Duke's basketball history is a marvelous tale, lasting over a century, filled with championships, lore, and characters that would fill volumes. In these posts, I'm trying to intersect Villanova's own unique history within it. The schools have met rarely - just ten times - but there's nothing better than seeing two great, storied programs battling in the NCAA tournament in March. So here's the beginning of the story, in Durham, North Carolina, at the dawn of the twentieth century...
Duke basketball predates Villanova basketball by 15 years. In fact, it even predates being named Duke. It was originally Trinity College, affiliated with the Methodist Church. The first game for Trinity was - fittingly enough - against Wake Forest, on March 2, 1906. It was not an auspicious beginning, however. Wake Forest won easily, 24-10.
The arrival of the sport on campus was due to the fact that a 1900 Trinity graduate, Wilbur Wade "Cap" Card, had done postgraduate work at Harvard, and New England was the birthplace of the sport. Card returned to Durham and brought the new sport with him in 1906.
In a remarkably prescient article, The Chronicle student newspaper made the following report, six weeks before the debut against Wake Forest:
"It is well-nigh a certainty that Trinity is to have another game added to her list of athletic sports in the near future. The game is question is basket ball [with a space between the words], one of the most fascinating and most intensely interesting indoor sports known today.The Duke media guide, the source for this quote and many of the facts in this article, accurately notes, "The assessment still holds true 103 years later."
Anyone witnessing it will never forget it. The play is extremely fast and vigorous, yet open enough for an onlooker to follow the movement of the ball and the players."
Despite its defeat, the Trinity team was willing to give Wake Forest another try, and so the second game ever was a reciprocal trip to Winston-Salem. But two weeks after winning in Durham, Wake Forest won the second game, 15-5, to sweep the season series, so to speak. (It wasn't all bad the first year, though, as the team won two out of three games with "Trinity Park", to finish with a 3-2 record.)
So by the time Villanova got basketball rolling in 1920-21, Trinity/Duke was a veteran program, having played the sport for 15 years. But less than a decade after inaugurating the sport on the Main Line, Villanova faced Duke for the first time.
The Wildcats had decided to make a Southern road trip, to open their season. Their first four games were @ "Montclair A.C.", @ Wake Forest, @ North Carolina State, and @ Duke. After losing to Montclair AC, they defeated Wake Forest, lost to NC State, and wound up in Durham, NC, and faced Duke on December 19, 1930. It was the season opener for Duke. Cameron Indoor Stadium did not even exist yet; it wouldn't open until 1940. Fittingly enough, the Blue Devils - as they were already known by then - were being coached by Cameron himself. Eddie Cameron had become head coach in 1926, four years earlier.
The Blue Devils had become a powerhouse in the Southern Conference (the ancestor of the modern ACC and SEC), having posted a 18-2 record the previous year. The game took place in Card Gym, the predecessor of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and named after the Trinity/Duke alumnus who had brought the new sport from New England a quarter-century earlier. And Villanova defeated Duke, 22-21, in a thriller.
In spite of what was undoubtedly an exciting contest, the schools would not meet again for another quarter-century - and ironically, it would be Duke's first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. The first-round battle of the much-smaller tournament took place in Madison Square Garden.
In 1955, Villanova defeated Duke in the Blue Devils' first-ever NCAA tournament game - this year marks their 33rd appearance (and the 30th for Villanova). It was the NCAA tournament first round, on March 8 of that year, and the Wildcats escaped with a 74-73 victory in what also must have been an extraordinarily exciting game... It was just as much of a thriller as the 22-21 game in Durham, a quarter-century earlier, although with far higher offensive output, obviously. There was a great deal of scoring, particularly for a game taking place prior to the introduction of the shot clock and three-point shot.
Perhaps because the NCAA battle was such great entertainment, the schools decided to meet during the ensuing regular season, 1955-56. The Blue Devils made their first visit to the Palestra to face Villanova in particular (as opposed to Penn, and other Big Five schools), on December 17, 1955.
(Note to Duke fans who might not be familiar with it - Villanova played many home games, including most of its high-profile opponents, at the historic Palestra on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, prior to the construction of the on-campus Pavilion in 1986.)
Duke won the first non-cliffhanger game in the series, defeating the host Wildcats 86-76 in another high-octane game.
The series skipped the 1956-57 season, but resumed for the next two seasons with a home-and-home series. On December 14, 1957, Villanova traveled down to Durham for the first time since the initial meeting back in 1930. This time, the host Blue Devils won, 60-53.
When Duke returned to the Palestra on December 20, 1958, the Wildcats won 74-67. Unfortunately, the intersectional regular-season series died for some reason, and would not be revived until the 1990s.
The next meeting came in the 1964 NCAA tournament, the first time the teams had met in over five years. On March 13, 1964, Jack Kraft's Villanova team defeated Providence (the Big East did not exist yet) in the first round, but fell to the Blue Devils, 87-73, in the second round. (The Wildcats did defeat Princeton, in the consolation round that existed at the time.) The Wildcat players included Bill Melchionni, Wali Jones, George Leftwich, Richie Moore, Bernie Schaffer, and Jim Washington.
Check back for more posts, both on the history of Villanova/Duke, and a comprehensive preview of Thursday's Sweet 16 contest, at around 10 PM in Boston...
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