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When a team ends up with a 22-8 record, ties for first place in the ACC and finishes the year ranked seventh in one wire-service poll and 11th in the other, the season can hardly be called a disaster. But Duke accomplished all of those things last year and then had to explain what went wrong.
"I heard so many questions that I started asking myself why we were a failure," says 6'11" senior Center Mike Gminski, the leading scorer and rebounder. "But then I stopped judging the team from the point of view of others and began looking at it from my own. I thought about everything we had done well. Our only problem was that we tried to live up to the expectations of others, and we put too much pressure on ourselves."
Duke disappointed a lot of people because it did not win the NCAA championship after finishing second the season before. Though the 1978-1979 roster was virtually the same as the one in 1977-1978, last season's Blue Devils did not play nearly as well. Gminski, forwards Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard and Guard Jim Spanarkel fell off in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. In this, Duke's year of reprieve, exciting sophomore Vince Taylor replaces Spanarkel and joins Bob Bender in the backcourt, Gminski. Banks and Dennard are back, and the starters are supported by valuable sixth man Jim Suddath and four good freshmen.
Duke's biggest advantage, however, may be that nobody favors it to win the national championship. "There's a lot of pressure in being ranked No. 1," says Banks. "We played a lot of games last year as if we were trying not to lose instead of trying to win. This year we're going back to the fun of the game. Back to the kids and the lollipops."
These lollipops will not take many lickings. Banks proclaims that "Duke is gonna be strictly awesome" and, for himself, predicts "the second coming of Tinkerbell," referring to the nickname popularized during his freshman season, when he flew with unearthly abandon. "I played too conservatively last year," he says. "To get ready for this season, I've recollected a lot of memories from high school. I want to be the leader and let it show on the court instead of just saying it with my mouth."
Banks' inconsistency was typical of Duke last season. While averaging 14.3 points a game—down from 17.1 as a freshman—he scored only 12, seven, four and 12 in four of the losses. Even more inconsistent was Dennard, who had nine games in which he scored two points or less and six in which he scored in double figures. But Dennard is another Blue Devil who predicts better results. "This year I think you'll see a different Duke," he says.
Coach Bill Foster would like to see the team of two seasons ago, the one that played with unfettered verve, especially under the boards and on the fast break. "Pressure might have been the reason for the falloff," Foster says. Now the pressure is off, which is to say only one photographer showed up for the team's picture day and tour buses are no longer stopping off at Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch the Blue Devils practice. "I was proud to be No. 1 last year," Foster says, "but the demands and the attention were so great that I'm not sure I'd know how to handle it any better this year."
Foster will not get the chance to find out unless Duke plays better than it did in an early-bird opening victory over Kentucky two weeks ago. The Blue Devils won the Naismith Hall of Fame game 82-76 in overtime, but they blew a 12-point lead in the first half and had to rally from seven points back in the second. A veteran team such as Duke's should have won more easily against an inexperienced opponent, even one as talented as the Wildcats. Still, Duke pulled it out, and that was something the Blue Devils did all too infrequently last season.
For the first time in history there are no basketball tickets to be had at Louisiana State. That's indication enough of how big the sport has gotten in Cajun country, where sellouts were previously a phenomenon known only in football. Sure, fans came out to watch the Tigers during the Bob Pettit and Pete Maravich eras, but they were not nearly as lusty as the current crowd, whose ticket purchases have enriched the LSU athletic coffers by $500,000 and whose vocal support has spurred a suggestion to rename the 14,327-seat LSU arena "Death Dome." The object of their affections is a talented, deep young team that last season brought 23-6 LSU its first SEC championship in a quarter century and a seventh-place ranking in the final AP poll. While leading the conference in scoring, margin of victory and controversy, LSU beat Kentucky twice and won 10 times on the road before the season ended in an 87-71 loss to NCAA champ Michigan State in the Mideast Regional.