CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Duke guard Nolan Smith played a role in propelling his Hall of Fame coach past a handful of career milestones.
“Every time people tell me he’s close to something else, it’s not really a surprise,” Smith said Saturday, “because he’s always close to something.”
Next up for Mike Krzyzewski is his first attempt at career victory No. 900, when his top-seeded Blue Devils (31-4) play No. 8 seed Michigan on Sunday in the West regional.
A win over the Wolverines (21-13) would send Duke to the regional semifinals for the 20th time in 26 years and make Krzyzewski, who is 899-283 in his 36-year career, the second Division I men’s coach with 900 victories.
He can tie his mentor and former coach at Army, Bob Knight, at 902 wins if the Blue Devils clinch their 12th Final Four berth under him. A victory in Houston would not only put Duke back in the national championship game, it would leave Krzyzewski alone atop the wins list.
“The fact that he’s climbing to the top, we want to make that happen,” forward Miles Plumlee said.
To do that, they’ll have to get past a tested Michigan team that already has played four games against the No. 1 seeds and kept it tight against each of them, losing three times to Ohio State and once in overtime to Kansas by an average of fewer than seven points.
“The teams we’ve played have prepared us for this challenge,” guard Zack Novak said. “They’ve got a lot of really talented players, and they do a real good job running their system, but I think that the games that we’ve played up to this point have prepared us, and I think we’re ready.”
Duke and Michigan certainly have a history—both in the recent and not-so-recent past.
The schools have played three times since 2007, with Duke winning the first two matchups in blowout fashion but the Wolverines—executing coach John Beilein’s 1-3-1 defense and weaving offense to near-perfection—beating the Blue Devils in their last meeting.
“We just weren’t really prepared for that game and that intensity,” Plumlee said. “They play a unique offense and defense, so we’re going to have to really prepare for that.”
And, of course, this matchup dovetails with the controversy that arose from the recent ESPN documentary about Michigan’s Fab Five in which former Wolverines star Jalen Rose said the Blue Devils “only recruited black players that were ‘Uncle Toms.”’ Former Duke star Grant Hill later published a column that criticized Rose for his comments.
Krzyzewski spent much of this week brushing aside the controversy, saying Saturday that it has nothing to do with this game. Duke beat Michigan to win the national title in 1992.
“I don’t even know what an ‘Uncle Tom’ is,” Smith said.
Both teams are coming off convincing romps in their tournament openers. Duke led from the start of its 87-45 victory against Hampton, while point guard Kyrie Irving had 14 points and showed very little rust in his first game since suffering a toe injury that kept him on the sidelines for more than three months.
“He’s so talented, and Nolan’s so talented, and when they play them both at the same time … Mike does an incredible job of running great sets, great schemes, but also takes advantage of his players’ talents,” Beilein said. “They’ve got great experience, great quickness and we respect it, and so we just do the best we can of being fundamentally sound.”
Michigan broke its game against Tennessee open early in the second half, riding a 16-0 run out of the locker room to a surprisingly easy 75-45 rout of the Volunteers.
Almost immediately after that drubbing, the Wolverines started embracing the underdog role that always seems to apply to every team Duke plays.
“Preseason projections weren’t in our favor, had us at the bottom of the Big Ten,” guard Darius Morris said. “And I think, individually, everybody kind of throughout their basketball career has been an underdog, if you look at where they were ranked as far as coming in (out of) high school.
“We’ve all embraced that chip that we play with on our shoulder,” he added. “And I think it definitely helps us out there (and) is the reason why we fight so hard just to prove everybody wrong.”