DURHAM, N.C. - There’s a difference between building a great team and building a great program.
Mike Krzyzewski demonstrated he could produce a great team when the 1986 Blue Devils won 37 games and advanced to the national-title game.
But that team started four seniors and one junior. Skeptics wondered if Krzyzewski could get Duke back to another Final Four.
He proved them wrong two years later, when an entirely different starting lineup advanced to the 1988 Final Four by defeating the top-ranked Temple Owls in the East Region finals, held at the Meadowlands.
Temple was in the midst of a dream season. Freshman guard Mark Macon was drawing comparisons to the likes of Oscar Robertson, while big man Tim Perry anchored a zone defense that smothered opposing offenses. Temple entered the Duke game 32-1, the only loss to UNLV, 59-58.
Duke was 27-6, ranked fifth nationally. Duke tied for third in the ACC regular-season but got hot at the right time, winning the ACC Tournament and three NCAA Tournament games to advance to the Temple match.
It wasn’t Krzyzewski’s most talented squad. Danny Ferry was the ACC Player of the Year. But the 6-10 junior was the only future NBA player in the starting lineup. He also was the only starter taller than 6-6.
Defense was the calling card. Ferry was joined in the starting lineup by 6-6 Billy King, 6-5 Robert Brickey, 6-5 Kevin Strickland and 6-3 Quin Snyder, a team of long, quick defenders that could switch at will.
“We weren’t very big and we played teams more athletic than us,” Brickey recalls. “We had to generate offense from our defense. We challenged every shot, every dribble, every pass.”
King was the nation’s top defender. But Brickey may have had the toughest job. Despite his size, the sophomore from Fayetteville was Duke’s second big man, forced to use his quickness, leaping ability and tenacity to defend much bigger players.
Temple had much bigger players. In addition to Perry, they started Ramon Rivas, a pair of intimidating 6-10 towers. Small forward Mike Vreeswyk was 6-7, not all that small.
Brickey says Duke had to keep Temple off the boards. “We had to use our quickness to beat them to the spot. But then we had to stay with them. Perry could reach over me and grab a rebound without fouling. I had to keep my body on him.”
It didn’t start well for Duke. The Blue Devils were ice cold in the beginning, falling behind 17-7. Duke was called for four travels early, Perry stuffed Brickey twice and Krzyzewski was hit with a technical.
Falling 10 points behind in an up-tempo game is one thing. But falling 10 points behind Temple was something much more serious, especially with the 45-second shot-clock of 1988.
Krzyzewski said after the game that Duke lost its composure early. “For the first three minutes or so, we were moaning about the calls and that’s not normal for us.”
“Temple’s defense limited the number of possessions,” Brickey says. “We had to be patient but efficient. Focus on the game plan and just keep plugging away.”
Duke began to figure it out. Ferry, a highly skilled and savvy player, found openings in the zone and started scoring.
While this was going on, Duke was tightening the defensive screws.
Two matchups were pivotal. The most important was King on Macon. Macon liked to move to his left but King wouldn’t let him. “I saw some tendencies I thought I could exploit,” King recalled. “Macon always wanted to shoot off the dribble and he preferred to go to his left. My goal was to make him uncomfortable, to make him go places he didn’t want to go.”
Strickland was matched against Vreeswyk, a superb shooter. But Vreeswyk didn’t like to put the ball on the floor and Strickland forced him to shoot on the move.
Ferry sparked a 10-2 run that made it 19-17. The teams traded baskets as the first half ended with Temple up 28-25.
Perry converted a three-point play a minute into the second half, making it 31-25.
Duke took over. Ferry said “At about the 15-minute mark, we played with much more emotion.”
King hit a 10-footer, Ferry a 15-footer and King converted an offensive rebound, tying the game at 31.
Duke took its defense to another gear and Temple had no answer. The Owls went eight minutes without a field goal. They kept going to Macon and their star kept coming up empty. He would end the game with eight airballs.
Snyder gave Duke its first lead at 34-31, with a 3-pointer. “I had hesitated on that shot earlier and that’s why I missed it,” Snyder said. “I didn’t hesitate this time.”
Snyder picked Howard Evans’ pocket and fed Strickland for a lay-up. Evans made two foul shots but King fed Alaa Abdelnaby for a lay-up and Snyder knocked down four foul shots, making it 42-35.
Then Strickland took over, drilling a pair of 3-pointers, giving Duke a 48-35 lead, with under nine minutes left.
Temple made one final run, getting to 59-51. But Duke went 7-for-9 from the line in the final minutes. Strickland punctuated the 63-53 win with a breakaway dunk.
Strickland and Ferry led Duke with 21 and 20 points respectively. Perry and Macon had 13 points for Temple but Macon was 6-29 from the field. Vreeswyk was 2-12. Temple outrebounded Duke only by 36-30, while Duke committed a modest nine turnovers.
Krzyzewski credited Duke for getting Temple’s shooters out of their ‘natural rhythm’. “Billy will get a lot of credit and he did a great job on Macon. But I think a lot of it should go to Quin and Kevin for their jobs on Evans and Vreeswyk and to Brickey, who stayed with Perry on both ends of the floor.”
Temple coach John Chaney credited Duke’s “quickness and ability to recover. They play man-to-man defense better than anybody in the country.”
Duke couldn’t maintain the momentum and lost to Danny Manning and Kansas in the following week’s Final Four.
But Brickey says this team made a statement. “Our goal was to continue to build. This win put us back on the map. It was huge. It showed what could happen when a lot of people believed in the right things, did things the right way.”