Today, Kentucky and Duke are synonymous with the term “bluebloods” in, but when they met in the national championship game at the 1978 Final Four in St. Louis, the two programs couldn’t have been further apart.
Kentucky had spent all but two weeks of the regular season ranked #1 and expectations were so high that head coach Joe B. Hall termed the season “a joyless ride.”
Duke, on the other hand, had been in the doldrums, and there were no expectations of a turnaround. How the Blue Devils became America’s darlings is chronicled in the book Forever’s Team, by columnist John Feinstein. It was only fitting they would be Kentucky’s foil on Monday night.
Kentucky had come through one showdown game to get here. Michigan State had a freshman point guard named Earvin “Magic” Johnson and a good power forward in Greg Kelser. They went 23-4 in the regular season, won the Big Ten by three games and rolled their first two NCAA Tournament opponents to get in the regional final.
The Spartans-Wildcats battle in Dayton was a good one and Michigan State led by five at the half. But Magic was a non-factor. Kelser’s 19 points/13 rebounds kept Sparty in it, but Kentucky’s balance, with Jack Givens and Kyle Macy in the backcourt, and Rick Robey up front, eventually prevailed 52-49.
Duke finished second to North Carolina and national Player of the Year Phil Ford in the ACC regular season, then won the conference tournament behind a Big Three of guard Jim Spanarkel, forward Gene Banks and center Mike Gminski. Carolina was upset in the NCAA first round and Duke nearly suffered the same fate, before escaping Rhode Island 63-62 and getting to the East Regionals in Providence.
The Blue Devils’ offense was electric, scoring 174 points over two games, with Spanarkel, Banks and Gminski doing most of the damage. The Sweet 16 game against Penn was a tight 84-80 final—this same Quaker team would make the Final Four one year later. Duke then shot 65 percent in the final against Villanova, hit the boards hard and punched their ticket to the Final Four in St. Louis, 90-72.
Eddie Sutton and Digger Phelps still had a lot of coaching years ahead of them and a lot of big moments—though for Digger, most of those moments would come on television. Now they were coaching Arkansas and Notre Dame respectively, and each of them would make it to St. Louis.
Arkansas became the latest team to deliver a reality check to UCLA, now three years into the post-Wooden era. The Razorbacks went West, met the Bruins in the Sweet 16, jumped out a 13-point lead at the half and held on 74-70. The Razorbacks’ followed the same formula to beat UC-Fullerton in the final. Notre Dame met up with fellow Jesuit independent DePaul in their regional final and the Irish, led Kelly Tripucka blew it open in the second half and won by twenty.
Both of Saturday’s semifinals were good ones. Duke and Notre Dame lit up the scoreboard, and the Big Three all went 20-plus in the scoring column to prevail 90-86. Givens led the way for Kentucky with 23 points/9 rebounds, and the Wildcats survived a stiff challenge from Arkansas, 64-59.
Givens was just getting loosened up. With the national title on the line, he went off for one of the great championship showings of all time, with 41 points. Along with a 20/11 game from Robey down low, it was enough to hold off another productive game from the Duke core trio. The final was 94-88 and the “joyless ride” was finally over. Kentucky was cutting down the nets at the 1978 Final Four.