Mike Krzyzewski had already made history in the early 1990s. His Duke teams had made six Final Fours in the seven years from 1986-92. They had won the last two national championships, the first team to repeat since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty. The 1993 Duke basketball team was hoping to three-peat, in spite of losing Christian Laettner. They had a good year, but it never quite came together at the championship level.
Point guard Bobby Hurley was now a senior and the team leader in the absence of Laettner. He averaged 17 points and 8 assists per game in 1993. Grant Hill, in his junior year, took the opportunity to become a more prominent player, knocking down 18ppg. Thomas Hill was good for 16 points a night. Cherokee Parks, a 6’11” soph, was the heir apparent to Laettner down low and averaged 12 points/7 rebounds. Antonio Lang did more dirty work on the boards.
Scoring wasn’t Duke’s problem. The Hills (no relation) each shot at least 56 percent from the floor and the Blue Devils hummed with offensive efficiency. But the defense this program had prided itself on and rose to prominence with was often lacking in 1993.
Expectations weren’t lacking. Duke was still ranked #3 in the preseason rankings and they started 9-0 against a good non-conference schedule. The biggest win was a December 5 home date with Michigan.
The Blue Devils had beaten the Wolverines in the previous year’s national final. That was when Michigan’s entire starting lineup were freshmen. Back as sophomores, and including Jalen Rose and Chris Webber, these Wolverines were ranked #1 in early December. Duke sent them back to Ann Arbor with a 79-68 loss.
There were also wins over eventual NCAA Tournament teams in LSU and BYU on a trip to Hawaii. There was a victory over 20-win Oklahoma. By the time conference play started, Duke was at the top of the polls and it seemed like nothing had changed.
Only it had, and the rigors of the ACC schedule began to expose that. Duke lost a one-point game to Georgia Tech, lost at home to Virginia and dropped an 89-88 overtime thriller at Florida State. All three were good teams, bound for the NCAAs. FSU, in fact, had future pros in Sam Cassell and Charlie Ward and would make a run at both the ACC crown and the Final Four before falling short.
A non-conference win over a good Iowa team kept Duke on track and when they started February with an 81-67 home win over North Carolina, it seemed all like all was back to normal. The Blue Devils got their revenge on Georgia Tech a week later. The record was 19-3 and even with all three losses coming in league play, Duke could still make a run at the ACC championship.
It wasn’t to be. The defense problems were to blame for a 98-86 loss at NCAA-bound Wake Forest, and Duke was unable to get revenge on Virginia, losing 58-55 in Charlottesville.
The hopes of a league title were gone, but the Blue Devils rebounded with four wins. This stretch included in an impressive 98-75 dismantling of Florida State and a non-conference win over yet another future NCAA Tourney team in UCLA. Even though the Blue Devils fell 83-69 at league champ North Carolina to end the regular season, there still seemed hope for a successful March.
But a first-round loss to Georgia Tech in the conference tournament was an ominous sign, even though the Yellow Jackets went on to win the league tourney. Duke got a 3-seed and was sent to Chicago’s Rosemont Horizon to begin play in the Midwest Regional.
The three-peat bid got off to a sizzling start with a 105-70 blasting of Southern Illinois. Duke shot 63 percent, with Hurley bagging six of his seven trey attempts, en route to 25 points. But it takes more than offense to win at this stage of the season and the Blue Devil defense would let them down one more time.
Cal was the opponent in the late afternoon/early evening hours of Saturday in the Round of 32. The Golden Bears were a national story because they had fired coach Lou Campanelli in midseason over issues of his yelling at players. Todd Bozeman took over and become the darling of the national media who loved “the players coach.”
Cal also had some pretty good talent, most notably Jason Kidd at the point. Duke did a good job on Kidd, holding him to 4-for-11 shooting. But Kidd still moved the ball, passing for 14 assists. Cal still shot 50 percent from the floor. And with the pressure on Duke to again shoot the lights out, it was too much.
Hurley kept firing from behind the arc and tried 18 treys. He only made six of them, which gives a dimmer view to his 32 points. Grant Hill went for 18/7/4, but Duke as a whole only shot 39 percent from the floor. They lost 82-77 and the dream was dead.
But at Duke, dreams don’t really die, they just take a nap. One year later, with Grant Hill the showcase player, the Blue Devils returned to the Final Four. And, as we all know, they haven’t exactly disappeared in the ensuing quarter-century.