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Can Duke Pull Off An Unlikely ACC Title?

It wouldn’t be the first time

Duke v North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 06: Leaky Black #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels is guarded by Wendell Moore Jr. #0 of the Duke Blue Devils during the first half of their game at Dean E. Smith Center on March 06, 2021 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

There may be worse ways to end your regular season than getting blown out by your biggest rival on national TV. But they probably involve an injury, alien abduction, a stray asteroid, something along those lines.

So, it could have been worse. But what happened to Duke Saturday night was pretty gruesome.

Which doesn’t presage a long stay in Greensboro this week. Teams just don’t snap back after something like that.


Not so fast.

No fewer than nine times Duke has played Carolina in its regular-season finale, lost that game and turned around and won the ACC Tournament the following week.

Nine times.

Of course, that includes Duke teams with Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel, Gene Banks, J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, R.J. Barrett, or Zion Williamson and Duke doesn’t appear to have anyone at that level on the current roster.

Some of these regular-season losses were expected, some were surprises, some were shockers. Topping the shocker list was 2006 when Redick and Williams lost their Senior Day game to Tyler Hansbrough and company 83-76.

Duke beat Miami, Wake Forest and Boston College the next week, in Greensboro, to cut down the nets.

Actually by 2006, this was something of a tradition. Redick and Williams were on the wrong side of season-ending losses to Carolina in 2003 (82-79) and 2005 (75-73) before coming back to a tournament title the next week.

Duke also went the lose-to-Carolina-but-win-the-tournament route in 1978 (Phil Ford had a career-high 34 points in his Senior Day game in this one), 2009, 2017, and 2019, the latter marked by the remarkable return from injury of Zion Williamson

But those Duke losses were competitive, something that cannot be said about last week’s Saturday-night massacre.

Is it possible to come back from that kind of season-ending beat-down and run the table a week later?

Well, it has happened, three times to Duke.

Let’s look at those three times.

Vic Bubas became Duke’s head coach in May, 1959, replacing Harold Bradley, who left for Texas because Texas looked like a better job. Duke did not win an ACC Tournament under Bradley and had lost its only NCAA Tournament game.

Nothing in Bubas’ first season suggested that the 1960 team would change that. Bubas’ first team didn’t have any seniors of consequence in an era that prioritized experience. Juniors Carroll Youngkin, Doug Kistler, Howard Hurt, and John Frye led the team. After upsetting Utah in the Dixie Classic, Duke lost the next two games to North Carolina (75-53) and Dayton. The Blue Devils wobbled to a 7-7 ACC mark, which included two more lopsided losses to the Tar Heels, 84-58 in Chapel Hill and 75-50 at Duke in the regular-season finale.

Duke entered the ACC Tournament at 12-10, poised for a short run. At least Duke wouldn’t have far to go for the inevitable loss. The ACC Tournament was held at Reynolds Coliseum, on the NC State campus, in those days.

The fourth-seeded Blue Devils defeated the fifth-seed South Carolina 82-69 in the opener.

Top-seed Carolina was next. The Tar Heels were really good in 1960. Led by ACC Player of the Year and future NBA All-Star Lee Shaffer, Doug Moe, and York Larese, they entered the semifinal match with an 18-5 mark.

Duke didn’t stand a chance. On paper.

Until the game started. Youngkin was a 6-6, 220-pound bulldog and he dominated inside, 30 points and 17 rebounds, while Hurt sewed up Duke’s 71-69 upset with two late foul shots.

Their reward was a title-game match against another nationally-ranked team, Bones McKinney’s Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Wake boasted two wins over Duke, 80-63 and 83-64. Len Chappell and Billy Packer were sophomores in 1960, with senior forward Dave Budd augmented the sophs.

Wake was 21-6. Again, a mismatch, on paper.

It was Kistler’s chance to shine. The willowy 6-9 forward consistently found holes in Wake’s defense and exploited them to the tune of 22 points, hitting 10 of 15 from the field.

Duke won 63-59.

Duke received the ACC’s automatic and only bid to the Big Dance and took advantage of its opportunity with NCAA wins over Princeton and St. Joseph’s, the school’s first two NCAA Tournament victories.

Duke lost to NYU in the East Regional title game.

Fast forward two decades, from Bubas’ first Duke team to Bill Foster’s last Duke team. Duke’s 1980 season was one of the strangest in school history. Starting seniors Gminski and Bob Bender, juniors Banks and Kenny Dennard and sophomore Vince Taylor, Duke started 12-0 and spent three weeks atop the AP poll. That run included a decisive 86-74 win over North Carolina in the Big Four title game.

But Dennard got hurt, then his backup Jim Suddath got hurt and Duke cratered, losing four straight in February. North Carolina won 82-67 in Cameron, scoring the game’s last 15 points.

Duke staggered into Carmichael Auditorium for a Senior Day game for Mike O’Koren and four other Carolina seniors and got mauled. It was 54-34 at the half, 96-71 at the final buzzer. North Carolina hit 50 percent from the field, Duke 39 percent, while Gminski was held to 9 points, breaking a streak of 30-straight double-digit scoring games.

The ACC Tournament winner didn’t get the only NCAA bid by 1980. But the tournament was only 40 teams deep and at 7-7 in the ACC, Duke knew it needed to go to Greensboro and do some damage.

They did a lot. It might match Bubas’ 1960 run. Banks (24 points) and Gminski (22) led Duke to a 68-62 win over a good NC State team. Banks (14-14) and Gminski (12-12) were perfect from the foul line.

The Tar Heels were next, six days after their 25-point win.

Instead, Duke led almost the entire game, 43-36 at the half, pulling away to a 75-61 win.

That’s a 39-point turnaround in less than a week.

And six days after being held to 9 points, Gminski had one of the best games of his career, 24 points, 19 rebounds, 11 of 12 from the field.

And his interior presence helped hold O’Koren to 4 points.

Top-seeded Maryland defeated Clemson in the other semifinal as ACC Player of the Year Albert King torched the Tigers for 38 points.

Duke and Maryland had split in the regular season, each team winning at home.

It snowed about all day in Greensboro and the title game was every bit that exceptional. Maryland led 37-33 at the half and neither team led by more than two possessions at any point during a pulsating second half. Taylor got two huge steals down the stretch, Gminski put Duke up 73-72 with a tip-in.

Nine seconds left. King had a marvelous game, with 27 points. But his potential game-winner bounced on the rim and bounced some more, before falling off. Dennard and Maryland’s Buck Williams tangled up going for the rebound, Williams went tumbling.

No call.

Banks (21) and Taylor (19) led Duke, with Gminski adding 13 points and 7 rebounds.

With Foster’s departure to South Carolina an open secret, Duke defeated Pennsylvania and Kentucky - in Lexington, no less - before falling to Joe Barry Carroll and Purdue in the Elite Eight.

Foster went on to Columbia, Duke replaced him with an unknown coach from Army.

Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t unknown when Duke visited Chapel Hill March 6, 2011. This was the season when Kyrie Irving made his brief appearance at Duke. It also was the year when Nolan Smith emerged as the ACC’s best player. Smith’s 34 points led Duke to a come-from-behind 79-73 win over Carolina in the rivalry’s first game of the season.

Duke and Carolina were tied at 13-2 in the ACC going into the final game. But they weren’t tied in this game, not very long, anyway. It was 51-39 at the half, 81-67 at the final buzzer. Kendall Marshall had 11 assists for the Tar Heels, John Henson had a double-double, Harrison Barnes with 18 points.

Smith led Duke with 30 points, while Seth Curry added 20. But the rest of the starting lineup shot 4 for 25 from the field.

The 2011 ACC Tournament was held in Greensboro. Duke defeated Maryland and Virginia Tech to reach the title game, the rubber match against a North Carolina team that was coming off wins over Miami and Clemson.

Smith was the 2011 ACC Player of the Year largely because of his league-leading 20.6 points per game. But this time he locked on to Marshall, forcing him into five turnovers, against only four assists. It was 8-0 Duke out of the gates, 42-28 at the half.

The final was 75-58, a 31-point turnaround in eight days.

Smith led everyone with 20 points and 10 assists. But Duke won this one on defense, holding North Carolina to 34 percent shooting, while forcing 16 turnovers.

Irving came back for the NCAAs but Duke went out in the Sweet Sixteen.

What to make of this trip down memory lane? Mark Twain famously said that history doesn’t always repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes.

Can it rhyme this week?

Duke has never had to win five straight games to win the ACC Tournament and this time hasn’t shown the toughness and resiliency necessary to pull off this extraordinary task, at least not with any consistency. But we do have a lot of evidence that a late-season loss to North Carolina, even a blow-out loss, doesn’t necessarily preclude a quick and decisive turnaround.

On to Greensboro.