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The Last Time Duke Faced A Game With Just Seven Players

Only it wasn’t Covid, it was booze.

Vic Bubas Speaking to Press
Vic Bubas suspended nine players and still won a critical game.

It’s at least theoretically possible that an ACC team will take the court this season with only seven players suited up. That’s the ACC’s COVID-19 protocol minimum.

And, of course it won’t necessarily be your best seven. In fact, it’s again theoretically possible that your entire starting lineup could be out but enough reserves are healthy and ready to go into the crucible and likely get their figurative brains beat in.

Theoretically. Somehow I would be surprised to see that happen. Any team with seven healthy players is likely to have a mixture of stars, role players and deep bench players.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s history lesson. Imagine a scenario in which a head coach decides to bench almost all of his rotation players. Not for a pandemic, unless we define youthful stupidity as a pandemic. No, a voluntary decision to hold out nine healthy players.

That was what happened to Vic Bubas and Duke basketball as 1966 turned into 1967.

Some background. Duke lost stars Jack Marin and Steve Vacendak from their 1966 Final Four team. But the Blue Devils returned three starters, shooting guard extraordinaire Bob Verga, center Mike Lewis and forward Bob Riedy, along with most of a deep bench.

Enough talent for another great team.

Or at least that was the theory. The local media picked Duke to finish first in the ACC, while AP ranked Duke fourth nationally.

The pundits were wrong.

Duke opened with an 85-71 loss to Virginia Tech, in a game played at Charlotte.

Now this turned out to be one of the better teams in Virginia Tech history. They would end the season at 20-7 and lose in the Elite Eight in overtime to Dayton.

But nobody knew that at the time. And Duke had defeated the same team by 33 points the previous season.

Duke recovered with a big win at Michigan before making a fateful trip out west.

Duke wasn’t the only team to lose to UCLA that season. In fact the Bruins went 30-0 and won it all that season. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at the time), Lucius Allen, Mike Warren and company mauled Duke 88-54 and 107-87 on consecutive nights.

The losses dropped Duke to 1-3, the only time Bubas was ever two games under .500. and that 34-point margin of defeat was the worst of his career.

The losses also dropped Duke out of the AP poll for the first time since 1960.

But Duke still had Bubas, Verga was one of the nation’s best players and Lewis and Riedy had the ability to dominate inside.

Duke defeated Vanderbilt and Virginia, lost to Ohio State 83-82 and was 3-4 when they played Wake Forest in Greensboro, on December 30.

This was a non-conference game, one of a number of annual games between the Devils and the Deacons after the cancellation of the Dixie Classic and before the establishment of the Big Four Tournament.

Lewis led Duke to a 78-73 win with 25 points and 16 rebounds.

A win worthy of a celebration.


I talked to Lewis about this years ago and here’s part of what he told me..

“We had gone out drinking at the local Holiday Inn [the drinking age was 18 in 1966]. I guess somebody saw us and blew the whistle. Bubas confronted us. You’ve got two choices in a situation like that. You can lie and try to brazen it out or you can be a man about it, tell the truth and take the consequences. We told the truth.”

Do the crime, do the time.

Bubas suspended nine players for the next game. Lewis, Riedy, Ron Wendelin and Tim Kolodziej were starters, while Joe Kennedy, Dave Golden, Warren Chapman, Jim Liccardo and Tony Barone were key reserves.

“A position of leadership is a lonely one,” Bubas said at the time “and I have been lonely for the last couple of days. It is a privilege not a right to play college basketball.”

Bubas made the decision to suspend the nine players only a couple of hours before the next game.

But Verga was not among the miscreants. Verga had a reputation as a party animal but but in reality was a bit of a loner and whatever he was doing that night, he wasn’t doing it with his teammates after hours.

So Verga was available.

But not much else was left. Steve Vandenberg was a 6-7 sophomore, a former Parade All-American. But veterans Lewis, Riedy and Chapman hadn’t left him much opportunity to see the floor up to that point. Classmates Fred Lind and C.B. Claiborne had never scored a point at the varsity level at Duke. Claiborne was a walk-on, as was fifth starter Stu McKaig, Walk-on Bob Francis was the bench. Walk-on Dale Stubbs dressed out but did not see action. Football star Bob Matheson was near the bench, ready to go into the locker room and dress out if it came to that.

Penn State was the opponent. They were an independent in 1967 and came into Duke Indoor Stadium on January 3 with a 2-7 record on the way to a 10-14 final mark.

Still, Bubas knew he had a tiny margin of error. No one could get into foul trouble, so Duke backed off on defense.

And substitutions were limited. Every starter except Lind played the entire game. Lind and Francis shared the fifth spot.

But it worked. It worked mainly because of Verga. Just a few days earlier he had scored a career-high 41 points in that one-point loss to Ohio State. Verga would take 31 shots in those 40 minutes and make 16 of them. He added six of eight from the line, for 38 points.

But he had help from the other four, especially Vandenberg. The Maryland native would go on to average 12 points and eight rebounds per game as a junior in 1968. So, he had talent. He just hadn’t had the opportunity to show it.

He had the opportunity that night and responded to the tune of 16 points and 14 rebounds.

With Vandenberg dominating inside and Verga doing his thing on the perimeter, Duke jumped to a 51-41 halftime lead.

Duke extended the lead to 19 points in the middle of the second half.

Penn State wasn’t very good. But they were good enough to send fresh bodies against the exhausted Blue Devils and eat into the lead. But every time they got close Verga made a play and Duke held on for an 89-84 victory.

Claiborne joined Verga and Vandenberg in double figures, with 13 points. Lind and McKaig added nine and eight respectively.

Then there was Francis, who scored five points. This was the only game he ever played for Duke.

Penn State shot an astonishing 89 times from the field but made only 39 and went to the line only six times, making all six.

Bubas called the win “a victory for the kids who haven’t been playing very much.”

Everyone was reinstated for the next game, except for Riedy and Kennedy. Unfortunately that next opponent was Dean Smith’s first great North Carolina team. The Tar Heels held off Duke 59-56. the absence of Riedy’s 13 points and seven rebounds per game a big factor in Duke’s loss.

Duke somewhat salvaged that season with a seven-game winning streak. But they lost all three games to North Carolina, the last in the ACC Tournament title game and finished 18-9.

I’m not sure if any of this has anything to do with anything that might happen in 2022 and I hope we don’t get to find out. But if you’re going to have to play a game with four recruited players and a few walk-ons, it helps if one of those recruited players is an All-American who can carry a team.