Vic Bubas always said that his 1966 Duke team was his best. It was the third of his three Final Four teams. It didn’t have the star power of that 1963 team, led by national player of the year Art Heyman. And it didn’t go as far as the 1964 team, the first Duke team to advance to the national title game.
Undefeated UCLA beat Duke in that game, 98-83. Duke was leading 30-27 before UCLA’s fearsome full-court press spurred a 15-0 run that gave the Bruins a margin that Duke never really threatened.
Duke had 29 turnovers against that pressure.
Duke had some slippage in 1965, not much by any rational standard, but slippage nonetheless. Duke finished first in the ACC at 11-3. Pretty good. But not after a 14-0 ACC mark in 1963 and a 13-1 in 1964. And Duke lost twice to North Carolina, ending Bubas’ seven-game winning streak against the Tar Heels.
But most importantly, Duke lost in the 1965 ACC Tournament title game, 91-85 to NC State. The Wolfpack got a once-in-a-lifetime, where-did-that-come from performance from Larry Worsley, who came into the tournament averaging 5.0 points per game on the season but scored 30 against Duke.
An unlikely scenario, to be sure. But unlikely isn’t the same as impossible and Duke ended its season at 20-5.
Duke lost two starters from that team, lanky 6-10 Hack Tison and point guard Denny Ferguson. But their three best players returned for 1966. Jack Marin and Bob Verga were first-team All-ACC in 1965, Steve Vacendak second team. Burly 6-6 junior Bob Riedy moved up into a starting role and even burlier 6-7 sophomore Mike Lewis took over Tison’s center spot.
Most importantly Vacendak moved from small forward to point guard, where he gave Bubas the best point-guard play he ever got.
Nobody was feeling sorry for Duke.
While Duke was at home nursing its wounds, UCLA was winning it all again, this time defeating Michigan 91-80 in the title game behind Gail Goodrich’s 42 points.
Back-to-back-NCAA titles weren’t all that unusual in those days. In fact, it happened five times from 1946 through 1965.
But no one had yet found a way to win three straight. Could the Bruins be the first?
UCLA did lose Goodrich and star forward Keith Erickson from that 1965 team. But they returned their next five leading scorers and added speedy sophomore point guard Mike Warren. No one was surprised when the Bruins opened the season number one in the AP poll. Duke was third, with Cazzie Russell and Michigan at number two.
Duke had games scheduled against both of the teams ahead of them in the preseason poll, both before Christmas. In fact, Duke had a pair scheduled against UCLA. Given the distance between North Carolina and California, Bubas and Wooden agreed to play two games in North Carolina in December 1965 and two in Los Angeles the following year.
But only the first of the two 1965 games would be in Durham. Charlotte would host the second.
UCLA easily handled Ohio State (92-66) and Illinois (92-79) and came to Durham 2-0.
Duke, on the other hand, had a wobble. After defeating Virginia Tech and Clemson, Duke journeyed to Columbia and lost to South Carolina 73-71. This was Frank McGuire’s second year at South Carolina and the Gamecocks were coming off a 6-17 season.
It was his first big win at South Carolina and the loss dropped Duke to sixth in the AP poll.
The first Duke-UCLA game was held at Duke, on December 10.
It should have been a great game. On paper.
But Duke was ready. UCLA was known for its 1-3-1 zone press, the same press that had dismantled Duke two seasons earlier in the NCAA title game. But Bubas devoted entire practices working on defeating the press, preaching patience when patience was called for but aggressiveness when breaking the press presented an opportunity to attack. He practiced his regulars against six defenders, prioritizing getting the ball to Vacendak, spreading the court and creating passing lanes.
Bubas told his team he didn’t want any “promiscuous” dribbling
Duke beat the press and attacked. But Duke also demolished UCLA on the boards. This was one of the best rebounding teams in Duke history. Lewis led the ACC with 11.0 rebounds per game, with Marin adding 9.7, Riedy 7.7, Vacendak and Verga 4.0 apiece. Duke out-rebounded opponents by 12.7 rebounds per game that season.
It was 8-8 early before Duke went on a 12-0 run. Duke led 47-34 at the half.
The final was 82-66. Marin led everyone with 20 points, shooting only five for 18 from the field but hitting all 10 of his foul shots. Lewis and Verga each had 16 points, Vacendak 14. Lewis’ 21 rebounds led Duke to a 58-31 rebounding advantage.
Mike Lynn led UCLA with 19 points, followed by Warren with 13.
The teams played the next night in Charlotte.
It was more of the same. Riedy scored the game’s first four points, Duke led 8-2 early and extended their first-half lead to a dozen. UCLA made a run late in the first half, cutting Duke’s lead to three. But Duke closed the half on an 8-4 run and led 44-37 at intermission. Verga had two of those four field goals but the other two were from reserves Warren Chapman and Jim Liccardo.
Duke exploded after intermission, building their lead to 27 points.
The final was 94-75.
Marin led everyone with 23 points, one more than Verga. Riedy had 14, Vacendak 10 and Lewis 8. Marin led Duke with 10 rebounds, as Duke again controlled the glass, 41-33. The Blue Devils hit 16 of 17 from the line, while shooting 58.2 percent from the field.
Warren led UCLA with 17 points.
Warren went on to an acting career that culminated when he played Officer Bobby Hill in the TV show Hill Street Blues.
But only after helping UCLA win the 1967 and 1968 NCAA titles. The Bruins dropped out of the polls shortly after the double loss to Duke and never got back. They ended the season 18-8, second to Oregon State in the Pac-8, the only time Wooden failed to win his conference after 1961.
Maybe their trip to North Carolina knocked them back that much. Or maybe this particular iteration of UCLA basketball just wasn’t that good.
But the wins sure looked good at the time, good enough to propel Duke to the top spot in the AP poll for the first time in program history. Duke defeated Michigan in overtime at Ann Arbor a few days later and held on to number one for eight weeks before losing to a West Virginia team coached by former Duke assistant and future Duke head coach Bucky Waters.
Duke ended the 1966 season in the Final Four, where they finished third.
It needs to be noted that UCLA’s Black players claimed they were subjected to racial epithets from spectators, especially in Charlotte. Bubas told me once that he never heard anything like that. But coaches can be laser-focused during games and anyone who lived in mid-1960s North Carolina cannot dismiss those claims.
Duke paid that return visit a season later, to a UCLA team that had added sophomore center Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was not pretty. UCLA won 88-54 and 107-87.
Duke and UCLA would not play again until the 1990 NCAA Tournament, by which time Wooden had long been retired, with those ten NCAA titles. But for one weekend John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins could not handle the Duke Blue Devils.