duke opened its season in the Big Four. Armstrong scored 27 points but Wake Forest won 81-80.
More of the same.
But a funny thing happened. Duke started winning close games. The Blue Devils edged NC State 84-82, ending that losing streak to the Wolfpack. Gminski had 14 rebounds in his second college game. Duke defeated Washington 83-81. Armstrong scored 35 points, the last two on a game-winning jumper at the buzzer, while Gminski battled Washington’s 7-1 senior “Jammin” James Edwards to a draw. Armstrong hit another buzzer-beater, as Duke edged Richmond 65-63 and Duke beat Connecticut in overtime, a game played at Madison Square Garden.
But most impressive was a 78-75 win at 15th-ranked Tennessee and their All-America candidates Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld, AKA, Bernie and Ernie.
Armstrong had 29 points, Spanarkel 19 points, Gminski 15 points and 11 rebounds.
This was Duke’s first road win over a nationally-ranked non-ACC opponent since beating Davidson in 1970.
“We put it to them,” Armstrong recalls. “Coming out of that game I felt like we had momentum.”
The winning streak reached 10, Duke’s longest winning streak since the 1966 team won 13 straight.
What was going on?
“Simple,” Mark Crow says from his home in Italy. “We had an All-American guard playing at an All-American level.”
Of course Armstrong was just as good in 1976 and Duke was losing those close games.
Crow adds some additional context. “We had a very smart team. Spanarkel was very heady. Gminski was very heady. Armstrong had a high basketball IQ. We had a bunch of guys who could shoot. Foster’s attitude was ‘any open shot is a good shot.’”
Perhaps most importantly Duke learned how to stop people. Opponents shot 48.9 percent against Duke in 1976, 44.9 percent in 1977. Points allowed dropped to 72.9.
Gminski had a lot to do with that. He was the rim protector Foster had never had before. Gminski blocked 90 shots in 1977, still a Duke freshman record and still sixth-best ever at Duke; only Gminski and Shelden Williams have done better.
And he was able to do this while avoiding the freshman-big-man-bugaboo, fouls. Gminski was called for only 55 fouls in 27 games and never fouled out of a game at Duke.
At 10-1 Duke was getting votes in the polls but not enough to crack the charts.
“I didn’t think too much about it,” Armstrong recalls. “But Coach Foster was upset about it. He said we should be ranked and needed one more win. I was just more concerned with bringing it every night.”
The winning streak came to an end at home against Clemson. Armstrong showed he was human when he missed a chance to win at the end of regulation and Clemson won in overtime.
Still Gminski had 17 rebounds against Clemson’s senior center Wayne “Tree” Rollins and outscored him eight to six.
Duke made the short trip to Chapel Hill and fell to fifth-ranked North Carolina 77-68.
This was a Tar Heels team that included Ford, Walter Davis, Tom LaGarde and Mike O’Koren. No shame in losing on the road to a team that would finish second in the 1977 NCAA Tournament. But Duke was now 0-2 in the ACC and the momentum was blunted.
Duke visited Virginia next. Duke hadn’t won an ACC road game since they beat Virginia in 1972, a now 27-game losing streak. Duke desperately needed to break that streak.
Ending that losing streak was “front and center for me,” Armstrong recalls. “I was going to put that [streak] to rest. It was one of my commitments to myself. There was no way we were going to loss that game.”
Crow stayed home, out with a sprained ankle. Spanarkel moved to small forward with sophomore Steve Gray getting his first Duke start.
Five minutes into the game Armstrong fell hard on his right wrist.