DURHAM -- Duke and Michigan renew an on-and-off rivalry in this year’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
The two programs have met 29 times, with Duke winning 21. Duke defeated Michigan in the 1992 NCAA title game and eliminated the Wolverines from the 2011 tournament.
Fifty years ago, Duke and Michigan met for the first time, twice actually, games played in different places, with different stakes, producing very different outcomes.
Duke visited Ann Arbor December 21, 1963. Duke was one season removed from its first Final Four. The Blue Devils returned three starters from that team, including All-America forward Jeff Mullins. But national player of the year Art Heyman had graduated and replacing his scoring, rebounding and toughness was not a given.
Ranked fourth by AP at the beginning of the season, Duke started 3-0, lost at Vanderbilt and won three more.
They entered the game ranked fifth.
Michigan was coming off a 16-8 season but returned the majority of that team and added the nation’s best sophomore, 6-5 wing Cazzie Russell.
The Wolverines began the season ranked eighth. By the time they met Duke, they were 5-0 and had moved up a spot.
Jay Buckley was Duke’s starting center that season. He says Duke had only a slight idea what they were in for. “College basketball was a regional sport back then. We never saw teams on TV. We knew Michigan was good. But we didn’t know how good.”
Duke’s big men-Buckley, Hack Tison and Jack Marin—were tall, skilled and very thin. Michigan countered with All-America center Bill Buntin and forward Oliver Darden, both in the 6-8, 240-pound range. Starting wings Russell and Larry Tregoning went 6-5, 220.
The Michigan defense was known as “bloody nose alley.” For good reason.
It was close early. Duke was deliberate on offense and Russell scored only three points in the first half. But Buntin dominated inside, while Tregoning kept finding holes in Duke’s defense.
Michigan led 38-30 at the half.
Russell heated up after intermission, scoring 13 points in the first 10 minutes. By that point Michigan led 60-40. Duke never got closer than 14 after that. The final was 83-67.
“We had never played in an environment like that,” Buckley recalls. “I got beat up. They just crushed us. They just killed us physically. We were not prepared for that.”
Mullins had 22 points for Duke, Russell 21 for Michigan. The defining statistic was Michigan’s 61-35 rebounding chasm. Buntin had 14 points and 18 rebounds, while Russell added 15 rebounds.
Bucky Waters was an assistant on that team. He remembers critics chiding that team as guys who played in tuxedoes. “Michigan was very, very physical inside. We just didn’t match that.”
Duke recovered, finishing first in the ACC regular season and winning the tournament, thus securing the league’s only bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan won the Big Ten.
Buckley insists that he never looked at the NCAA brackets. But Duke beat Villanova and Connecticut to win the East, while Michigan defeated defending champions Loyola and Ohio to capture the Mideast.
So, there they were, the Final Four, in Kansas City, Duke ranked third, one spot behind Michigan.
If anyone had something to prove, it was Buckley, a cerebral senior who would go on to earn a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. Buckley was so overmatched in Ann Arbor that one local newspaper dubbed him Duke’s weak link. His amused teammates called him “Link” for the rest of the season.
Waters says Buckley was ready for redemption. “He was just fearless. If I had embarrassed Jay Buckley a first time, I would not sleep well going into a rematch. He had a chip on his shoulder. He was wired that way.”
Buckley says that he spent the first two seasons of his varsity career playing off Heyman and Mullins, “setting screens and trying to get open when they were double-teamed. It took us most of the year before we learned how to play without Art. The light went on for me. I started jumping higher, I started dunking it, I started going after it.”
Duke tried to control the tempo the first time the teams met but decided that did not play to his team’s strengths. Bubas admitted his error before the rematch. “We will come out running and shooting. That’s what we do best.”
“We were an athletic, perimeter team,” Waters recalls. “We depended on medium-range shooting. That was our calling card. We were not invincible. But as the season progressed, we developed a bit of an attitude.”
Russell was a huge obstacle. Waters calls Russell “a beacon, electric in his talent; their focal point.”
Waters and Buckley suggest that Michigan may have been a little over-confident. “When you get that far, “ Waters says, “you know your strengths. We knew theirs. We just went after them.”
Buckley certainly went after Buntin, absorbing contact and using his length advantage to counter Buntin’s strength edge.
Michigan got three early layups and led 9-4 after barely two minutes. It was 27-23 Michigan when Duke began to assert itself.
Duke battled Michigan to a draw on the boards and forced Wolverine turnovers. Buckley credits unsung Duke guards Denny Ferguson and Buzzy Harrison for the latter. “Denny and Buzz never got a lot of credit. But they were great defenders, smart and quick and good.”
Michigan started throwing it around and Duke started capitalizing. Duke took a 35-32 lead with three minutes left in the half and closed on a 13-7 run.
Duke led 48-39 at intermission.
Michigan made one second-half surge. Trailing 69-55, with 11:50 left, the Wolverines cut it to 71-64. But Mullins converted a follow shot and Buckley added two foul shots.
Duke stabilized, Michigan started losing players to fouls and the Blue Devils salted it away from the line. The final was 91-80.
Each team ended with 41 rebounds but Duke forced 20 turnovers, while committing only 10. Losing coach Dave Strack cited the turnovers and second-half fatigue.
Buckley says the threat of Mullins gave him room to operate inside. But the senior made the most of that space, shooting 11-16 from the field, scoring 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, while holding Buntin to 19 points and nine rebounds (and five turnovers).
Mullins added 21 points, Tison 13 rebounds. All five starters scored in double figures.
Russell, playing on a sore ankle, led everyone with 31 points.
The win advanced Duke to the title game against undefeated and top-ranked UCLA. Duke struggled mightily against UCLA’s press for several minutes late in the first half and the Bruins used the resulting 16-0 run to build a double-digit lead. They held that, winning their first national title, 98-83.
Duke and Michigan continued the regular-season series into the early 1970s, before taking off two decades.
The first two games set a high standard for the rivalry, with Duke’s win in Kansas City one of the program’s biggest victories to that date.