After Duke pulled out a 74-69 win over Texas Saturday night, I stuck around the locker room until the media had thinned out and got into a fun exchange with Jon Scheyer while picking his mind about the ridiculous, left-handed behind-the-back heave that put the ball deep in the Longhorns' end of the court.
“Oh, well, I was originally trying to make that on the other end,” Scheyer quipped, grinning at me before turning serious. “No, but, basically I knew the time was running out, and I just wanted to get it away from their basket, I just wanted to get it to the other end, give one of our guys a chance to make a play."
That move prompted to head coach Mike Krzyzewski to needle his junior guard.
"I think a real critical thing is that he didn't throw it back towards our bucket. If nothing else, if they got it, they'd come up against a set defense. Those are plays that you think of Magic Johnson making and people just really smart making," Krzyzewski said, turning to Scheyer. "You never thought I'd compare you to Magic Johnson, right?
"Well, wait a minute. But heady play. That was a really good play, Magic."
Smith's emergence energizes Henderson
Elliot Williams stepped to the line for two shots to try to capitalize on Scheyer's brilliant move. Clank, went the first. Before Williams took the second, Nolan Smith broke tradition, running up and saying something in Williams' ear.
"He just said, don't worry about the first one, just knock it down," said Williams afterward.
Yeah... he missed that one, too. Something to work on.
But there should be no doubt that the recently-revitalized Nolan Smith has, and continues to, provide huge boosts to the team in more ways than one, ever since he encountered a certain David Neal screen Feb. 25 in College Park. As the Chronicle's Taylor Doherty wrote today, there is a strong connection between Smith's performance and Duke's success:
And it's fortunate for Duke that Smith is back, because there seems to be a strong correlation between his play and wins for the Blue Devils.
In a stretch between Jan. 28 and Feb. 15, Duke went just 2-4, and needed overtime to secure one of those wins. Not surprisingly, Smith averaged just 5.3 points per game and shot 7-for-27 from the floor in those four losses.
Smith's return has gone so unexpectedly well that head coach Mike Krzyzewski felt comfortable enough to joke about it in Greensboro.
"We're trying to get Neal to come and hit a few more of our guys," Krzyzewski said, laughing. "Maybe it jars you. I think [Smith's] emergence last weekend in these two games was kind of the catalyst for us winning. You know, all things remaining the same, if we don't have Nolan, we're not going to win."
The hard-but-legal play on Smith, one of Henderson's best friends, infuriated the junior captain into throwing down a dunk and stomping emphatically on the Terrapins' floor that night. That's been well-documented. Lately, though, Henderson's words increasingly reflect a definitively leaderlike mentality.
“I’m the leader of this team," Henderson said. He lingers on his words as he always does, and that gives them time to sink in.
"I’m a captain. I’m one of our best players, so I feel obligated every game to perform. I have to well for us to win, that’s how I approach it…. I have to get myself going. I have to get my teammates going, and I have to make plays offensively and defensively.”
I'll admit it. I had to take step back and digest that for a moment. It almost seemed during the non-conference portion of the Blue Devils' season that Henderson was a reluctant star.
But Henderson's words from the Greensboro Coliseum Green Room should give Duke fans confidence, as they confirm his honest and complete embracing of his role on this year's Blue Devil team--they certainly did so for me.
Coach K embraces the moment
And if there was any doubt Krzyzewski is enjoying his return to the Sweet 16 just as much as the entire Duke campus seems to be, he dispelled those in a moment. For the man who led the U.S. Olympic Team to the Gold at last summer's Beijing Olympics, though, this time, it's about savoring the accomplishment with Henderson, Scheyer, Thomas and Zoubek, who all sweated through their first two years without much upperclassmen leadership, and none of whom had previously made it past the first weekend of the Tournament.
"I'm really pleased for, again, I said it after the ACC Tournament, our junior class," Krzyzewski said. "Our junior class has been the backbone of this team. You develop backbone. You're not born with backbone, you develop it.
"You develop it by playing a tough competition. They did that for the last two years and they did it again this year. They've become a really good basketball team because they stuck with it. I love this team. I have the best kids. I have the best kids. I wanted it so much for this team, because to share their joy and the accomplishments of the last couple weeks has been just a tremendous opportunity for me."
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