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What If: Tate Armstrong Had Stayed Healthy In 1977? Part III

We wouldn't change a thing about 1978 other than to have let Armstrong be a part of it.

Chicago Bulls Portraits
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - 1978: Tate Armstrong #14 of the Chicago Bulls poses for a portrait circa 1978 at the Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by NBA Photos/NBAE via Getty Images

Part II || Part I

“Billy Langloh and I got tangled up boxing out for a rebound,” Armstrong remembers. “I got bumped. I braced my fall with my right wrist. I knew it was broken right away.”

In agonizing pain, Armstrong adjusted on the fly.

“I dribbled with my left hand, positioning myself so I didn’t have to do anything with my right hand except shoot.”

How did he survive halftime?

Morrison had an eating disorder that had been triggered by the pre-game meal. Trainer Max Crowder spent all of his time attending to Morrison while Armstrong huddled in a corner, hoping no one would notice him.

Somehow Armstrong not only continued but dominated. Duke trailed 33-29 at the half and 48-41 with 14 minutes left when Armstrong took over. Playing in intense pain Armstrong hit 9-of-13 from the field in the second half. Duke took control with an 18-4 run but couldn’t close it out, going to a delay game that didn’t work. Armstrong missed a chance to win at the buzzer and the teams went into overtime, Duke’s third overtime game of the season.

Just what Armstrong needed. Another five minutes.

Armstrong scored Duke’s first three points of the extra period, then Gminski scored twice inside and Duke pulled away for an 82-74 win, a 17-9 advantage in overtime.

Armstrong had 33 points. With a broken wrist.

It was a textbook definition of a Pyrrhic victory. Armstrong’s right wrist was broken and he never again suited up for Duke.

What next?

Foster had two outstanding replacements on the bench, John Harrell and Bob Bender. Unfortunately neither was eligible. Both were sitting out as transfers, Harrell from North Carolina Central, Bender from Indiana.

And Young was gone. I don’t want to re-write history. Kenny Young shot 39.5 percent from the field in his two seasons at Duke, averaging 4.4 points per game.

But he would have gotten first dibs on Armstrong’s spot and it’s hard to imagine it turning out much worse than it did.

Steve Gray had played well against Virginia, taking Crow’s place. But that was playing alongside Armstrong not instead of him. Primary ball-handler was a bridge too far.

Gray had 79 assists that season, against 88 turnovers. Last second turnovers against Maryland-pass hit rim-and NC State—dribbled ball off foot, out of bounds—are still seared in the memory.

Duke lost both, 65-64 in overtime to Maryland and 79-78 to State.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Duke swept the series against Virginia, winning 65-49 in Cameron. Duke lost another tight one,70-65 at West Virginia and then struggled through a blizzard to meet Duquesne in Pittsburgh.

Mark Crow was from Richmond but his family was from the Pittsburgh area.

“There was no one there except the players, the officials and my family,” Crow recalls.

Crow had a career-high 28 points, hitting 14-of-19 from the field. Duke won 74-49.

Maybe a win over Duquesne doesn’t move many needles. But that Duquesne team was led by guard Norm Nixon, who would go on to play 12 seasons in the NBA.

“We didn’t have anyone who could guard Nixon one on one,” Crow says. “But we didn’t need to. Foster’s zone just swallowed him. No one could figure out that 1-2-2.”

Nixon was held to 15 points, seven below his season average.

Duke later beat St. Joseph’s 72-62 to go 14-8 and keep alive post-season hopes.

Unfortunately, there were no more Pennsylvania teams on the schedule and Duke ended on a five game losing streak, 14-13 technically a winning season but a big comedown from the heady wins of the early season.

What if Armstrong doesn’t break his wrist?

There’s no Wins Above Replacement formula for college basketball players in the 1970s. But it’s reasonable to assume that a healthy Armstrong would have made the difference in at least four games, the already mentioned Maryland, NC State and West Virginia games games and a 67-63 loss at Clemson.

Put those four games in the win column and Duke finishes the regular season 5-7, 18-8 overall, with a better tournament seed.

Other wins?

Duke lost twice to Wake Forest, 85-73 and 89-80. Duke stayed close for 30 minutes in the first game but was done in 28 turnovers. Does Duke have 28 turnovers with Armstrong at the helm?

Duke led the rematch at the half and it was tied as late as 50-50. Again turnovers did in the Devils, this time 21.

Maybe Armstrong gives Duke another win.

Crow says he thinks Duke would have finished third or fourth with his classmate healthy.

A maximum of two teams from any conference could advance to the NCAAs in those days, an arrangement that lasted only five years. The ACC Tournament winner got the automatic bid. But the regular-season champ lost in the tournament in 1975, 1976 and 1978 and got the second bid.

Virginia finished sixth in the seven-team ACC in 1976 but stunned top-seeded North Carolina to win the title. The following year the same Virginia team that lost twice to Duke in the regular season and finished 2-10 beat nationally-ranked Wake Forest and nationally-ranked Clemson and led North Carolina for much of the title game before falling late.

Could Duke have been that team?

Absolutely, Armstrong says.

“I think we were capable of that. We could have gone through a three-game effort. We had the talent.”

Possible. But unlikely.

But four or five more wins would have put Duke in the NIT. It’s easy to sneer at the NIT from a 2020 perspective but that two-team-per-conference limit left a lot of good teams for the NIT. The 1977 NIT had such notables as Villanova, Houston, Alabama and Oregon. Saint Bonaventure won it all and they were a big deal in the 1970s.

This was Armstrong and Crow’s last go around and Armstrong says he would have “given anything” for a chance to play in the NIT.

Gminski and Spanarkel had a different perspective however. Which brings up another question.

Gminski says of Armstrong’s injury “it was a heart-breaking moment. It was a double-edged sword. I hated it for him but it forced Jimmy [Spanarkel] and I to grow up.”

Armstrong agrees.

“Jimmy became the man. He didn’t shrink from that. He grew. Mike also grew. I have no question that my injury and their willingness to take over was one of the catalysts for that ‘78 team.”

Armstrong says it was just a matter of time for Foster. ‘’Coach Foster was a genius, in my opinion.

His uptempo offense and his ‘amoeba’ defense were cutting edge.”

But Gminski still regrets that Armstrong wasn’t around for the culmination.

“To have him work so hard and not be able to play out his senior season, I hated that it ended that way.”