Smith proves his importance as he delivers for Duke against Michigan
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The teeth were clenched, the glare was penetrating, and then Mike Krzyzewski uttered what may turn out to be the most important words of Duke's season. "We're not playing!" Krzyzewski yelled during a timeout early in the second half of the Blue Devils' third-round game against Michigan, which had just trimmed Duke's lead to 39-35. "We're not playing! ... Keep fighting!"
Krzyzewski then removed his jacket, as if to emphasize it was time for his team to get serious. Krzyzewski rarely shows emotion, and this outburst achieved its intended effect: It redlined the intensity level of his players. "We definitely weren't playing winning basketball before that timeout," said forward Kyle Singler. "When we saw how intense coach was, it really sparked us. He got our attention."
The player most moved by Krzyzewski's words was senior guard Nolan Smith. Right after that key timeout with 16:59 left in the game, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Smith scored 10 straight points for the Blue Devils. During this stretch, all of Smith's talents were on display: He showed range (hitting a 26-foot jumper), quickness (faking out Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. with a cross-over so deadly that Hardaway fell to the ground), and an ability to slice through the defense and finish at the rim. It was because of March moments like this that Smith decided to return Blue Devils instead of turning pro, and he singlehandedly kept Duke in the lead. Michigan had a chance to tie the game with two seconds left, but the Wolverines' Darius Morris missed an eight-footer. Smith rebounded the ball. As the buzzer sounded, he hugged the leather like it was his most cherished possession.
"The flip that I switched today was that I don't want to take this Duke jersey off," said Smith. "It's as simple as that."
"Nolan is our leader," said forward Miles Plumlee. "We feed off of everything he does. He plays with so much energy and, like we saw today, he can take over games. He's as good as any player in the country."
Yet Smith may be the most underappreciated player in the country. His game isn't particularly flashy and so far in the tournament he's been overshadowed by the return of Kyrie Irving from a toe injury; but Smith is the most important player on the Duke roster. A Wooden Award finalist, he began the season as Duke's starting shooting guard. He then moved to point when Irving was hurt in early February. Irving still isn't in the starting lineup, but he's now logging significant minutes. And when the freshman is in the game, Smith switches back to shooting guard. Has this affected his play? In a word: No. Because despite playing two positions, Smith averaged a team-high 20.9 points and 5.3 assists this season. "Nolan is just a pure basketball player and he's got the talent to play those two positions," says Singler. "This is what we hoped for when we decided come back."
A few weeks after winning the national championship last season, Singler and Smith discussed whether or not to declare for the NBA draft. Both likely would have been late-first round choices, but the prospect of NBA millions wasn't as attractive to them as returning to Duke and trying to win a second straight title -- a rare feat in college basketball. Since 1974, only two teams have repeated as national champs (the Blue Devils in 1991 and '92 and Florida in 2006 and '07).
Late Sunday afternoon, Smith walked down a hallway at the Time Warner Arena, face aglow. He didn't say it, but his smiling expression revealed it all: The reigning champs were moving on. Their performance on Sunday wasn't a thing of beauty, but when it mattered most, their senior leader delivered.