If not for Kentucky, Duke could very well have at least three extra titles. As such, Cameron would act as home to possibly seven banners while UK drops to even with UNC at five. As previously documented in my post on the 1960s teams, Duke lost to Adolph Rupp and UK in the infamous 1966 Final Four partly due to a flu-stricken Bob Verga. The next time the two college basketball titans would meet would be the 1978 Final Four as Bill Foster led the Blue Devils deep in a year in which Duke seemed to finally put it together.
See, Duke had finished last or tied for last the four previous years which made the 78 season all the more special. Mike Gminski and Jim Spanarkel returned to a team that saw a much needed talent in flux from two dynamic forwards.
Gene Banks, like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was West Philadelphia born and raised, on the playground is where he spent most of his days. Banks entered college as the top ranked high school player in the country and was the very first MVP of the McDonald’s All Star game. A 6’7” forward with upper crust athleticism, Banks seemed to inject an energetic source into the Blue Devils.
Of course, you can’t mention Banks in this story without mentioning Kenny Dennard. A similarly built 6’7” forward, Dennard was known for his hustle and toughness. In this video, Jim Spanarkel says “The beauty of it, playing with those guys was when there was a loose ball, you know you had to worry about hitting heads with those guys because they were always on the floor and always hustling.”
While the two freshmen couldn’t have been raised in more dissimilar places (Philly and King, NC), their relationship on and off the court was one of the foundations for the team. “The relationship that Gene and Kenny had was special, just so special. It was helpful to the coaches that these guys came to play.” coach Bill Foster gushes about his quirky wings. Banks even goes on to say they had a connected spirit.
Joining the freshmen were sophomore Mike Gminski, fresh off of a rookie year where he pasted the nation for 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game, and junior Jim Spanarkel, who averaged 19-5-4 in his sophomore campaign. That sophomore year for Spanarkel was good enough to take home the team MVP award for the first of three straight seasons. On a side note, Spanarkel shot 53% from the field for his career, I can only fathom what his effective field goal percentages would have been with the three point line.
This core would end up taking a smidgen over 80% of the team’s shots and combine for 67.6 points per game.
Of course, after the last place ACC finish in 1977, Duke entered the season unranked and won their first two games over Johns Hopkins and Washington College before departing for the Big Four Tournament in Greensboro (How can we convince Swofford to make this a thing again? Would anybody be against it? It was epic!)
The Blue Devils struggled to get momentum going in the opening game against North Carolina. Despite shooting 51% for the game and hitting 26 free throws, Duke was doomed by turnovers and allowing the Heels to hammer the offensive boards as UNC shot 69 times compared to Duke’s 39. Overall, however, Duke proved to themselves that they could compete with the top teams in the country (UNC was ranked #2), something that would prove vital later in the season.
The next day, Duke took on fellow first-day-loser Wake Forest which was ranked 18th at the time. After trailing by two at the end of the first half, Jim Spanarkel led Duke to a 15 point turn around in the second. The captain finished the game with 16 points and 6 steals, giving the young Blue Devils a vital confidence-boosting win.
Duke would go 8-2 in its next ten games before taking on Dean Smith in Cameron. Some will tell you Phil Ford was the greatest point guard to ever play in Chapel Hill but in this game, Spanarkel harassed him into ten turnovers as Duke was able to pull away from the #2 team in the country and win 92-84. Gminski shot 12-15 from the field finishing with 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.
Duke had firmly planted themselves on the map of national title contenders. Ironically, in Sports Illustrated’s famous cover story after the 1978 ACC Tournament, the one with Gene Banks on the cover skying for a reverse dunk, Kent Hannon says “…though not a serious threat to win this year’s national title, could easily be next year’s preseason favorite.” Oh Kent, it’s ok, no one else saw it coming either.
“That is when we realized we were really good.” Gminski says in the video. Duke hadn’t beaten UNC in Cameron since 1973. A losing streak like that nowadays means photoshop mockery galore.
The Blue Devils would stumble a few times as the regular season wound up, ultimately losing in Charlottesville to UVA, at Wake Forest, and then at the Smith Center to close out conference play. Duke entered the tournament ranked 15th in the country, 20-6 overall.
Gene Banks and company ground out the wins in Greensboro, knocking off Clemson, Maryland, and Wake Forest. The feeling of winning the ACC tournament just a year after finishing in last place is something my words wouldn’t be able to describe had I been there. It had been nearly a decade of irrelevance before Duke was able to climb back into the spotlight that year and this achievement was the ultimate reflection of the hard work and chemistry that the players had generated.
Truthfully, this team was a missed layup away from never sniffing this list. In the waning seconds of the Blue Devils first round game against Rhode Island. Mike Gminski hit two free throws to put Duke up by one. On the ensuing play, the Rams drove down the court and were able to find not one but two short range shot attempts as the clock ticked down. Both shots ricocheted off the rim and the ball floated out of bounds as the clock expired on Rhode Island’s tournament hopes.
Ironically, Duke left Charlotte bound for Rhode Island, to play the regional semifinals at the Providence Civic Center where they were matched up with Penn. Back in those days, the Quakers had an excellent program as they were ranked 20th at the time. Still, Duke was able to escape Providence with wins over Penn and unranked Villanova in the Elite 8, to earn their trip to the 1978 Final Four.
In St. Louis, Duke opened play with 6th ranked Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish represented their name very well as renowned NBA bully Bill Laimbeer roamed the paint alongside Kelly Tripucka. Duke looked by far the better team in the first half, holding ND to only 39% shooting from the floor while shooting 53% themselves. Notre Dame would make a run in the second half but it proved too little, too late and Duke clinched their shot at Kentucky and its star Jack Givens.
Givens was a 6-4 attacking guard that, unfortunately, ripped Duke to shreds. The Final Four MVP torched the Blue Devils defense for 41 points on 18-27 shooting and grabbed 8 rebounds on the side.
Duke was relentless through out the game but could never quite match Givens, the 41 would be a career high, on the other end. “I took one shot that hit the backboard and went in. That was the kind of night I had.” Givens told the press after the game. Givens allegedly was also caught whispering to Gene Banks: “LOOKS LIKE THE BANK IS OPEN LATE IN MISSOURAH!” but that can be neither confirmed or denied.
Of course, you can’t hold a basketball game in the 70’s against UK without their fans calling in death threats against their opponents. Gene Banks, prior to the game, had received two death threats, however Banks was unaware as coach Bill Foster held the information from him. One of the threats was made directly to the Checkerdome staff and the other was delivered to a local news station. Due to these threats, the Checkerdome had bulked up security to prevent any kind of attack on the freshman. Still, Banks dropped 22 points in the game to go with Gminski’s 20 and Spanarkel’s 21.
Alas, it wasn’t enough as Duke fell 94-88. As a side note, Duke trailed by only 8 with 30 seconds left in the game, when coach Joe Hall pulled all of his Wildcat starters from the floor. Duke immediately cut the lead down to 4 with 14 seconds remaining, prompting Hall to send them back in. So, on one hand Hall makes a crazy gamble that would never be made today and almost costs him a championship. On the other hand, his starters immediately sealed the game after going back in so perhaps he was simply toying with Duke.
This 1978 team was one of the few vastly underrated Duke teams that was able to take the country completely by surprise and contend. The year before they had gone 14-13 and 2-10 in the ACC. Yet here they were, due to outstanding chemistry, leadership, young talent, and setting the Duke trend of floor burns. They were the quintessential grinders and were on the cusp of taking Duke’s very first national championship a year removed from last place. They are the worst to first story for Duke and because of this, they are the seventh best Duke team of all-time.