Duke basketball hit rock bottom in the second half of the 1994-’95 season. Duke lost 16 of its final 20 games to finish 13-18. That set a school record for losses that still stands.
Duke began to climb back in 1996. I’ve already chronicled Ricky Price’s buzzer-beater that propelled Duke over Maryland and clinched an NCAA Tournament bid.
But that season still ended at 18-13. A step in the right direction to be sure but not up to the program standards established by Mike Krzyzewski in the decade prior to his back surgery.
Senior Chris Collins was Duke’s best player in 1996. But he was the only significant loss. Duke returned three double-figure scorers, senior center Greg Newton, junior combo guard Jeff Capel and sophomore wing Ricky Price. Sophomore big man Taymon Domzalski had been first-team All-ACC Freshman in 1996, while junior guard Steve Wojciechowski had shown developing skills as a defender and playmaker. Forward Carmen Wallace missed the end of the season following knee surgery and his ability to contribute was in doubt.
However, it was the additions that had everyone excited. Duke had three freshmen, Chris Carrawell, Mike Chappell and Nate James, the kind of versatile, mid-sized forwards so well utilized by Krzyzewski.
Then there were two players who sat on the bench in 1996 but never saw the floor. Sharpshooting guard Trajan Langdon averaged 11.3 points per game as a freshman in 1995 but missed the following season with a leg injury. Roshown McLeod was a transfer from St. John’s, Krzyzewski’s first transfer. McLeod was exactly what the doctor ordered, a skilled, athletic, aggressive 6-8, 220 pound forward.
It seemed that Krzyzewski had put together a team that had everything, experience, size, depth, athleticism, rebounders, defensive stoppers, outside bombers.
Outside observers agreed. Duke began the season ranked 10th in the AP poll.
That’s pretty good in a vacuum. But ACC basketball is never played in a vacuum. The league also had eighth-ranked North Carolina (Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Shammond Williams), 20th ranked Clemson (Greg Buckner, Terrell McInytre) and Maryland (Keith Booth). And most of all, the preseason ACC favorites, the fourth-ranked Wake Forest Demon Deacons and their peerless center Tim Duncan.
Duke came into the 1996-’97 season having lost their previous seven games to North Carolina and their previous eight to Wake Forest. Any road for Duke to return to ACC dominance ran right through these two in-state rivals.
Duke’s early schedule was challenging, to say the least. The Blue Devils played four nationally-ranked teams before Christmas.
Duke opened in the Chase (preseason) NIT with impressive home wins over St. Joseph’s and Vanderbilt. On to New York and a 72-67 win over 22nd-ranked Tulsa. That sent Duke to a title match against Indiana, Krzyzewski versus Bobby Knight, a classic waiting to happen.
It didn’t happen. Duke laid a huge egg. Andrae Patterson was a 6-8, 240-pound junior post player who would average 13.7 points per game that season, while shooting 47 percent from field.
A good player. But Duke made him look like a superstar.
Duke actually led 39-31 at intermission. But Patterson scored practically every time he touched the ball in the second half. By the time the carnage was over Patterson had 39 points, hitting 15 of 24 from the field and 8 of 10 from the line.
The final was 85-69.
Duke returned home and opened their ACC play against Florida State. This game has become infamous over the years as the nadir of Capel’s career. He missed all nine of his field-goal attempts and a late-game return to the game was met with vocal disapproval by portions of the fan base.
But Duke did win that game, 72-66 in overtime, and it was Capel’s classmates who spurred the win. Newton had the best game of his career, 21 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. Wallace had 13 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks.
But another loss to another Big 10 team. Michigan’s Robert “Tractor” Traylor drove virtually unmolested down the lane for a game-winning dunk, as the seventh-ranked Wolverines defeated Duke 62-61.
This was a game Duke led 58-46 midway through the second half. Duke went scoreless the final 6:29.
As soon as the storm clouds formed, they dissipated. Duke went to Philadelphia and defeated fourth-ranked Villanova 87-79. Langdon and Price led Duke with 19 and 17 points respectively, while Duke’s interior held Villanova’s star center Tim Thomas to a modest 14 points.
Duke put together some impressive non-conference wins against second-tier competition and entered the bulk of ACC play with a 10-2 record.
But there were signs of concern. James injured a thumb in the preseason. He missed the first half of the season and never really regained his form. McLeod and Newton were consistently inconsistent. McLeod followed a 20-point game against Vanderbilt with a two-point game against Tulsa, a two-point game against FSU, followed by a 15-point game against Michigan. Newton was awesome against Florida State and Davidson (22 points, 9 rebounds) but was unable to match the physicality of players like Patterson and Traylor.
And Domzalski was hurting. Knee soreness was the issue and it just wasn’t getting better. The sophomore big scored 16 points against Lehigh on December 2, playing 27 minutes. But he missed Duke’s next three games, played 10 scoreless minutes against Villanova and gradually stopped playing.
All of a sudden Duke was facing some interior question marks. How would Mike Krzyzewski respond?