Duke. Now there's a proud but forgotten name. It used to stand for excellence in college basketball the way the letters UCLA do today. The Blue Devils made it to the final four of the NCAA tournament three times and finished in the Top 20 every year but one during Coach Vic Bubas' regime in Durham, N.C. (1960-69). But Duke's basketball program went downhill quickly under the militaristic rule of Bubas' successor, Bucky Waters, who resigned under pressure in 1973. Until last week, in fact, it looked as though the Blue Devils might, go oh-for-the-'70s when it came to participating in NCAA action.
Then last Saturday afternoon in Greensboro, N.C. a rejuvenated Duke—with three starters scoring 20 points or more—beat Wake Forest 85-77 to give the Blue Devils their first ACC tournament championship since 1966. The victory means that for the first time since the era of All-Americas Jack Marin and Bob Verga, Duke will play in the NCAAs; it meets Rhode Island in a first-round game at Charlotte this Sunday.
The 1978 ACC tournament could have been billed as the Return from the Ashes Classic, because Wake Forest's 82-77 upset of top-seeded North Carolina in the semis meant that there would not be a player in the finals who had ever won so much as an ACC tournament game before last week.
"I never packed more than a white handkerchief my first three years at Duke because we lost our first game in the ACC every time," said Coach Bill Foster, who has carefully assembled a young team which, though not a serious threat to win this year's national title, could easily be next year's preseason favorite. "But this time my suitcase was full."
Full of talent is what Foster forgot to add. Duke is loaded, and will be for seasons to come. Junior Jim Spanarkel, a 6'5" guard who won the ACC Rookie of the Year award in 1975-76, scored 20 points against Wake Forest and earned the tournament's Most Valuable Player trophy. The only quibble with that choice was that two of Spanarkel's teammates played even better than he did during the tournament. Sophomore Mike Gminski, a 6'11", 245-pound center who was last season's co-Rookie of the Year, had 25 points in the final and pulled down 16 rebounds to help erase a 42-37 Wake Forest lead at halftime. See any pattern developing here? Well, freshman Gene Banks, a muscular 6'7" forward who played second fiddle to Maryland's Albert King in last year's high school star wars, poured in 22 points in the championship game, wowed the sellout crowds all week long and is considered a shoo-in to be named this season's top ACC rookie.
All three of them deserve any honors they can get, because they have been the leaders of Duke's resurgence. Spanarkel, the team captain from Jersey City, N.J., is a daring driver who went to the free-throw line 22 times in each of two games this season. Gminski is an intimidating shot blocker and a classroom giant who graduated from Monroe, Conn. high school in three years and was the only player to whom Foster offered a scholarship in 1976. Banks, the irrepressible Philadelphian, withstood a last-ditch snow job by Notre Dame and enrolled at Duke because, as he puts it, "There were people here with realness."
Rounding out the starting five are Kenny Dennard, a 6'7" freshman who could be called the team's enforcer if he weren't so talented in other areas, and sophomore John Harrell, a walk-on from a small, predominantly black college right in Durham—North Carolina Central—who, although he has raced the ball up the floor all year, has committed only 32 turnovers in 29 games.
Wake Forest got solid production from senior Forwards Rod Griffin and Leroy McDonald, who combined for 47 points and 21 rebounds on Saturday but had trouble containing Spanarkel, who broke loose for seven layups. And there was no stopping Gminski and Banks once they got rolling the second half. "I thought I knew a secret—that we were going to win the ACC championship," said Wake's outstanding sophomore guard, Frank Johnson, who had a cold 6-for-16 shooting game. "Unfortunately, it didn't come true."
Judging from the talk in Greensboro, this year's tournament figured to be "one of the most exciting in history"—which is what folks around the ACC generally say at this time every year. But the ingredients were there. Each of the seven conference teams came in with a winning record (the average was 19-8), and all but Clemson had been ranked by the wire services in the Top 20 at one time or another before or during the season. Hopes ran high for a repeat of the 1975 tournament, when the six games were decided by a total of 20 points, or of the '76 event, when Virginia upset three Top 20 teams—North Carolina State, Maryland and North Carolina—in three nights to win the championship. As a fillip to this year's festivities, nearly every team in the league had a remarkable freshman to show off, most notably Banks, King and Virginia's Jeff Lamp. And for the first time a nationwide TV audience would be watching the finals.
But several things conspired against the tournament being as good as ACC fans had hoped. For one thing, a 30-point performance by Carolina's wondrous Phil Ford was wasted in the Tar Heels' loss to Wake Forest, and he was back home on Saturday when the finals were being played. The weather also took a lot of the pizazz out of the tournament. A storm dumped three inches of snow on Greensboro, canceling the pregame tailgate parties that contribute mightily to the frenzy of an ACC tournament crowd. The cold made it impractical for partisans to show up in the Let's Make A Deal-style costumes that have become fashionable in recent years. Then, too, the ACC's postseason competition is no longer much of a novelty. Ten other conferences now go through this kind of business, and there is still another catch. Because of the expanded, 32-team NCAA field, the regular-season ACC champion—which once had to face the possibility of being eliminated from the NCAAs by some lesser light in its own conference—now is virtually guaranteed a spot win or lose. Thus, North Carolina's loss to Wake Forest was not a killing blow. The Tar Heels were made an NCAA at-large selection and will meet San Francisco in Tempe, Ariz. on Saturday.