Skip to main content
Original Issue


After a decade in obscurity, Duke gained the spotlight in the ACC tournament with a young squad that may one day become memorable

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.

From the beginning of the season the Tar Heels' lofty rankings—the Associated Press, for example, picked them No. 1—seemed far-fetched, even though they went on to achieve a 23-7 record. Three starters from last year's NCAA runner-up team had gone off to the NBA, and except for another splendid ACC freshman, Al Wood, less talented players had moved up to take their places. Even though North Carolina had won the regular-season ACC championship by beating Duke 87-83 in a thrilling game at Chapel Hill the previous Saturday, the Heels were not a clear tournament favorite. And they were plagued by the same injury bugaboo that hit them in postseason play a year ago. For the second season in a row Coach Dean Smith's starting center watched the tournament from the end of the bench on crutches. Last year it was Tom LaGarde who had undergone knee surgery; this time it was sophomore Rich Yonakor. To make matters worse, star Forward Mike O'Koren was playing with a swollen ankle. Said Smith, "He's only at 80% capacity, but at that, he's better than most."

Smith was being somewhat optimistic, because compared to O'Koren's regular-season averages of 17.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, his woeful performance against the Deacons—10 points, three rebounds and five personal fouls—put him at about 55% of capacity.

That left center stage for Ford, who in seven previous ACC tournament games had averaged 22.7 points and had pumped in a career-high 34 in the big victory over Duke. Even another 34 wouldn't have been enough against Wake. Griffin (18 points and 12 rebounds) and McDonald (21 points) ripped the defenseless Tar Heels underneath, and Coach Carl Tacy left the floor with his fourth victory over Smith in their last six meetings.

This made things easier for Duke. The Blue Devils, 20-6 during the season, opened the tournament Wednesday afternoon with an 83-72 decision over Clemson. Dennard, who the week before, in an effort to improve his 9.6 scoring average, had taught himself to shoot the ball from in front of his face instead of over his head, hit 10 of 14 shots and finished with 22 points. But it was Banks who turned in the game's—and the tournament's—most dazzling play when he made a one-hand grab of a lob pass, cupped it for a split second, just as his Philly pal George McGinnis would have done, and then guided the ball into the basket. All in defiance of gravity.

Wednesday evening's first game, pitting Maryland against N.C. State, was a bummer. The two teams plowed through three overtimes and somehow made it so unexciting that Banks and his teammates got up from their seats and sauntered off to bed between the first and second overtimes, though the winner would be their semifinal opponent the next day. What they missed was a 109-108 Maryland upset and some delayed theatrics by King, who scored 14 of his 21 points during the overtimes. It was King's two free throws with nine seconds left that finally decided a game in which there had been 55 turnovers and 23 time-outs.

The ordeal took its toll when Maryland met Duke on Thursday night. King was in pain because of back spasms and appeared for only a few minutes. Center Larry Gibson, who had played all 55 minutes while scoring 27 points against the Wolfpack, went 2 for 14 from the floor. This, along with double-figure scoring by all the Blue Devil starters, produced an 81-69 Duke victory.

In Wednesday night's other first-round game, Wake warmed up for its encounter with North Carolina by clobbering Virginia 72-61. The Deacons exploded to a 20-5 lead and permitted the Cavaliers only three first-half baskets. Lamp, one of the league's leading scorers, never did get untracked and hit just one of eight shots from the floor. It was well after midnight when the game ended, but outside the arena scalpers were still at work, getting as much as $80 for a ticket to the finals. As the fans filed out of Greensboro Coliseum one man held up a sign that read: NEED SATURDAY TICKET. WILL ROOT FOR YOUR TEAM.

Duke's Foster broke up an awkward silence at Friday's off-day press conference by saying, "They said it would be snowing in Greensboro before Foster would have a team in the ACC finals.... Well, I apologize for the weather." But neither he nor Tacy was eager to offer a scouting report on his opponent or to critique the season series between the two teams. Duke held the edge 2-1, having beaten the Deacons 97-84 in the Big Four tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum when five Blue Devils were in double figures and then in Durham, 81-72, as Gminski, Banks and Spanarkel scored 21, 21 and 19. Wake Forest's 79-60 victory had been facilitated by the fact that Gminski was sitting on the bench in a ski sweater, suffering from a sprained toe. "With Gminski, Duke might be—probably is—the best team in the ACC," Tacy had said after that game.

Tacy's suspicions turned out to be all too true. While Gminski played tight and rushed his shots in the first half of the title game, Wake Forest looked like a winner. But Gminski was to end up as the tournament's second-leading scorer with 59 points (McDonald had 61), despite first-half totals of six, two and seven points. And when the second half began, he and Banks roared into high gear.

With their team still trailing by five points after an initial exchange of baskets, Gminski had a four-point flurry and Banks put in a couple of acrobatic 18-footers that set off a 17½-minute explosion by the Blue Devil frontcourt men during which they scored 32 of their team's 40 points. Gminski knocked one in off the glass and Banks made a pair of free throws and took a pass from Gminski for a layup. Banks got a lefty tip-in, Gminski converted two free throws. Banks fed Gminski for an easy basket. ...And so on, until they had given Duke an all but insurmountable 79-69 lead. During the surge Banks and Gminski out-scored Wake Forest's entire team by seven points.

The Deacons were also unable to cope with the Blue Devils' one-man zone, which had Gminski roaming the middle while his teammates were in what amounted to man-to-man. Against that configuration Wake never scored two baskets in a row during the first 14 minutes of the second half.

In the postgame hysteria nearly everybody in Duke's blue-and-white colors got a ride on the shoulders of the jubilant crowd. Foster came down long enough to accept his trophy and to express his disbelief at the events that had taken place. "What a difference a year makes," he said. "These guys have taken us from the ACC cellar to the penthouse."

Added Gminski: "I talked to a couple of Duke's All-Americas, Jack Marin and Jeff Mullins, and they told me what it used to be like here. I just hope this means that Duke fans will be able to look back on the 1970s the way they look at the '60s."

With 14 seconds remaining, as Banks was about to make the last of Duke's 85 points, he did a Billy (White Shoes) Johnson dance at the free-throw line. He had to keep stepping lively to get to his locker, because he drew by far the biggest crowd of reporters in the dressing room—probably because, Gminski's statistics aside, those who had closely watched the tournament felt that Banks was really the MVP on this most egalitarian team. When a writer asked, "What are your thoughts on winning such a great tournament?" Philly Gene fired right back, "You mean the NCAAs?"

Which is to say that Duke is on the verge of becoming Duke once more.



Mike Gminski, the biggest (6'11") and brightest Blue Devil, finished high school in three years.



Banks, like his teammates Spanarkel and Gminski, is certain to be an ACC Rookie of the Year.



Against Wake, Spanarkel canned seven layups.



Gminski did the honors as Duke won its first ACC tournament since the glory years of Vic Bubas.