The NCAA held its first men’s basketball tournament in 1939, one year after the first NIT. Both tournaments consisted of eight teams, invitation only, no automatic qualifiers. The NCAA mapped out eight geographic regions and each region was represented by one and only one team.
Wake Forest was the first southeast representative.
Eddie Cameron’s best team was his last, 1942, when Duke went 22-2. But Adolph Rupp and Kentucky got the invite off an 18-5 record.
Gerry Gerard was coach when Duke went 21-6 and won the Southern Conference Tournament in 1946. But 28-4 North Carolina got the bid. They made it to the title game, where they lost a close one to Bob Kurland and Oklahoma A&M (now State).
The NCAA expanded to 16 teams in 1951 and started giving out automatic bids to conference champions. This was the point when the NCAA began to separate itself from the NIT.
It was also the period when Everett Case and NC State had a stranglehold on the Southern Conference Tournament and then the ACC Tournament. Despite Dick Groat’s brilliance Duke lost to State 67-63 in the SoCon title game in 1951 and 77-68 in the same game the following season.
Duke finished first in the ACC regular season in both 1954 and 1958, under Harold Bradley but lost in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament both years, both times to the fourth seed. Case did the honors in 1954 and Maryland in 1958.
` Lots of close-but-no-cigar.
But Duke did sneak in the NCAAs in 1955. State was on probation for recruiting violations involving Ronnie Shavlik, grandfather of future Duke player Shavlik Randolph.
Which meant that if State won the ACC Tournament, the runner-up would be next in line.
Duke beat South Carolina and had to go into overtime to beat Virginia to make it to the championship game, where they found waiting, you guessed it.
Shavlik dominated, with 24 points and 21 rebounds and State won 87-77.
Still, Duke was on its way.
The Blue Devils opened at Madison Square Garden in front of 14,325 and closed the same day. Duke fell behind Villanova 39-29 at the half and never climbed all the way back. A reserve named Jack Weissman hit the game-winner in the final minute and Duke fell 74-73.
That was Duke’s only NCAA Tournament appearance in the first 21 years of tournament play. Despite the great players and the great coaches and the great games in the great venues, Duke needed some post-season success to take the step from regional power to national power.
Which brings us to Vic Bubas.
For those of you scoring at home, Case defeated Duke in either the Southern Conference or ACC Tournaments in 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1955 and 1956 without once losing to the Devils.
Bubas was either playing or coaching (as an assistant) on every one of those State teams.
No wonder Duke wanted him on their bench.
Duke’s stunning 1960 ACC Tournament title sent them to Madison Square Garden for a triple-header.
The NCAA Tournament had been expanded to 25 teams by 1960. The Mideast, Midwest and West regionals each had six teams, the East Region seven teams. No one was seeded in those days but Saint Joseph’s got the first-round bye in the East because their conference, the Middle Atlantic, had the best NCAA Tournament percentage of any eastern conference. The MAC was top-heavy, with Temple, LaSalle and Saint Joseph’s all national powers.
Had the teams been seeded, West Virginia would have been at the top. They had lost the 1959 NCAA title game to California 71-70. Led by the peerless Jerry West, the fifth-ranked Mountaineers were poised for another deep March run.
New York University was ranked 12th, while Duke had climbed back into the polls at 18.
Duke opened with Ivy League champions Princeton on Tuesday, March 8, only three days after the end of the ACC Tournament.
It wasn’t much of a game. Princeton had already become part of Duke history as the team Duke beat in the first game at Duke Indoor Stadium in 1940 and now they became the victim of Duke’s first NCAA Tournament win.
The Tigers couldn’t figure out Duke’s 1-3-1 zone and Doug Kistler and Carroll Youngkin dominated inside. Kistler was guarded by 6-4 Tom Adams and had 20 points in the first half, as Duke led 41-26 after 20. Duke cruised in the second half. In contrast to the short bench Duke used in the final two games of the ACC Tournament, Bubas was able to empty his bench. Twelve Devils saw action.
Kistler ended with 26 points. Howard Hurt added 16, John Frye 15. Youngkin had 16 rebounds. Duke shot 57 percent from the field and scored a season high in points in an 84-60 victory.
Duke’s game was the third game of a Madison Square Garden triple-header. West’s 34 points and 15 rebounds keyed West Virginia to a 94-86 win over Navy, while NYU pounded Connecticut 78-59 in the opener.
Then Duke had to finesse its way through another one of those snowstorms that plagued March 1960. It took Duke 13 hours to get back to Durham and basically turn around and hit the road again.
The next stop was Friday in Charlotte and the five-year old Charlotte Coliseum.
Duke got St. Joe’s, with West Virginia and NYU squaring off in the other match.
The legendary Jack Ramsay coached St. Joseph’s. He was 35 in 1960, 17 years away from coaching Portland to the NBA title. Ramsay’s trademark was a ferocious 1-2-2 zone press designed to suck the soul out of opposing teams. Ramsay even wrote a book about it called Pressure Basketball.
St. Joe’s hadn’t played in nine days, while Duke was playing its fifth game in nine days.
Duke countered the pressure with three excellent ball handlers, Hurt, Frye and Jack Mullen. It was the kind of game where every possession was precious. Duke led 27-20 at the half and extended the lead to 38-27 early in the second half.
But that pressure began to pay dividends and Duke’s lead kept shrinking. It was down to a single bucket, 56-54, with just under a minute left.
No shot clock, of course, so it was force a turnover or foul for St. Joe’s, while Duke played keep away.
Keep away worked.
Frye went to the line and hit the first end of the bonus. But he missed the second; 57-54. The Hawks missed, Duke got the ball and Buzz Mewhort went to the line.
Mewhort didn’t play a lot. But Youngkin had fouled out. Mewhort duplicated Frye’s effort, hitting the first end of the one-and-one and missing the second.
Paul Westhead scored at the other end, making it 58-56, with 20 seconds left.
These were his only points.
This is the same Paul Westhead who would go on to coaching fame in both the NBA and college ranks.
Frye was fouled again but this time he missed; there was no double bonus in those days.
The finish was controversial. St. Joe’s missed a shot with about five seconds left. Duke knocked it out of bounds. But it was up to the discretion of the officials whether to stop the clock in those days and it wasn’t stopped. Time ran out as Ramsay raged.
The final was 58-56. Youngkin led Duke with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Hurt added 15. Duke shot 41 percent from the field, while holding the Hawks to a miserable 29.7 percent (22-74) shooting.
This was the nightcap. NYU stunned West Virginia in the opener. WVU had defeated NYU 98-69 earlier in the season, But that was in Morgantown. The Violets—that was NYU’s nickname—got their revenge in overtime, 82-81. West was great, as usual, with 34 points and 16 rebounds. But NYU dominated inside, behind Tom Sanders (28 points, 19 rebounds) and Al Filardi (21 rebounds).
NYU basketball isn’t going to ring a lot of bells to anyone under 60 or so. But NYU and St. John’s were the two Greater NYC programs to survive the point-shaving scandal that decimated NYC basketball in the early 1950s. City College of New York (they won the 1950 NCAA title), Long Island University and Manhattan, among others, de-emphasized the sport after the scandal and left the city to the two main survivors.
In other words NYU was a major power in 1960 and they showed it.
Maybe Duke was tired; it was their sixth game in 10 days, after all. Maybe it was just shooting. Duke couldn’t buy a basket from outside-38.5 percent- while NYU hit 53 percent.
But Duke clearly had no answer for the 6-6 Sanders, who went by “Satch.” Sanders would go on to play 13 seasons for the Boston Celtics, mostly starting at forward alongside Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn for those Celtics teams that ruled the NBA.
The game was tied at 6-6 but sharpshooter Al Barden keyed a 12-2 NYU run that made it 28-13.
Duke closed to 35-26 at the half. Barden had a dozen at that point. Sanders thwarted every second-half comeback attempt by Duke. He scored 19 points in the second half and controlled the glass. NYU so shredded Duke’s touted zone that Bubas went man-to-man in the second half, but to no avail. It reached 71-45 before 74-59 at the final buzzer.
Sanders ended with 22 points and 16 rebounds. Barden finished with 14 points.
Kistler led Duke with 20 points and 8 rebounds. But Youngkin, Mullen and Hurt were a combined 6 for 19 from the field and Duke’s season ended at 17-11.
Ohio State beat NYU and defending champion California to capture the 1960 title.
As disappointing as the ending, there’s no doubt that that magical March run helped transform Duke basketball.
“I’m real proud of our kids,” Bubas said at the time. “They gave us all that they had and they came a long way. I’m very happy with my first year as head coach.”
Bubas also had a warning for the rest of the ACC.
“It’s fine to be a national champion but first you’ve got to be the toughest kid on your block.”
For the next six seasons after that inaugural one Duke was 141-28 overall, 71-13 in the ACC, 14-3 in the ACC Tournament. Bubas took Duke to the Final Four in 1963, 1964 and 1966. Duke won four straight ACC regular-season titles without a tie, a mark matched only by Mike Krzyzewski (1997-2000).
Krzyzewski got a tie in 2001.
Bubas never did get that national championship and eventually Dean Smith’s program overtook Bubas’. But Bubas proved to any doubters that the small, academically-elite private school in Durham could indeed be the toughest kid on the block.
And it all started in March 1960.