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Turning Points: The 1985 Pre-Season NIT

Where Duke learned it could play with anybody and the era of greatness for Mike Krzyzewski truly started

Clarkson NCAA Archive
DALLAS, TX - MARCH 31: Johnny Dawkins #24 of the Duke Blue Devils shoots against the Louisville Cardinals during the 1986 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship held at Reunion Arena on March 31, 1986 in Dallas, Texas. Louisville defeated Duke 72-69 to win the national title.
Photo by Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Every Duke basketball fan recognizes that the prep class of 1982 is the class that saved Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke career. Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas combined for 7,324 points, 2,574 rebounds and 1,026 assists at Duke. Dawkins and Alarie were first-team All-ACC twice and All-Americans. Dawkins won the 1986 Naismith Award.

Weldon Williams and Bill Jackman (one year) added 213 points.

Yet, going into their senior years, that class was still a good class, not a great class. No one was talking about firing Krzyzewski anymore, of course. But in their first three seasons this fabled class had gone 18-24 in ACC play, 58-35 overall, 3-3 in the ACC Tournament. Krzyzewski was still looking for his first ACC regular-season title, his first ACC Tournament title, his first deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Dawkins and company were 1-2 in the NCAA Tournament going into the 1985-’86 season, the only win 75-62 over Pepperdine in 1985.

By 1985-’86 this class had some help. Junior Tommy Amaker was one of the ACC’s top point guards, while sophomores Billy King and Kevin Strickland added wing depth. And there was a freshman class that included 6-10 Danny Ferry, the nation’s top recruit in the high-school class of 1985.

Duke was ranked sixth in the preseason AP poll but was picked third in the ACC. This was no disrespect. Bobby Cremins came to Georgia Tech a year after Krzyzewski came to Duke but it was Tech that had a share of the 1985 ACC regular season and Tech that won the ACC Tournament. Tech’s starting lineup included some senior talent of its own, Mark Price and John Salley.

Tech was number one in the preseason AP poll. But many observers thought that this might be one of Dean Smith’s best teams, led by senior center Brad Daugherty and junior guard Kenny Smith.

They were ranked second in the AP poll.

And NC State’s Jim Valvano was only three years removed from an NCAA title and he had a roster than included Chris Washburn, Nate McMillan and Charles Shackelford.

Tech, UNC and State tied for the 1985 ACC regular-season title and all had all lost in the Elite Eight in 1985, while Duke lost in the second round.

In other words, Dean Smith still ruled the ACC roost and a strong case could have been made that Krzyzewski was behind Valvano and Cremins in the Young Lions category.

Duke would have an opportunity to jump to the head of the class in the early going. Today’s college-basketball landscape is festooned with early-season “exempt” tournaments, that is tournaments whose games don’t count towards a team’s season maximum.

Not so in 1985-’86. This was the first season of the Big Apple NIT, the first exempt tournament. It was run under the auspices of the traditional NIT, whose executive director was Peter Carlesimo, father of well-known coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Sixteen teams would begin play away from New York City, with the four survivors meeting in New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden, over Thanksgiving weekend. And you had to win your way to the Garden. No predetermined semifinalists.

And Duke would have to do it without one of its seniors. Bilas underwent knee surgery before the season and would be unavailable until December.

Duke’s bracket of the tournament was held in Houston. Duke advanced with competitive wins over Lamar (66-62) and Alabama-Birmingham (66-54). Good wins but not at the unstoppable-behemoth level.

Duke visited William and Mary for an 84-61 tuneup before hitting the Big Apple and the Garden.

They were joined by Kansas, Louisville and St. John’s.

It was a stunningly good final four, three teams that would advance to the upper-case Final Four the following spring.

Duke was matched against St. John’s. They had entered the 1985 NCAA Tournament ranked third in the AP poll and lost to Georgetown in the Final Four. This was the Georgetown team that lost the title game to Villanova.

Yes, the Big East had three teams in the 1985 Final Four.

St. John’s had lost superstar forward Chris Mullin from that team, along with seven-footer Bill Wennington.

But the Redmen—they were still called that in those days—still had a loaded lineup, under the tutelage of Louie Carnesecca. Junior forward Walter Berry, a 6-8 lefty would win every major 1986 national player of the year award except that Naismith award that Dawkins won. Point guard Mark Jackson would go on to a long NBA career as a player, coach and broadcaster. Ron Rowan was a sharp-shooting wing. His son Maverick would help NC State beat Duke in Cameron in 2017.

And of course, St. John’s had a home-court advantage playing at the Garden.

With Bilas out, Duke started Ferry along with Alarie, Henderson, Dawkins and Amaker.

An announced crowd of 14,225 watched Dawkins and Berry stake their early claims for nation’s best player. Dawkins was tough for St. John’s to handle but Berry was almost at a different level, shredding Duke’s vaunted man-to-man defense.

St. John’s led by six in the middle of the first half. Duke closed on a 16-9 run and took a 36-35 lead into halftime.

The term “see-saw” describes the second half. There were 10 lead changes.

“Both teams withstood each other’s flurries,” Krzyzewski said after the game.

The Redmen led 52-48 at one point, before Dawkins scored six straight points. But Berry responded. His offensive rebound cut Duke’s lead to 59-58. Alarie hit two fouls shots for Duke with about six minutes left. SJU’s Willie Glass converted a three-point play of another offensive rebound and it was tied at 61. Shelton Jones was fouled. He made the first end of the bonus, missed the second. Glass rebounded the miss, drew a foul and made both foul shots. 64-61, St. John’s.

Duke answered with an 8-0 run, culminating in a Billy King jumper. 69-64.

Jackson responded with a flurry on both ends of the court. He forced a turnover, hit a jumper, blocked an Alarie jumper and followed with another basket.

Duke’s lead was down to a point, 69-68, with 1:25 left.

Jackson did it again, turning a Ferry pass into another Duke turnover. Berry was fouled but missed both foul shots. Duke grabbed the rebound but Jackson picked Amaker’s pocket, Berry hit a tough, leaning jumper in traffic and St. John’s led 70-69, with 37 seconds left.

The shot clock was 45 seconds in those days. But Krzyzewski said following the game that holding for the last shot “made him nervous.”

Instead, Duke ran its motion offense. Dawkins came off a screen, Amaker got him the ball and Dawkins nailed a jumper from the foul line.

“It was a good feeling, no doubt.” Dawkins said immediately following the game. “I’d planned to drive but he [Rowan] laid off so I pulled up and took the jumper.”

St. John’s still had 21 seconds.

“We wanted to look for Walter if we had him,” Carnesecca said, “but they had him surrounded.”

Jackson took the shot with about five second left. He missed, Henderson grabbed the rebound and Duke’s 71-70 win was in the books.

Berry stunned Duke with 35 points, hitting 15 of 21 from the field but missing four of nine from the line. He added 11 rebounds and four blocks. Shelton Jones had 11 points and 13 rebounds but no one else scored in double figures.

Duke tried Henderson against Berry, King against Berry, sometimes Alarie. ”At times it was almost impossible to stop Berry,”Krzyzewski summed up.

Twelve of Dawkins’ 20 points came after intermission. Henderson and Alarie added 16 and 15 points respectively, while Ferry led Duke with eight rebounds.

**********

Kansas defeated Louisville in the other semifinal. The Devils and the Jayhawks met for the title on Sunday, December 1 with a more modest crowd of 8,598.

Duke and Kansas are two of the thoroughbred programs of college basketball. They have had some memorable meetings over the years, including three Final Four matches. But their paths had never before crossed. This was their first meeting.

Kansas’ best player was Danny Manning, a spectacularly gifted 6-10 sophomore forward. But it hardly was a one-man team. Calvin Thompson and Ron Kellogg were physical mid-sized wings, seniors both, tough and tested. Current Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and Cedric Hunter split the minutes at point guard. Then there was 7-1 center Greg Dreiling, a redshirt senior. Dreiling didn’t just play through contact, he embraced it. Imagine Dan Meagher, only six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier.

Kansas was coached by Larry Brown, a man whose history with Duke is well-chronicled.

The title game matched Duke’s win over St. John’s in its broad arc.

Kansas jumped to an 8-2 lead but Duke quickly shook off its early sluggishness. Amaker’s fall-away jumper tied the game at 14 with 12:35 left. Little-used forward Weldon Williams put Duke up 32-31 when he followed a Dawkins miss and Henderson finished the first-half scoring with a steal from Manning and dunk.

It was 38-35 at the half. Dawkins and Alarie were good but Henderson was great. He had 14 first-half points, missing only one of seven shots from the field. But Thompson was even better for the Jayhawks. He made all seven of his field-goal attempts and scored 16 points in the opening half.

Trading baskets was the second-half narrative. Thompson cooled off but Manning heated up. Duke led 64-57 but Manning hit jump shots on three consecutive possessions to keep Kansas close.

But the smaller Blue Devils controlled the glass against the much-bigger Jayhawks; or at least they kept Kansas from controlling the boards. Duke outrebounded Kansas 36-30 and held the massive Dreiling to eight points and seven rebounds.

Henderson had a steal and dunk that put Duke up 70-63 with just over seven minutes left. Manning scored five straight and it was 70-68.

Duke’s seniors closed the deal. An Alarie tip-in made it 78-74. Alarie blocked Manning and then Dawkins hit a short, base-line jumper to put Duke up 80-74, with 3:29 left. He also fouled out Dreiling on the play.

He missed the foul shot.

“I had been penetrating too far,” Dawkins said after the game. “I wanted to stop short and take the jumper.”

Manning answered for Kansas but Alarie hit a 12-footer in traffic, with 1:43 left.

Alarie missed much of the first half with foul trouble but said that helped him down the stretch.

“I was upset and I wanted the ball and wanted to score.”

Seventeen of his 21 points came in the second half.

Thompson missed at the other end and Duke closed it out from the line, making eight straight. The Blue Devils lead 92-82 before two meaningless Kansas baskets in the last 10 seconds made the final 92-86.

Henderson ended the game with a career-high 30 points and was named tournament MVP. Alarie’s 21 points and Dawkins’ 20 gave Duke’s big three 71 of Duke’s 92 points. Alarie led Duke with seven rebounds, Amaker with nine assists.

Manning (24), Thompson (22) and Kellogg (20) gave the game six players with 20 or more points. Kansas shot 58.8 percent from the field, Duke 52.2 percent.

That late Duke flurry from the line left the Blue Devils at 22 for 25 from the line.

“Winning an award in a tournament like this gives me a lot of confidence going into the season,” Henderson said. “We feel we can play with anyone. A lot of teams are bigger than us. But it’s just something you have to accept.”

Henderson was right. Duke could play with anyone. The 1985-’86 Blue Devils gave Mike Krzyzewski his first number one AP team, his first ACC regular-season title, his first ACC Tournament title and his first Final Four appearance. At the end Duke’s lack of size in the title game against Louisville was a bit too much to overcome. But there was a lot of magic Duke basketball before then and that Big Apple NIT helped show the way.