Since Mike Krzyzewski took over the Duke basketball program in 1980, the Blue Devils have faced St. John’s 18 times. At first they would have chance encounters, meeting in preseason tournaments or one of the rounds of the NCAA tournament, but since 1999 Duke and St. John’s have had close to an annual affair, alternating home courts.
Krzyzewski’s first run in as a coach against St. John’s came in 1977 when the then-Redmen defeated his Army team 73-60 at Alumni Hall in Queens, New York.
Since then, Madison Square Garden has been the site of some of Krzyzewski’s best moments, most notably the coach’s crowning achievement, his 904th win to pass mentor Bob Knight on the all-time NCAA men’s wins list. That win came against Michigan State in the preseason NIT in 2011. This week, Krzyzewski again faces St. John’s at MSG, this time with the chance to win the 1,000th game of his NCAA career.
Coach K’s first game against St. John’s at the Garden was one of the more entertaining battles between Krzyzewski and Lou Carnesecca. It was the first game of a double-bill in the semifinal round of the “Big Apple NIT Preseason Tournament” in 1985.
The second game of the day featured Louisville — the team that eventually defeated Duke in the NCAA finals that season — and Kansas, the team the Blue Devils eventually defeated in the preseason NIT championship just two days later.
The two teams — Duke and St. John’s — shared some similarities.
The Redmen were just months removed from a Final Four appearance, attempting to prove the program could roll on after the departure of Chris Mullin. Duke was seeing its final chances to win a national championship with Johnny Dawkins, Krzyzewski’s first real superstar recruit.
Both teams featured point guards that were emerging stars. St. John’s had Mark Jackson, a local boy from Brooklyn that had recently taken over the starting point guard duties, and Duke had Tommy Amaker, a junior who would eventually play in the NABC All-Star Game.
The one thing Duke lacked was a big man to match up with St. John’s Walter Berry. Jay Bilas missed the game with an injury, and Duke was forced to start freshman Danny Ferry.
The game was the first strike of the match in what eventually became a fairly friendly rivalry. The teams played every year between 1999 and 2012, alternating between Madison Square Garden and Cameron Indoor Arena. The two would be a thorn in each other’s side, playing the game somewhere between late January and mid- to late-February.
What usually happened was Duke came in during the heart of St. John’s Big East schedule and derailed the now-Red Storm’s hopes of carrying momentum into the Big East Tournament.
However, there were times when St. John’s proved to be the heart-breaker and shocked the Blue Devils. Most notably, on Feb. 26, 2000 when Mike Jarvis’ St. John’s team defeated Duke. That has proven to be Duke’s most recent non-conference loss in Cameron — a 14-year streak spanning 115 games to date.
Duke has built a huge following in the New York area, often playing two or three times in a season near the city, most recently against Connecticut in East Rutherford, New Jersey, at the Izod Center (formerly Continental Airlines Arena and future site of MetLife Stadium parking lot “M”) on Dec. 18, 2014.
Many things keep the Blue Devils coming back to New York, and there is no doubt Krzyzewski’s next game at MSG will start the exact same way the first one did.
“Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena …”
NOVEMBER 29, 1985
St. John’s was taking advantage of Ferry all night. With just more than 70 seconds remaining in the semifinals of the 1985 Big Apple Preseason NIT, Ferry experienced his own version of a “New York City mugging,” — at the top of the key in Madison Square Garden.
Mark Jackson had stripped the ball and began a possession for St. John’s with 1:11 remaining on the clock, down 69-68.
It didn’t appear to make sense why, but Jackson pushed the ball up the court, got to the free-throw line and attempted to force up a shot in Tommy Amaker’s face. But Jackson lost control of the ball yet somehow found Ron Rowan on the wing.
Rowan slowed the play, kicked the ball back out to Jackson, who had come back into reality. Jackson tucked the ball under his left armpit and held up his right hand with five fingers extended, signaling to the Redmen and everyone in the Garden not to fear.
Jackson seemed to have forgotten, but this gesture with 58 seconds remaining assured his teammates and everyone in attendance that he remembered that Walter Berry was on his team.
The Redmen ran Carnesecca’s motion offense and Jackson wound up with the ball in the corner and hit Berry streaking toward the high post. Berry had a lot of ground to cover, but the young Ferry was the only thing standing between Berry and a 15-footer.
Berry took two dribbles to his left, spun into the paint and lofted a jumper over a motionless Ferry, who stood like a scarecrow with his arms extended — looking to take a charge.
Berry’s shot fell through the hoop to give him 35 points on the night and the Redmen a 70-69 lead with 34 seconds remaining, and forced Coach K to call a time out.
Just like Berry, the Blue Devils had their go-to scorer that night, and a point guard who knew how to feed the beast.
Amaker dribbled the ball up the floor, ever so slowly. When he got to the top of the key, Johnny Dawkins came off a screen from the block. Amaker popped out to the right wing and got the ball to Dawkins at the high post. Dawkins squared up to the basket, took one dribble to his right and sank a jumper in Rowan’s face as if he wasn’t even there.
Duke took a 71-70 lead and it was Carnesecca’s turn to take a time out with 20 seconds remaining.
The Garden grew restless. Kansas and Louisville players that were waiting for this game to end and theirs to begin came come out to witness the final punches being thrown. Broadcaster Howard David had pointed out that Duke had brought enough fans to drown out some of the noise being made by the New Yorkers.
Out of the break, Duke ran a full-court press but applied no pressure to the inbounds pass, which went directly to Jackson. Amaker was there to apply pressure, right in Jackson’s back pocket as the point guard dribbled nearly the length of the court with his back to both Amaker and the basket.
Jackson squared up at the top of the key, looked for Berry and checked down to Willie Glass. Glass had no outlet and forced it back to Jackson. Jackson took two dribbles toward the paint and forced up a shot in Amaker’s face.
Unlike the past two possessions, defense prevailed. Amaker caused enough trouble to force the ball off the front iron and Duke’s David Henderson scooped the rebound. Duke won the game 71-70 and eventually the tournament.
Dawkins finished with 20 points and Amaker added another nine with seven assists and a steal. Berry’s 35 points led all players but his 11 rebounds were second to Shelton Jones’ 13. Jackson also had nine points, with six assists and five steals.
This came as win No. 115 for Krzyzewski in his career and his 78th as the coach at Duke.