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Looking Back: 1970, Bucky Waters’ First Season At Duke, Part I

A promising start before things went south

Virginia Tech v Duke
DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 09: Former Duke basketball coaches Bucky Waters (L) and Vic Bubas pose for a photo during a game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Always leave a place better than you found it.

You’re familiar with that ancient bromide.

That’s why I haven’t talked much about the Bucky Waters years in these history pieces. Waters did not leave Duke basketball better than he found it.

There are reasons. Waters was only 34 when he took over for Vic Bubas and his take-no-prisoners, drill-sergeant demeanor wasn’t always a good fit for the time or the place. He lost five recruited players to transfer in four seasons at Duke, seven if we count two players who never made it past their freshman season. These were not end-of-the-bench types looking for playing time. Richie O’Connor was leading the team in scoring when he left the 1972 team in the middle of the season.

And Waters never could pull off that home-run recruit. David Thompson, Tom McMillen, Bill Walton, John Lucas, James Brown, Mitch Kupchak and Len Elmore all had Duke on their short lists before deciding to go somewhere else.

Dave O’Connell was the only Parade All-American Waters ever recruited to Duke. He scored 183 career points in an injury-plagued career.

But the fact that it ended badly for Waters at Duke—at least from a coaching standpoint—doesn’t mean there weren’t some good times along the way. His first two seasons at Duke were better than Bubas’ 15-13 finale. Waters won his first six games at the Duke helm, tying Harold Bradley for the best start of any Duke coach. Yes, better than Eddie Cameron, Vic Bubas, Bill Foster or even Mike Krzyzewski.

And they weren’t all cupcakes. Duke beat Virginia Tech in overtime in Greensboro in Waters’ first game at Duke and defeated Rudy Tomjanovich and Michigan, in Ann Arbor in his third. Duke junior center Randy Denton outscored Tomjanovich 27 to 20, one of many games in which Denton outshone great players.

Denton was one of a group of five juniors who dominated Waters’ first Duke team. Bubas had gifted him one great class. Unfortunately, Bubas didn’t surround that class with much else.

First the good news. The prep class of 1967 was one of Bubas’ best classes. Denton was a major catch, of course. But he wasn’t actually considered the gem of that class. That distinction went to Dick DeVenzio a quick, cerebral, 5-10 point guard from Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

It’s no secret that Waters and DeVenzio didn’t see eye-to-eye, on or off the court. DeVenzio averaged 12.2 points per game as a sophomore under Bubas and was a gifted creator. Waters wanted him to shoot less, improvise less. DeVenzio averaged 7.8 and 5.8 points per game in his two seasons at Duke.

Still, he was a skilled playmaker and opponents pressed him at their own risk.

Denton and DeVenzio were joined by Brad Evans, a nationally recruited football player. The 6-3 Evans stunned the football community when he elected to play for Bubas. Rick Katherman was a 6-7 sharpshooter from Massachusetts. Steve Litz rounded out the class out of high school. He never played much. But Bubas secured the services of 6-9 Larry Saunders, a transfer from Northwestern. Saunders set out the 1969 season but became eligible the following season, as a junior.

Now the bad news. Duke’s 1970 senior class was Doug Jackson, Ray Kuhlmeier, John Posen and Glenn Smiley. Don’t be embarrassed that you’ve never heard of any of them. They combined for 186 career points at Duke.

Jackson actually was a big deal. He was a 6-6 Parade All-American from Kansas. But his career was derailed by a knee injury and he only played four games at Duke.

Waters’ sophomore class had been coached by Hubie Brown as freshmen. Brown knows as much about basketball as anyone. That 1969 freshman team, went 5-13, which should tell you something about the talent level. Don Blackman was another Parade All-American, Duke’s first recruited Black player; C.B. Claiborne was a walk-on. The 6-6 Blackman was an occasional starter and a significant contributor in his only year at Duke. But his classmates, Stu Yarbrough, Robby West and Pat Doughty weren’t remotely ready for prime time in 1970.

So, it was a thin team but a team capable of doing some damage. That early six-game winning streak came to an end in the Kentucky Invitational, when the top-ranked Wildcats defeated Duke 98-76. The game was closer than the final score suggests. Duke led much of the way before falling apart down the stretch. Denton outscored Kentucky great Dan Issel 28-20, adding 21 rebounds.

Duke followed that loss with wins over Wake Forest (non-conference), Penn State and Wake Forest (ACC). At 9-1 Duke entered the AP poll at 19.

Then Duke hit the meat of the schedule and those close wins turned into close losses. Duke fell to fourth-ranked North Carolina, 10th-ranked NC State (77-76 at home), 52-50 to Maryland and 67-55 to fourth-ranked South Carolina.

The loss at College Park was especially galling. Duke had the ball late, with the game tied. But Posen turned it over. Maryland called timeout and Will Hetzel hit a 35-footer at the buzzer.

That four-game losing streak knocked Duke out of the polls and out of the ACC regular-season title chase.

Of course, there really wasn’t an actual ACC regular-season title in 1970. Only one ACC team advanced to the NCAA Tournament and that automatic invitation went to the winner of the ACC Tournament. The regular-season was all about seeding and positioning yourself for that three-day, winner-take all bloodbath.

And for a few magical weeks it looked like Bucky Waters was doing just that.

Waters only won three road games against nationally-ranked road teams in his four years at Duke. Two of those came in an eight-day span in 1970.

Duke followed that four-game losing streak with a four-game winning streak, Clemson, West Virginia, Clemson again and Wake Forest.

Denton was the one constant. He had 37 points in the first Clemson win, 19 rebounds in the Wake Forest win, 21 and 15 in the West Virginia win.

The big man from Raleigh might be the most underrated great player in Duke history.

Great player, you ask? Well, let’s go to the scorecard. In three years at Duke, Denton averaged 19.7 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. He led Duke in both categories all three seasons, by wide margins. Only Art Heyman, Denton and Danny Ferry have led Duke in scoring and rebounding in three separate seasons. Denton’s rebounding average is the best in school history, while his scoring average ranks sixth, if we eliminate the one-and-dones. Only Art Heyman, Dick Groat, Bob Verga, Jeff Mullins and Bob Verga had higher career scoring averages.

None of his teammates ever made All-ACC when he was playing and only Gary Melchionni ever played a second in the NBA. Denton had three of the five best rebounding seasons in Duke history. No Duke player has matched Denton’s career average of 12.7 for even a single season since he graduated.

Convinced?