THE NCAA SELECTION COMMITTEE TURNED DUKE INTO A VILLAIN before the tournament even began. Though the Blue Devils were considered a borderline No. 1 seed, the committee placed them in a South region that—according to popular opinion—offered the easiest road to the Final Four. And when the team rolled into Jacksonville for its first-round matchup with Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the seeding was the only subject anyone wanted to ask about. There was just one problem: The issue mattered a lot more to the public and to the media than it did to the Blue Devils.
"As a coach, I don't pay any attention to that," Mike Krzyzewski said at a press conference the day before the game. "If I was a fan, I think I'd pay a lot of attention because everybody talks about that. [I] don't talk about that at all because it has no bearing on our performance."
It certainly had no bearing on the Blue Devils' performance against the Golden Lions, who earned the right to get blasted by Duke by beating Winthrop three days earlier in the play-in game. The Blue Devils' mascot put it best with the message that was taped across his forehead: PLAYED IN, BLOWN OUT. Forward Kyle Singler scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Duke won 73-44.
Next up for the Blue Devils was Cal, which in the first round had dispatched Louisville and scuttled what would have been the first meeting between Krzyzewski and Cardinals coach Rick Pitino since Duke's Christian Laettner hit the miracle shot that beat Pitino's Kentucky team in the Elite Eight in 1992. The Golden Bears had won the regular-season title in a down year for the Pac-10, and though they didn't match up well with the deeper, more able-bodied and battle-tested Blue Devils, point guard Jerome Randle, the Pac-10 player of the year, gave them a puncher's chance.
That chance never materialized because guard Nolan Smith harassed Randle for the entirety of the Blue Devils' 68-53 win, and Randle scored just 12 points. "From the get-go, I really wanted to make it clear that I was going to be in his jersey the whole game," Smith said later. "That was the game plan."
Smith's 20 points and a 14-point, 13-rebound outing for center Brian Zoubek helped Duke overcome a miserable shooting day for leading scorer Jon Scheyer, who missed 10 of his 11 field goal attempts. In the locker room after the win Scheyer promised a better shooting stroke against Purdue out west in the next round. "I'll find it in Durham," Scheyer said, "and it'll come with me to Houston."
Easy bracket or not, the Blue Devils' opening-weekend wins reinforced Krzyzewski's belief that this group of players had the talent and personnel to surpass recent Duke teams, which hadn't advanced past the Sweet 16. "Just because [we lost then] doesn't mean those kids underachieved," Krzyzewski said. "They maxed. This team is better."