Down Year: The 1996 Duke and UNC Men’s Basketball Seasons

By Charles Westmoreland, Jr.

The 1996 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament entered uncharted territory in recent college basketball memory. On March 14, 1996, Duke University saw its mediocre 18-13 campaign come to an end at the hands of the unheralded Eastern Michigan University Eagles. The injury-riddled, talent-depleted Blue Devils were no match for a hungry Eagles squad led by 5’5” point guard, Earl Boykins.[1] Three days later, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Tarheels were locked in a tight battle with Texas Tech University during a second-round game. Holding a slim 16-14 lead in the first half, UNC defenders lost track of Darvin Ham, a powerful 6’7” forward for the Red Raiders. In a 16-14 game, Ham soared through the lane and followed up a missed Texas Tech shot with a thunderous putback dunk. As Ham came back down to earth, he carried a rim and thousands of pieces of glass with him. Ham’s slam tied the game at 16 and caused a half-hour delay as the Richmond Coliseum’s maintenance crew cleaned up the mess and installed a new backboard. When play resumed, the Texas Tech rout was on. The Red Raiders dominated the Tarheels, 92-73, and advanced to their first Sweet Sixteen in school history. The Tarheels finished the 1995-96 season with a 21-11 record, a disappointing one for UNC partisans.[2]

For two programs and a rivalry defined by tournament success and lofty expectations, 1996 was not a banner year for Duke and UNC. For the first time since the 1978-79 season, neither team made the Sweet Sixteen. Eastern Michigan and Texas Tech gladly played the roles of David as they slew college basketball’s Goliaths. While legendary coaches Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Dean Smith at UNC sat at home, their in-state counterpart Wake Forest advanced to the Elite Eight and staked their claim as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s (ACC) best for 1996.[3]

This Saturday, March 5, 2016, the eyes of the college basketball world and a good portion of the American sporting audience will be on Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina. There, the Blue Devils will square off against rival UNC in a series dating back to 1920. Duke and UNC are both ranked in the top 20 and have aspirations of making this April’s Final Four in Houston. Although fans of Louisville and Kentucky would beg to differ, Duke-UNC is the premier rivalry in men’s college basketball. Outstanding talent, great coaches, heart-stopping games, a sustained record of success, high-profile recruiting battles, close proximity, excited fanbases, and a little hype courtesy of ESPN’s Dick Vitale have made this rivalry must-see-TV for three decades. [4]

The Duke and North Carolina campuses are 10-miles apart on U.S. 15-501 (AKA Tobacco Road). Image From Wikimedia Commons.

The Duke and North Carolina campuses are 10-miles apart on U.S. 15-501 (AKA Tobacco Road). Image From Wikimedia Commons.

The Blue Devil-Tarheel matchup has been a cornerstone of the modern college basketball era, a period marked by the rise of cable television and, most importantly, the commercial juggernaut of the NCAA Tournament. Under the legendary stalwart Dean Smith and the tenacious upstart Mike Krzyzeswki, better known as “Coach K,” the current incarnation of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry shot up in the 1980s. When Krzyzewski arrived to Duke in 1980 and turned the program into a national force by mid-decade, a heated rivalry became even more intense as both programs reached peak success in the early 1990s. Since the NCAA expanded the tournament from 48 to 64 in 1985 (it has since grown to 68 teams), Duke and UNC have won a combined eight national championships, appeared in 21 Final Fours, and earned 19 ACC championships. Although programs such as Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Connecticut, and Florida have had their own share of success over the past several decades, the two Tobacco Road powers have been college basketball’s quintessential winners spanning the past thirty years. When the ball is tipped for ESPN’s Saturday primetime telecast, Mike Krzyzewski’s and Roy Williams’s teams will write a new chapter in this historic rivalry.[5]

The Duke-UNC rivalry and, more broadly, college basketball, offer considerable insight into the nature of the modern American sporting culture. In his classic study of modern sport, From Ritual to Record, Allen Guttmann writes that bureaucratization, quantification, and the pursuit of records are central characteristics of modern sport. College basketball represents the intersection of these three characteristics. As Guttmann notes, bureaucratic organizations such as the ACC and larger entities like the NCAA “facilitate a network of competitions that usually progress from local contests through national..championships.” Sports bureaucracies make and enforce rules and, in today’s era of ubiquitous sports marketing, represent valuable brands unto themselves. Within these bureaucratic structures, the quantification of sports operates in numerous ways. What Guttmann defines as the “numeration of achievements” can be seen in the accounting of a team’s wins and losses, appearances in the NCAA Tournament, conference titles, and national championships, all of which determine who is successful and who is not within the sport. The pursuit of records, then, is the ultimate sign of team and individual excellence in modern sports. In college basketball, the pursuit of records runs the gamut from most national championships and Final Four appearances to individual records such as a conference’s all-time leading scorer and most points in a game.[6]

When it comes to the most important records, Duke and North Carolina stand atop or near the top of college basketball. UNC holds the record for most Final Four appearances with 18. Duke stands behind their rival with 16 Final Fours. (Kentucky and UCLA trail UNC with 17 trips to the Final Four.) Krzyzewski is currently tied with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for most Final Four appearances with twelve. UNC’s Smith is second with eleven while current UNC head coach Roy Williams has seven Final Four appearances. For a decade, Smith held the record for most career wins as a Division I men’s basketball coach. After Bob Knight took the title from Smith in 2007, Krzyzewksi then passed his Army mentor in 2010 with his 902nd victory. He is now the owner of 1,038 victories, the first Division I men’s coach to win 1,000 games.[7]

In 1996, however, a shattered backboard turned out to be a perfect metaphor for down years in Durham and Chapel Hill. To be fair, most college basketball programs would have been satisfied with winning records and NCAA Tournament invitations. Furthermore, few college experts predicted 1995-96 to be banner years for the powerhouses on Tobacco Road. UNC entered the season ranked 20th in the national polls. Duke was unranked following their first losing season in over a decade. For programs who had won a total of three national championships since the start of the 1990s (Duke in 1991 and 1992 and UNC in 1993), simply posting a winning record and bowing out before the Sweet Sixteen was not good enough.

The 1996 Duke squad sought to move past a disastrous 1995 season. That team struggled to a 13-18 overall record, along with a 2-14 mark in the ACC. The 1995 version of Duke failed to overcome the graduation of superstar Grant Hill from the previous year’s national runner-up team. Moreover, Krzyzewski had to leave the team in January 1995 due to a severe back injury that required season-ending surgery. Led by interim coach Pete Gaudet, the Blue Devils managed to stay close in many games with highly-ranked opponents, including a double-overtime thriller against UNC that many consider to be the greatest game in the rivalry’s long history. As in that classic 102-100 defeat to the Tarheels, the 1995 Blue Devils lost all of their tight games and finished last in the conference. Senior guard Chris Collins and junior Jeff Capel were Duke’s top returning players for 1996. Though Collins and Capel had been solid role players on previous teams, they were nowhere close to Hill, Christian Laettner, and Bobby Hurley, Duke’s most recent All Americans. Thanks to some recruiting woes, the talent level and depth for this Blue Devil team was considerably inferior to Krzyzewski’s Final Four teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s. An injury to promising sophomore guard Trajan Langdon before the season began made things even more difficult for Duke, who needed outstanding guard play to offset the weak inside games of Greg Newton and Taymon Domzalski. Lacking in depth and talent, Blue Devil fans knew that their program’s turnaround would not be immediate.[8]

UNC came into the 1995-96 season in much better shape than Duke. The Tarheels were coming off a trip to the 1995 Final Four in which they lost to Arkansas in the semifinals. Star sophomores Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse decided to forego their remaining eligibility and entered the 1995 NBA Draft. Smith brought in a stellar freshman class that included future All Americans and NBA All Stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, as well as Ademola Okulaja, a solid four-year college player. The veteran coach knew, however, that “we had our work cut out for us” and “our team would have to work extremely hard to get back to the NCAA tournament.” Guards Jeff McInnis and Dante Calabria, along with center Serge Zwikker, were the most experienced returning players and would have to take on more leadership responsibilities if the Tarheels hoped to make another tournament run.[9]

Despite the lowered expectations, both teams started the January ACC schedule with identical 9-2 records. In the non-conference schedule for November and December, UNC had beaten sixteenth-ranked Stanford, along with Big Ten stalwart Michigan State. The impressive early start catapulted UNC to a top-10 ranking. The Tarheels hung around the top 10 until a February slump sent them tumbling in the national polls.[10]

As for Duke, they beat top-25 opponents Indiana and Iowa in the Great Alaska Shootout, one of college basketball’s premier early-season tournaments at that time. Because of these wins, the Blue Devils stayed in the top 20 for all of December and surprised many college basketball experts.[11]

Tip-off for a Duke-North Carolina game at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Tip-off for a Duke-North Carolina game at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The start of the ACC season brought different fortunes to the Blue Devils and Tarheels. Duke lost their first four conference games and fell out of the top 25, never to return that season. Duke’s 9-6 overall record meant that the Blue Devils were in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season unless the team pulled itself together. The Tarheels, meanwhile, jumped out to an impressive 7-1 start in ACC play. Their only loss during the early conference season came to eventual regular season champion, Georgia Tech. Ranked eighth in the January 29 Associated Press poll, the Tarheels got a huge boost from the talented freshmen, particularly Jamison, the ACC’s top rookie of 1996. When Duke came to Chapel Hill for the season’s first meeting, the unranked Blue Devils were looking to win their first game at UNC since 1991 and the first in the series since 1993. The underdog and unranked Devils handled the Tarheels in the first half, cruising to a twelve-point lead. In another classic matchup, the Tarheels rallied in the second half. Down 72-71 in the final seconds, UNC took the lead on a dramatic tip-in basket by Dante Calabria. Duke had a chance to win at the end but sophomore Ricky Price’s shot was off and the Carolina comeback was secured. The 73-72 win kept UNC atop the ACC standings. Duke entered the second half of the conference schedule with a losing record of 3-5.[12]

The rivals’ fortunes reversed in February. UNC’s freshmen hit the proverbial “freshman wall” following the Duke game. Teams began to focus more on stopping Jamison and Carter and the freshmen had difficulty responding to the added pressure. Following the Duke game, UNC lost five of their next eight and played itself out of contention for an ACC regular season title. The Tarheels’ ranking slipped down to the lower end of the top 25 by late February with the Duke rematch looming. The Blue Devils, meanwhile responded to the early conference slump by turning around their season. In mid-February, Duke went on an impressive run that included an 85-66 romp over the sixteenth-ranked and defending national champion UCLA Bruins. Following the UCLA victory, Duke won a last-second nailbiter at Maryland. That win sent them into the regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on a much-needed five-game winning streak. The turnaround also ensured that Duke would return to the NCAA Tournament after its absence in 1995.[13]

The second Duke-UNC tussle did not produce the last-second dramatics of the first meeting. Guards Jeff McInnis and Shammond Williams led the Tarheels to a relatively easy victory over Duke. Chris Collins scored 18 points but injured his ankle while playing in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Tarheels took advantage of Collins’s hobbled ankle and built a double-digit lead in the final ten minutes. Although the Blue Devils closed the gap at the end of the game thanks to inspired play from seldom-used reserves, UNC walked off the court with an 84-78 victory, their seventh straight over Duke in what had recently become a lopsided series.[14]

Tempers flared and the intensity of the rivalry was on full display when Tarheel guard Jeff McInnis, who had been mouthing Duke players all game, earned a second technical foul and was ejected. McInnis’s dismissal came after he got in a tussle with Duke walk-on and soccer star Jay Heaps. The following week, during press conferences for the upcoming ACC Tournament, the heat from the regular-season finale remained. Smith and Krzyzewski took jabs at each other in their respective press conferences. Smith chided the Duke students for “chanting, calling McInnis names.” Krzyzewski shot back and defended Duke’s Cameron Crazies, claiming that they were reacting to unsportsmanlike play from McInnis throughout the game. Such behavior from students, he said, “has happened in every arena we’ve played in. Not that you like it, but it happens. I don’t like it either.” In a season without championships and when both teams lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament, an event they had dominated for much of the previous decade, the intensity of the Duke-UNC rivalry still took a back seat to no one.[15]

Duke's home court at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. Image From Flickr.

Duke’s home court at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. Image From Flickr.

Both teams stumbled into the 1996 NCAA Tournament. Duke was in unfamiliar territory as the eight seed in the Southeast regional bracket. North Carolina was the sixth seed in the East Region. This was Duke’s lowest seeding since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. UNC was an eight-seed in the 1990 tournament and, with the exception of 1992 and 1996, had been a top-three seed every year since 1985. For both schools, especially Duke, their chances of making a deep run were very slim. Duke’s first-round loss can, to a certain extent, be blamed on injuries but the lack of team depth was a sign of diminished talent on the Blue Devils roster. Guard Steve Wojciechowski played only three minutes due to an injury and reserve forward Carmen Wallace did not play at all. A hobbled and flu-ridden Collins struggled the entire game. Things were so dire in the Eastern Michigan game that Duke was forced to start walk-on Stan Brunson, a senior who scored fifteen points the entire 1995-96 season.[16] UNC fared a little better with its first-round win over the University of New Orleans. Two days later, following the delay caused by Darvin Ham’s dunk, the Tarheels offered little competition to Texas Tech.[17] The down years for Duke and North Carolina were complete with no conference titles and not even a Sweet Sixteen appearance, which had been almost taken for granted by their fanbases, to show for their efforts. Unaccustomed to early NCAA exits, the Duke and UNC fanbases had to wonder what was next. In the meantime, the Kentucky Wildcats rolled through the 1996 tournament and won its first NCAA title in nearly 20 years.

Twenty years ago, longtime basketball powerhouses found themselves overshadowed in both their conference and around the nation, proving that every historic team and program will have down years. As coaches and players pursue championships and great records, the cycles of victory and defeat are inevitable in modern team sports. Over the last twenty years, Duke and North Carolina rebounded from that difficult season and have combined to win five national championships. The rivalry has remained strong even following the retirement of Dean Smith in 1997. Although both teams have had occasional ups and downs since 1996, they have won consistently in their conference and have excelled in the NCAA Tournament, which is the measuring stick for modern college basketball. 1996 seems light years away from this Saturday night and the recent successes of the Duke and North Carolina programs. But, as coaches, players, and fans of the Blue Devils and Tarheels learned twenty years ago, the road to sporting greatness was never a smooth one. Everyone will face a down year at some point.

Chuck Westmoreland is Assistant Professor of History at Delta University where he teaches a variety of courses in modern U.S. and southern history, including a course on sport and the American experience. He is currently completing a book manuscript on religion and politics in the South from the era of the modern civil rights movement through the rise of the New Christian Right. You can contact him at cwestmoreland@deltastate.edu.

Notes:


 

[1] “Eastern Michigan Ousts Duke,” Baltimore Sun, March 15, 1996, accessible at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-03-15/sports/1996075161_1_eastern-michigan-blue-devils-duke.

[2] “Texas Tech Shatters UNC after a Ham Slam,” Baltimore Sun, March 18, 1996, accessible at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-03-18/sports/1996078092_1_texas-tech-carr-ham.

[3] 1995-96 Wake Forest Demon Deacons, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/wake-forest/1996.html.

[4] For broader history and background to the Duke-UNC rivalry, see Johnny Moore and Art Chansky, The Blue Divide: Duke, North Carolina, and the Battle on Tobacco Road (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2014); Richard Davies, Rivals! The Ten Greatest American Sports Rivalries of the 20th Century (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 53-79; J. Samuel Walker, ACC Basketball: The Stories of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 45-55.

[7] Career Coaching Wins in Division I Men’s College Basketball, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/leaders/wins-coach-career.html.

[8] Moore and Chansky, 54-56; 1995-96 Duke Blue Devils, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/duke/1996-schedule.html.

[9] Moore and Chansky, 54-56; Dean Smith with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins, A Coach’s Life: My Forty Years in College Basketball (New York: Random House, 1998), digital edition; 1995-96 North Carolina Tarheels, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/north-carolina/1996-schedule.html.

[10] Ibid.

[11] 1995-96 Duke Blue Devils, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/duke/1996-schedule.html; 1995-96 North Carolina Tarheels, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/north-carolina/1996-schedule.html.

[12] 1995-96 Duke Blue Devils, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/duke/1996-schedule.html; 1995-96 North Carolina Tarheels, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/north-carolina/1996-schedule.html; Duke vs. North Carolina, January 31, 1996, video found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1niQ7JG0J0.

[13] 1995-96 Duke Blue Devils, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/duke/1996-schedule.html; 1995-96 North Carolina Tarheels, page located at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/north-carolina/1996-schedule.html.

[14] Duke vs. North Carolina, March 3, 1996, video found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jw9TzSWL3fA.

[15] Moore and Chansky, 195-196.

[16] Duke vs. Eastern Michigan Box Score, page found at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/boxscores/1996-03-14-duke.html; “Eastern Michigan Ousts Duke,” Baltimore Sun, March 15, 1996, accessible at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-03-15/sports/1996075161_1_eastern-michigan-blue-devils-duke.

[17] Texas Tech vs. North Carolina Box Score, page found at http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/boxscores/1996-03-17-north-carolina.html; “Texas Tech Shatters UNC after a Ham Slam,” Baltimore Sun, March 18, 1996, accessible at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-03-18/sports/1996078092_1_texas-tech-carr-ham.

2 thoughts on “Down Year: The 1996 Duke and UNC Men’s Basketball Seasons

  1. Duke and North Carolina are arguably two of the most dominant schools in college basketball. I’ve been following the rivalry for years and for the most part, both teams have been consistently successful. Each year getting new, young stars that take their teams to the tournament. College basketball is quite different now compared to the 90’s when players were more likely to stay all four years. This is what I believe helped fuel the matchup because if there was a individual rivalry between players they aren’t going to the NBA, they’re coming back for another season at the college level. Do you think this rivalry is bound to continue because of the relationship the teams already have? Or on the other had is there a possibility it could fade away and two other teams will take the place as top rivalry in college basketball?

    Like

  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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