Smith remains the key for the Dukies
Duke guard Nolan Smith came to the NCAA tournament wishing and hoping that he would find himself eyeball-to-eyeball with the University of Louisville.
The posters that once hung in his bedroom were Doctors of Dunk posters. The games Smith never wanted to miss on television were Louisville basketball games. That’s the school where his father, Derek, scored nearly 1,900 points.
That’s the school that Derek helped lead to the 1980 NCAA championship in Indianapolis — the same place where this year’s title will be decided.
“He was really excited to play against Louisville,” said Monica Smith, Nolan’s mother.
One problem: Louisville failed to cooperate.
The Cardinals were pushed from the party by No. 8 seed California on Friday night. Although Derek Smith passed away in 1996, Nolan Smith knew precisely what his father would have wanted him to do.
Play 40 of the most exhausting minutes of his life, taking care of the scoring, defending, ball-handling, emotion and the persistence of a Duke team that popped Cal, 68-53, Sunday at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. It was the fewest points the Bears had scored all season — by nine.
Never mind not getting to play against his favorite childhood team. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski assigned Smith to guard Jerome Randle, the California guard who was voted Pac-10 Player of the Year.
If anybody looked like a player of the year candidate, it was Smith, a junior. He outscored Randle, 20-12, and turned the ball over one time while limiting Randle to six points less than his average.
In the end, Smith played as if he intends to be a part of this tournament for more than one or two more games.
“My father was a dog defensively,” Nolan Smith said. “Watching film of my Dad, he got after it on the defensive end. Offensively, he just let it come. I definitely have my father in me defensively.
“Before the game, our seniors told us they really wanted to go to Houston (site of the South Regional). So everybody pulled together, and we’re going to Houston.”
“His matchup with Randle was the key matchup of the game,” Krzyzewski said. “Randle gives them such verve.
“I watched tapes of him the last two days, and the first half against Oregon, I don’t know if I’ve seen a kid play better. And Nolan sees all that and helped keep him under control while scoring 20 points. He’s been our on-the-ball defender the whole year. So he’s scoring and defending the ball.”
Maybe Smith’s maturity and consistency is the difference between this 31-5 Duke team and the Duke teams of the last two seasons. Greg Paulus is gone. Elliott Williams transferred to Memphis because of an illness in his family.
Not only did Nolan Smith have to lead this team as a point guard, he had to become a dependable third scoring option to go along with Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. And he has, giving the Blue Devils three players who average at least 17 points.
“Nolan worked very hard for this season,” Monica Smith said. “He’s all about basketball, all about the team and all about winning. He knows he has the trust of Coach K, and that has meant a lot for him.”
California saw the results of that Sunday. Scheyer (seven points on 1-for-11 shooting) left his jumper in Durham. Cal tilted its defense toward Singler, who still finished with 17.
No problem. Smith drilled half of his 18 shots while getting his 20. And when Smith scores 20, Duke is 14-1 this season.
Against Louisville, California made four 3-point shots in the first seven minutes, hitting eight of 15 during the game. Against Duke, California failed to make four 3-point shots the entire game, bricking nine of 12.
“As a player, you live to play defense,” Smith said. “When (Randle) scored a couple of times, I got upset. I really wanted to attack him offensively and defensively. I was just up in him. He had to look at me before he could look at the rim tonight. I love to get stops.”
Now, the Blue Devils play Purdue on Friday night in Houston in the South Regional semifinals. Beat Purdue and then win another game, and the Blue Devils are bound for Indianapolis, the place where Nolan Smith’s father, Derek, won his national championship.
“That would be really special,” Monica Smith said.